As a traveler and worldschooler, one of the many ways I explore and connect with different cultures is through their food and culinary tradition. Saying yes to trying new traditional dishes and learning about the history and process behind them is one of the best ways to get to know the people in your host country. After all, when in Rome…
Before I left the US 10 years ago, my mom and I were both vegetarians. I never liked meat all that much, and was content in Los Angeles where the options were plentiful. After traveling for some time, however, we made the conscious decision to become omnivores again. We did this for two main reasons:
1. We felt that we were separating ourselves from the locals by imposing our dietary ‘restrictions’ (preferences) onto our food choices.
And 2. We realized that being able to choose which foods we liked and disliked, and which foods we would eat and wouldn’t eat came from a place of privilege, a privilege that the people in our host countries might not have.
This choice opened my eyes to the realization that when we talk about food in relations to travel, we are having conversations about local culture, privilege and economics. With these considerations in mind, below are some of the ways that you can immerse yourself in another culture through the medium of food.
If you’re staying in one place for a longer period of time, dining with local street food vendors can be one of the best ways to get to know your local neighborhood and community. Even if you don’t speak the local language very well, food is universal and can be one of the most useful tools you can use to break down and transcend the language barrier between you and other diners.
Some of my fondest travel memories are of sitting on the curb in front of a taco truck and having incredible conversations with locals, or chomping down pad thai on a Bangkok side street and exchanging smiles and gestures with the other customers. In those moments, I felt welcomed, warm, and comfortable with a full stomach of delicious local food.
Cooking classes can also be a great way to learn more about the local culture through food. Understanding the different processes and traditions that go into each plate can drastically change the way that you look at local cuisine and can give you a fresh perspective on things.
For example, during a class in the north of Thailand I learned not only about the food preparation, but also what goes into sourcing the ingredients. I learned that at least 6 months of labor and effort went into each individual grain of rice, and that it was disrespectful to the locals to leave anything on your plate. Understanding this seemingly minor detail gave me insight on local economics, tradition and etiquette, and changed the way I approached food and waste during my time in Thailand.
Lastly, if you’re short on time or just looking for a concentrated foodie experience, food tours can be a great way to streamline this process by trying many different facets of local cuisine at once. Food tours often provide a curated glimpse into the highlights of regional foods, and can also be a great way to meet travelers and locals alike.
Food tours are a relatively popular convention in the travel world, which means they are accessible and easy to arrange in a wide selection of locations. Whether you’re interested in a culinary tour of Athens, or a street food crawl in Mexico, food tours will satisfy your hunger for exploration and discovery.
Safe trails and happy eating!