Trying a country’s food is just as important a cultural experience as anything we can do as travelers. Food says so much about a country and is the ultimate way to meet people, especially locals. Who doesn’t feel proud when a tourist eats something local for the first time and can’t get enough? What family owned eatery wouldn’t be ecstatic by seeing someone thoroughly devour their food because it’s so good? Eating the local cuisine is about the truest way we, as tourists, can experience a culture and I think it’s the best way.
Here are 8 ways to eat like a local.
- Research ahead
- Leave the Tourist Area
- Watch the locals
- Take a food tour
- Try Google Translate
- Act like a local
- Ask for advice
- Be fearless
Before you get to a destination, do some research to understand what the local foods are. What’s the local delicacy, popular food item, or seasonal item people go crazy for? It doesn’t take much of a Google search to figure out what people are eating. It might be choripan in Argentina, durian fruit in Malaysia, or vegemite in Australia. You won’t know what it’s like if you don’t try it and if people are selling it, you know it won’t kill you so give it a try. If it’s that popular, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to find it everywhere but just need to know where to look.
What I like to do before I go is make a list of the types of food I want to try. Then I research the city and see where the recommended places are to eat that particular food are in the city. On Google maps, I then flag it with a small note to remind me what I want to try there. When I’m walking around the city, if I’m in the area, I’m almost certain to have my Google maps app open so I’ll see it. Then I’ll can make a quick stop to try whatever food I had on my list. I’ll even try to make it to certain restaurants if I have extra time so it’ll give me a reason to explore a different part of town.
If that isn’t an option, I usually take the time the night before or during breakfast to try and plan where I can go eat around whatever attraction or activity I have planned. I think having a plan of action is important because the last thing you want to do is have a desire to try a restaurant, only to forget or not realize that you’re in the area and not go. I’ve had that happen so many times it just got so frustrating. I’d be in an area and if I’d just known to walk 2 blocks further, I could have tried something new. And you don’t really want to go back just so you can try one eatery especially if your time is limited.
I also flag multiple places to eat on my maps. I might flag ten to twenty places to eat even if I’m only going to be there for a couple days. Of course the goal is not to eat at every place but to have options of where to eat if I find myself near one of my flags. This way, regardless of where I am in the city, I should be relatively close to an eatery that was recommended and I can get there with little difficulty.
Leave the tourist area
I think this goes without saying but if you’re in the tourist area, you’re going to pay tourist prices and eat food catered to tourists. Think about where the tourists spots are. You’ll typically see eateries catering to tourists in these spots because well, that’s where the tourists are. It might be a fine place to eat but don’t expect to have a local experience.
A dead giveaway is to just look around and see the customers. If the restaurant is full of tourists, that’s a pretty good indication that eatery is cleary catering to tourists and locals. This is not to say that the food is going to be bad. But if the menu has more pictures of the food than anything, you should at least know going in that it won’t be a local eatery.
Clearly, the worst place to eat would be your hotel or any chain restaurant. I eat at the hotel in the morning for breakfast so I can gather my thoughts for the day. The only other time I eat in the hotel is if it’s late and I’m just too tired to go out and get something to eat. Other than that, I won’t eat in a hotel unless it’s a restaurant that specializes in something or is renowned (like a Michelin starred restaurant for example).
Eating at chain restaurants really doesn’t make any sense to me. If you wanted to eat a Big Mac, why bother going to another country to do so? I just don’t get it. What’s worse is that if you go to a street food vendor who sells local street food, it’s drastically cheaper and better tasting food. I will say the only time I do go into a chain restaurant is to try whatever specialty food they serve that’s different from the US. Some interesting variations of the Big Mac would be the Maharaja Burger in India, McSpicy in Singapore, or the McKroket in the Netherlands. That’s ok in my book because how else are you supposed to try these foods if you’re not there? It’s fun to try and it’s the fast food version of a local twist. To me, it’s fun to try and totally unique. Obviously, if McDonalds is selling it, it must be a popular item with the locals so I think it counts as a local food (but don’t eat it for every meal).
Observe what the locals do
A great way to figure out where locals eat is to just follow them during meal times. OK, that sounds weird but it works!
When I was in Sydney, I really had no idea where to go for a quick meal. Sydney isn’t the cheapest city to visit so if you’re wandering around the city, you’ll see a lot of restaurants which can be pricey. However, it dawned on me that all these people who work downtown have to eat lunch somewhere and they can’t all be eating in restaurants and spending loads of money. Eventually, I just decided to follow a group of people around noon who were out walking around the city. I figured they had to be going out to lunch so they must know some place to go and eat. Sure enough, after walking a few blocks, they walked into an office building which had a massive food court. Sure, it wasn’t local cuisine but it seemed like half the office workers in that area were there eating and the place was packed.
Another thing to look out for is to look for lines. Clearly, if locals are willing to wait in line to eat someplace, it must be good. I don’t know if there is a better endorsement for an eatery than a line of locals waiting to order and eat. That’s better than any yelp review in my book.
When you think about where locals eat, think about where you eat when you’re at home and not cooking. Where do you like to go eat? Most of us don’t eat at fancy restaurants unless it’s a special occasion. We might go to a bar to eat but that is really more about enjoying the company than the food. Basically we’re going to go spend our money where we feel we get the most bang for our buck. Great food at great prices. Well that’s the same mentality people in other countries have. They want to get the most value for their money and aren’t going to concern themselves with the decor or ambiance as much as the food and company. So when in doubt, just look to see where the locals are headed and you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised.
Take a food tour
Food tours are great especially in a city you may not have a lot of time in or know much about. When I do them, I usually try to go on my first full day after arrival. This gives me a great overview of the city as well as some great ideas on what to eat.
I took a food tour when I was in Lima because I really had no clue what types of food the city had to offer. Actually it turned out to be an individual tour with a local guide and it was fantastic. The cost of the tour didn’t include the food but it really didn’t matter since the food was pretty cheap. Also, since it turned out to be a private tour, I needed someone to share the food with so I could try all the foods that were on the tour.
Another thing that’s great about food tours is that they can customize the tour to meet your needs and dietary restrictions. Vegan, gluten free, peanut allergy, etc. are all things they can work around. I let the tour company know that they could skip any alcohol related locations they might recommend because I don’t drink and it was no problem at all.
I’m not a fan of tours in general because I enjoy solo travel but I think food tours are a great way to try new foods with little risk because you’ll have someone there to translate and explain the foods for you. Especially if it’s your first time in a city or town, you might want to really consider a food tour because I think it’s definitely worth the time and money.
Try Google Translate
We all love our phones and we love our apps even more. Google translate has the feature where it can translate photos. That can certainly help with getting some idea of what the menu says and give you the bare basics of what the menu says.
I don’t use this feature very often because it doesn’t seem to translate very well. It might translate basic words like chicken and fish but once menus start naming dishes, the translation app seems to fail pretty bad. I mean it makes sense because the menu is showing an idiom but it doesn’t help if you or the app is unfamiliar with the terms. But, if that’s all you have, it’s certainly better than nothing.
Act like a local
It’s going to be weird if you’re not used to it but you’ll have to figure out the eating habits of the locals and the times they deem are normal eating hours. There’s no point to stick to the schedule you have back home if all the eateries are closed because it’s too early. You’ll have to adjust and figure out when people eat or you’ll think the entire city is closed.
I ran into this problem at every corner when I was in Cordoba, Argentina. Now granted, I tend to eat very early because I wake up early. That said, I couldn’t figure out why everything was closed when I was trying to find something to eat around 7pm. Even restaurants that advertised being open at 7 were still closed. Eventually I had to ask the front desk what time people typically ate dinner and was told it was around 9pm at the earliest. I thought that was nuts because to me that’s incredibly late but if you want to eat local food, you have to be available when the local eateries are open and serving customers.
Another thing to remember is that not everyone eats like we do in the US. We’re so ingrained in getting food to eat quickly and easily that spending a couple hours to eat seems like an incredible amount of time to spend. However a lot of cultures really take their time to eat. If you’re in a cafe in France, it’s not uncommon for lunch to take an hour or more. Dinner can easily take two to three hours.
When I was describing the “odd” eating habits to some friends in Montevideo, they laughed because they said I was talking like a stereotypical American. When I asked what made it stereotypical, they both said it was about how I was always eating on the go and actually enjoy having quick meals vs. sitting down for an extended period of time. To my friends, the fact that I was always in a rush was humorous and stereotypical. I thought it was normal which made it even more funny.
To eat like a local, you’ll have to understand what it means to be a local. That may mean you eat at “odd” hours or spend a “lengthy” amount of time eating. But that’s the norm. And to be honest, you might come away refreshed and with a deep appreciation for the way cultures eat. I know I came home from France with a deep appreciation for the way life moved there because it was about enjoying the moment.
When in doubt, ask. Ask the front desk, concierge, hotel staff, etc. Ask where they like to go eat and what they eat there. It’s great because the hotel staff will probably have some working knowledge of English so they’ll be able to tailor a suggestion to your liking vs. giving you a blind recommendation. Also, since you’re asking a local, you can’t really get a better recommendation than that.
The one caveat to this is that the hotel staff is probably used to answering this question because it’s a common question. That said, they might have standard response to that question that they provide all the guests. To try and avoid this, I don’t ask “for a recommendation of a restaurant in the are” but ask “where do you like to eat around here?” instead. This way, I’m hoping I don’t get a stock answer and more of a personal recommendation from a local.
Be fearless and just try it
When all else fails, I just use the point, smile, and nod method of ordering. To be honest, that’s the method I use most often when ordering food because it’s the easiest and least confusing.
So, if you can see the food and you can pick and choose (like at a cafeteria style restaurant), you can just point, smile, and nod. Now you’re asking, how do I know what it is? Easy. I don’t. I just try to watch what people ahead of me order and if it’s popular, I’ll order it as well. I’m not going to argue with a popular local dish. That said, the main rule of thumb is that all meat is chicken. It doesn’t matter how it’s served, what it’s covered in, or what is commonly eaten in that part of the country. I tell myself it’s chicken and that’s all there is.
Here’s the problem. If you know what it is, there’s a good chance you won’t eat it. Ignorance is bliss in this case. I’m happy to find out what it is after I eat it but I don’t need to know what it is before. Now I say this as someone who is an adventurous eater. Even if I know what it is, I don’t think it would stop me from ordering it. But that doesn’t mean I need to tempt fate and know what it is. It’s easier to order and eat food in foreign country if you follow this rule. Meat is always chicken.
Another way of ordering is just look around you and see what looks good. Then I just point to the dish, then myself, and smile with a thumbs up sign. That gets the point across really easily. I can’t resist trying new foods so if I see something that looks good or interesting, I just have to try it and I’ll use that method to try it.
Food is such an important part of experiencing a culture that I find it as exciting and rewarding as seeing any historical or tourist site. It also helps that it’s typically the cheapest and sometimes the most memorable part of my trip. Food not only exposes us to new tastes and flavors but also brings people together and is a great conduit for meeting new people. It’s great when you can share and enjoy something together. You may not speak the language but it isn’t difficult to understand when you’re all happy because you all enjoyed the same wonderful meal together.