How to Ditch Your Comfort Zone, Eat Local, and Be the Ultimate Culinary Traveler

By Mark Wiens 26 Comments
Food Travel
Food Travel

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You love to travel, and you love to eat!

That’s GREAT! 

Because I personally believe that following your belly is the best way to learn about a new culture, explore a new destination, and last but not least, satisfy your hunger.

Eating is one of the common human necessities that surpasses all international borders, all cultural divides and all ethnic battles.

If you have just one point of relation to the most opposite person in the most counter-culture as your own, it’s the need to eat… everyday.

Methods of cooking, ingredients, what tastes good, rituals and etiquette, are however not common at all – and that’s precisely why being a traveler who chases food is so fascinating.

Here are a few ideas of how you can step up your food game and become a voracious food connoisseur when you travel.

Food Travel
Food Travel – How to Be the Ultimate Food Traveler!

1. Food Research

Like we all know, the internet is vastly useful, and something I do before I ever visit a destination is research a country’s cuisine. It’s even more important to me than knowing where I’ll sleep!

Lists of food, like 40 of the best Sri Lankan dishes, are a fantastic place to start, but you’ll need to research even deeper. While I do write lots of food and photo roundup lists on Migrationology, I also like to cover smaller restaurants that I eat at that deserve individual attention, like Hotel Rolex in Jaffna.

Make sure you write down a few of the dishes that you really want to sample.

After checking out food lists, it’s important to then search out a local food blog, written strictly about the country or even city you’ll be visiting. You don’t have to go to any of the restaurants the blog recommends, but reading a little will give you a little food knowledge for the cuisine you’re about to enter.

You may try reading or posting in forums or getting online advice, but in end, just showing up in a country and finding a local restaurant is the best way to go (paired with the research you’ve already done).

I once read a forum about how to write about food. Expert restaurant review critics mentioned that the best anyone can hope to do is describe it from their own point of view – the flavors, the sensations, and comparisons. However, it’s downright impossible to know precisely what your readers taste in the same dish. Salty is relative.

All that to say, read and look at photos, but don’t make your own false predictions about food before giving it a try yourself. You just might LOVE it!

Stir Fried Bitter Bean - One of my favorite dishes ever!
Stir Fried Bitter Bean – One of my favorite dishes ever!

2. Eat Local Favorites… Not Tourist Favorites

Thailand’s Gaeng Massaman has received its share of international attention lately. But ask any Thai what their favorite dish is and I can nearly guarantee massaman curry doesn’t rank that high.

Same goes for Pad Thai, sure it’s ubiquitously associated with Thai cuisine, but while it is widely available, it’s hardly the most beloved dish of Thailand.

Find the dishes that local people get excited about… and eat those!

Shuizhuyu - Massively flavorful fish pot!
Shuizhuyu – Massively flavorful fish pot!

3. Ask Locals for Restaurant Recommendations

Nairobi Street Food
Nairobi Street Food

It’s a tricky subject to find an authentic local restaurant by asking a local; Many, out of good intention, offer their advice leading directly to a popular tourist restaurant.

Also, rarely is it a good idea to ask the receptionist at your guest house (with exceptions), because again they’ll probably direct you to a restaurant that caters to foreigners, not locals.

Instead look for other opportunities.

Last time I was in Nairobi, I noticed a taxi driver squatting next to his vehicle eating a giant plate of delicious looking food.

Kenyans are extremely friendly so I walked up to him and politely asked where he ordered it. Soon I was sitting on a blown-out truck tire scarfing down home-cooked Kenyan street food!

I’m not the only one to exploit the local culinary wisdom of cab drivers. Jodi explains that cab drivers know the best spots for breakfast or any other meal.

Ask locals in the neighborhoods where to eat the best food – that way you often get a local perspective instead of a local perspective for visitors.

Delicious Filipino Isaw - Chicken Intestines!
Delicious Filipino Isaw – Chicken Intestines!

4. Explore Markets, Universities, Hospitals, Transportation Hubs

Mang Larry's from behind
Mang Larry’s from behind

When you don’t know anything about a city but want to locate tasty authentic food, markets, universities, hospitals, transportation hubs, or any other gathering locations are a great bet.

Markets often have it all, big portions of food catering to hungry workers that are always on the hustle.

Find out where the workers are eating and get your meals there.

Areas surrounding universities tend to have highly flavorful restaurants and street stalls.

You see, students love to eat local comfort food, and their wallets aren’t normally too fat – that’s a win-win situation for foodie travelers!

On my visit to Manila, along with the company of a number of couchsurfers, we ventured to the University of Philippines to get our mouths on some Isaw – grilled intestines that happen to be extremely famous from a little stall known as Mang Larry’s.

They were exceptional, especially dipped in the vinegar sauce!

Areas around hospitals or transportation hubs also tend to flourish with delicious cuisine!

Once you’re in a high food concentration area, check out these secret ways to pick an outstanding restaurant before you eat there.

Yes... that is a testicle!
Yes… that is a testicle!

5. Be a Willing Sampler

For food travel, I have a policy: If the food is offered, someone must eat it and it must be good to that person.

Under this philosophy, I can honestly say that I will sample just about anything that’s available.

Now you don’t have to sample everything you see, like something that will really make you sick (know your stomach), but do be a willing sampler.

The willingness to sample, to give a local delicacy a try, is not only a rewarding experience for yourself, but it can also be an opportunity to relate to others in the vicinity.

Photograph your food!
Photograph your food!

6. Take Photos of Everything You Eat!

I’m not kidding.

Ask anyone that’s eaten a meal with me in the last 5 years and they’ll surely tell you I took a photo of whatever we ate. I’ve taken thousands of food photos.

The photos don’t however just sit on my hard drive collecting dust, instead I try to learn the local names for each dish. I try to identify them, learn the ingredients and write about them.

Remember what you eat, wherever you travel!
Remember what you eat, wherever you travel!

Being a voracious food traveler is about remembering the things you eat.

Because sometime down the road you’ll meet an Egyptian and you’ll be able to talk for days about kushari, or you’ll meet a Burmese and be able to smile about mohinga, or a Sri Lankan and you’ll laugh and salivate discussing hoppers with lunu miris and wood apple juice.

Connecting with others is another joy of travel, and food is the ultimate vessel.

What other things do you do to be a local food traveler?

26 comments. I'd love to hear from you!

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  • anon

    5 years ago

    Regarding taking of photos, do remember to ask before you do so. Most would be willing, but there are some that take it offensively.

  • anita

    6 years ago

    Would just add that when you ask a local for recommendations, avoid hotel staff – even in smaller lodgings, I have found that hotel staff have been trained to recommend what they think you want as a tourist (or westerner in my case), rather than what may actually be the best, regardless of what you tell them. Otherwise your suggestions are spot on!!

  • Shaun

    8 years ago

    MarK! I have been a true food traveler after reading this.Great post!

    “Shaun – http://www.thislifeintrips.com”

    • Mark Wiens

      8 years ago

      Hello Shaun, thanks for reading, yes glad you are a food traveler too.

  • [email protected]

    8 years ago

    Great article Mark! Food is definitely one of the most important parts of experiencing a new culture- my time in Morocco was made even more special by all the home-cooked meals my host mom made me. Great tips for future travels!

    • Mark Wiens

      8 years ago

      Thanks Bridget! Mmm home-made Moroccan food sounds wonderful!

  • Adeline Yuboco

    9 years ago

    Great tips here, Mark. I’ve been doing much of the tips that you’ve mentioned here. It’s funny that I actually have more food photos in my phone and iPad than I do of people. Aside from giving me materials for my blog and serving as a keepsake, I found it to be quite helpful when I am trying to find the same food elsewhere but couldn’t really remember the name. It happened to me once when I ate in a Korean restaurant here. I showed the waiter a photo of the food I’m looking for. She gave me a long “aaahhhh!” Minutes later, she served to me exactly what I was looking for.

    • Mark Wiens

      9 years ago

      That is one great way to use your food photos Adeline – thanks for sharing that. And by the way, I too have many many many more food photos than people photos!

  • [email protected]

    9 years ago

    Great article and love the advice, most would just say read up online before traveling about, I think that asking a taxi driver can be a great way to find what your looking for, but if you specificly ask hotel staff for where the locals head I’m sure they would be willing to oblige as well.

    • Mark Wiens

      9 years ago

      You’re right Kevin, thanks for the comment and glad you enjoyed this article!

  • Ayngelina

    9 years ago

    Some of the best food I never took a photo of and I am so disappointed with it. Now I take photos of everything.

    • Mark Wiens

      9 years ago

      Prior to getting a camera, myself too Ayngelina. Just think how many food photos of amazing things we’d have if we had digital cameras 10 years ago!

  • Sheel kant

    9 years ago

    Mark..ur right abt clicking photos of the food we eat…I have a great collection of all the Thai food i have eaten during my visits to Thailand….. The best place to eat cheap, authentic local food is in the by lanes where the workers eat…..

    • Mark Wiens

      9 years ago

      Thanks so much Sheel – yes, that’s were the food is often local, normal, and good!

  • Kristine K. Stevens

    9 years ago

    I did my research before going to Copenhagen. Discovered the Grand Danois from Anderson Bakery – just across the street from the train station. Best. Hot. Dog. Ever. Organic pork sausage from Bornholm. “Topped with organic ketchup, mustard from Bornholm, handmade remoulade, handmade crispy onions and homepickled cucumbers.”

    We ate one, visited a brewery and went back for two more! There’s a photo of it on my blog.

    • Mark Wiens

      9 years ago

      I just checked it out, it looks incredible especially with the addition of all those fried onions on top! All the rest of the food looks great too, including the fried fish and baked good. Thanks for sharing Kristine!

  • Stephanie – The Travel Chica

    9 years ago

    I wish I had done more food research earlier in my travels. I know I missed out on some good stuff because I just didn’t know what to seek out. Great tips.

    • Mark Wiens

      9 years ago

      Thanks Stephanie. It does help to do a little research before going, just to see what’s available and what to seek out. But other than that exploration is the best option – even if you missed some things, I know you still ate a lot of other good things!

  • Ruth (Tanama Tales)

    9 years ago

    I already practice many of the tips you share in here. I try to ask locals about their favorite places to eat. If I don’t speak the language, I ask at the place where I am staying. I am also trying hard to take pictures of what I eat. Food photos bring me really good memories of my trips (a different feeling another type of photo brings). I usually research the food on a destination and write down dishes I want to eat and where to eat them. This doesn’t work that well for me. For me, it is hard to find the time to sighsee and eat at some places I have researched. At least, I always find a good place to eat anyway.

    • Mark Wiens

      9 years ago

      Thanks for sharing Ruth! You’ll fully right about food photos, it really does bring back the memory. When we take photo of scenery we remember the place we visited but when we take photos food, we not only remember what it looked like, but what it smelled like and tasted like!

  • sully86

    9 years ago

    mark: nice write up mark!