A huge part of the travel experience is getting to know local traditions, history and culture. Happily, you can get in touch with all three aspects of a national identity just by eating.
Whether through the highly structured affair of Japan's tea ceremonies or the simple pleasures of Malaysia's hawker stalls, sampling a country's cuisine in the way the locals themselves enjoy it is a sure-fire way of making your trip that much more memorable. Here are a few tips to turn you into a locavore:
1. Research, research, research
There is no shortage of food and travel information these days so researching your destination couldn’t be easier. In addition to the usual travel websites, the food and drink sections of local newspapers, such as The New York Times’ Dining and Wine, will feature the latest restaurants and food trends. Also look out for local food blogs. Paris-based American pastry chef, David Lebovitz, features Parisian food haunts and dining tips on his eponymous blog, while the hidden foodie gems of Istanbul are explored in istanbuleats.com. Lonely Planet's 'Get Stuffed' branch on Thorn Tree is also a great spot to research local food traditions (including recipes aplenty).
2. Hit the streets
It’s hard to beat street food as one of the most authentic and vibrant ways to experience the local buzz. Sample spicy bhajis and sticky sweet jalebis by the roadside in India, or lose yourself in Marrakech’s hectic square, Djemaa El-Fna, for snails traditionally picked from their shells with safety pins and gigantic meat kebabs. And let’s not forget Thailand, possibly the world’s greatest street food destination with classics such as the ubiquitous pad thai, sweet and sour som tam salad and soupy kuaytiaw.
3. Shop with the locals
Think about your own habits and how you eat and shop for food at home. Seafood and produce markets are typically teeming and humming with local life on market days. Try haggling over the morning’s tuna catch at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market or jostling with locals in Bologna’s historic delis in the Quadrilatero for freshly made tortellini and succulent mortadella. Even supermarkets can offer clues as to local dining preferences, like the incredible array of raclette and fondue cheeses at a Swiss Coop City.
4. Ask a local
Taxi drivers are usually more than happy to share where locals like to go out to dinner on Friday and Saturday nights - and even take you there and back. Instead of directions to nearby restaurants, ask the hotel concierge where they would go for a meal with their friends. And don’t be shy in getting a recommendation from the barman or wait staff for your next pit stop whilst brooding over a coffee or nursing an early evening aperitif.
5. Time your visit
Festivals and celebrations are a fun and meaningful way to check out the local history and food culture. Christmas is steeped in tradition in many countries, from the kartoffelpuffer (deep-fried potato cakes) and Glühwein (mulled wine) at Germany’s Christmas markets to the pinnekjott (rack of lamb) and ribbe (pork ribs) at a typical Norwegian dinner. The number and sheer variety of food festivals are also endless, from oysters in Galway in late October to the celebration of all things pink garlic at the tiny village of Lautrec in France in August.
6. Broaden your (travel) horizons
Be adventurous and explore beyond cities into the fringes and suburbia, where places specialising in particular cuisines can often be found. A short bus or train trip can see you enjoying kimchi and bulgogi in Koreatown (New Malden in London) or Neapolitan pizza and pasta in Little Italy (Haberfield in Sydney).
7. Open your eyes and follow your nose
It might sound like stating the obvious, but a higher ratio of locals against camera-wielding tourists and a menu written entirely in the local language remain pretty good yardsticks for whether a restaurant is local favourite. The test applies equally whether you're choosing a spot to eat at the local Chinatown or the bouchons in Lyon. And why not follow your nose and go where the food smells take you, such as local residents plying cheese and tomato pizzas straight from their kitchen windows in Cuba.
8. Trust the experts
Joining a food tour with a local guide is a quick and easy way to familiarise yourself with where the locals shop and eat and even try some of the local produce. Numerous tours can be found on the internet, with www.roadfood.com one of the best by far, offering self-guided itineraries to legendary food destinations in America, like the barbecue trail around Memphis and top places for a lobster roll in Maine.