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Travelling with your tastebuds: how to eat curiously

Globetrotters are increasingly planning overseas trips around edible itineraries. Sofia Levin is on a mission to encourage people to #EatCuriously both at home and on holiday, with every meal an opportunity to learn more about other cultures.

As a food and travel journalist, I experience a different kind of FOMO – the fear of missing food. But it’s not trendy, celebrity-chef-owned restaurants or the most Instagrammable cafes that get me going, it’s the places that transport you to another country while you’re still on home soil, providing the opportunity to eat – and therefore learn – something new. Travel opens minds, but in a multi-cultural city like Melbourne, you don’t have to jump on a plane to experience the thrill of travel.

A close up shot of a bowl of zha jiang mian, served at EJ Fine Food restaurant in Melbourne. The dish has fresh shredded vegetables, beef and noodles.
Zha jiang mian from EJ Fine Food in Melbourne © Sofia Levin / Lonely Planet

Perhaps it’s because I felt jaded by onslaught of smashed avocado, or began to lament writing listicles, but over the last few years, instead of revisiting favourite restaurants or defaulting to ‘what’s hot’, I’ve dug a little deeper. I started to seek out dining experiences that gave me the biggest natural high. The common thread involved being out of my comfort zone. I started to talk more about it on my Instagram and noticed that others felt the same, so I created the hashtag #EatCuriously to encourage people to order outside their comfort zone in an attempt to help us understand more about other cultures, as well as ourselves.

Sofia Levin biting into a mouthful of saucy noodles, looking into the camera with chopsticks in her hand. There are two other side dishes on the table and the restaurant is blurred in the background.
Sofia Levin eating zha jiang mian at EJ Fine Food in Melbourne © Sofia Levin / Lonely Planet

#EatCuriously at home

The more I explore the rest of the world, the more I return home inspired. I’m constantly on trying to find dishes I’ve eaten overseas in my own city. After a recent trip to Turkey, I realised the kebab joint around the corner from my house sells lahmacun (a round, thin dough base with spiced minced meat), but I’d previously only noticed the word ‘pide’. If you’re not going anywhere soon, here are three suggestions on how to travel with your tastebuds at home:

1. Instead of going out for Thai or some other well-known cuisine, go regional. It’s as simple as searching ‘Thailand food regions’ and finding a restaurant or typical dish from that region. For example, Isaan cuisine is specific to north-eastern Thailand, and kor moo yang, a sticky grilled pork neck dish, is typical of the region. So, try looking for ‘kor moo yang’ + ‘Melbourne restaurant’.

2. If you want to keep it broad, swap the cuisines you know for something you consider less common. You’ve met friends for dinner at an Italian restaurant before, but what about going out for a Ukrainian or Mongolian meal?

3. A simple way to ease into the #EatCuriously movement is to visit an international grocer. It can be an Asian, Indian, Mediterranean or other supermarket – it just has to specialise. Buy a bunch of snacks, something as simple as a packet of interestingly flavoured crisps, and have a taste test at home with mates.

Sofia Levin looks over her shoulder at the camera while eating from a blue bowl with chopsticks. She is wearing a grey t-shirt and has a pair of sunglasses on her head.
Sofia Levin eating horumon-don at Kitsuneya, Tokyo © Sofia Levin / Lonely Planet

#EatCuriously when travelling

When travelling I live by the rule, ‘When in Rome, eat as the Romans eat’, which can mean a simple cacio e pepe or trippa alla Romana (cow stomach simmered in tomato, garlic, parsley and mint). Once again, the internet is your friend. Find dishes typical of where you’re going and make a list of those you’d like to try. From there, look at trusted review sites or blogs and bookmark a few places (but remember to take reviews with a grain of salt). When you arrive, there’s nothing better than asking a local or a taxi driver where to eat specific dishes.

Often tour leaders or citizens will assume that you don’t want to eat like them, or that you require something less casual. Start a conversation; assure them you’re game and explain that you can eat a hamburger anywhere in the world, but you can’t try tavuk göğsü (a Turkish rice pudding-like dessert made from chicken) anywhere else. It’s worth noting that eating curiously doesn’t always translate to eating something you consider challenging, like offal. It’s more about trying something new. Remember to check yourself when you travel: if you think something is ‘weird’ or ‘foreign’, that simply means you’re the foreigner in that situation.

Tavuk göğsü in Turkey, a rice pudding-like dessert made from chicken. The dish is served on a white plate on a wooden table. Levin / Lonely Planet
Tavuk göğsü in Turkey, a rice pudding-like dessert made from chicken © Sofia

DO

  • Your research. The better your base knowledge of a cuisine, the better your experience will be.
  • If English isn’t a country’s first language, save a list of food and ordering-related words on your phone, the same way you would with basic greetings.
  • Go with your gut, so to speak. If it doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not worth it.
  • Look for lines of locals and assume that if young kids are eating street food, your stomach is more likely to be fine.
  • Travel with Imodium and antibiotics, just in case.

DON’T

  • Consume drinks or food made with unsafe water.
  • Fear the bain-marie – some of the best food I’ve tasted has come from stainless steel containers.
  • Bring your prejudices. For example, if you see unrefrigerated food piled up in the window of a padang restaurant in Indonesia, don’t assume you’ll get sick – it’s probably been cooked that morning and turns over fast enough to not spoil.
  • Ignore obvious sanitary issues.
  • Ignore varying table etiquette.
  • Be afraid to step outside your culinary comfort zone.
Salero Kito, Padang food, in Melbourne. The dish is served on a dark wooden table alongside a carton of juice. There is rice, brown meat, sauce and green vegetables on the plate.
Salero Kito in Melbourne © Sofia Levin / Lonely Planet

Top Melbourne picks to #EatCuriously at

Over the last few months at home I’ve enjoyed the different spices used in Somali cuisine compared to Ethiopian; great spots are #SomaliEats and New Somali Kitchen in Flemington. Around the corner, Hem 27 specialises in regional Vietnamese noodle soups that span far beyond pho, while further west in Braybrook a small food truck called Shreeji – The Taste of Kutch, serves regional dishes found in the district of Kutch in Gujarat. My go-to winter soup is the herbal and earthy bak kut teh, popular in Malaysia and Singapore and made with tea, garlic, star anise and shiitake. Aunty Franklee does it well.

When I’m missing Indonesia, I head to Salero Kito, a casual nasi padang restaurant in the city where you select pre-cooked dishes like beef rendang, fried chicken, jackfruit curry, boiled cassava leaves and my personal favourite, fried cow lung. EJ Fine Food is another central spot serving $6 rou jia mo, a Chinese bao burger common in northwest China's Shaanxi province, as well as zha jiang mian, China’s answer to spaghetti bolognese. Not-so-secret car park noodle shop, Soi 38, turns into a Thai barbecue hot spot at night called Nana Moojum. The DIY grill sets are lots of fun, but I also love the grilled pork intestines.

That’s barely a taste, and my list keep growing. Next I’m eager to head further west for an authentic Filipino meal and eat a Turkish dish called İşkembe çorbası (tripe soup). When I went to taste the latter in Istanbul, the shop had closed early. I looked it up as soon as I got home, and sure enough, you can find it here in Coburg.

A close up shot of rou jia mo served in EJ Fine Food restaurant in Melbourne. It is a type of bao bun, served wrapped in paper that has 'G'DAY MATE' and some script writing in red printed on it, in an orange basket. The white buns are stuffed with brown meat and vegetables.
No holidays coming up? Travel with your tastebuds and eat adventurously at home © Sofia Levin / Lonely Planet

I don’t believe in eating to live when a simple meal can bring so much joy. We all have to eat, but tasting each other’s food is the simplest way to learn about and embrace a culture other than one’s own. What’s on your plate tells you so much about where you are, from the climate and fertility of the land through to religions, traditions and everyday culture. People think I know a lot about food, but in all honesty it’s my lack of knowledge, coupled with curiosity, that makes me a good eater. Eating curiously means following your nose in the direction of that delicious smell instead of letting it waft away. It’s cancelling a dinner booking when invited to a last-minute meal in someone’s home. And it’s putting open-mindedness above sustenance. I truly believe that if we treat every meal as an opportunity to learn more about each other, the world will be a better place. That’s why I #EatCuriously, and hope you will, too.

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