Everyone has to eat while travelling. And eating has the potential to add to, or detract from, an authentic travel experience. But how do you know what constitutes authentic cuisine in the place you are visiting? Do you call out the food police? Here are two ideas to consider while looking for authentic food abroad.
Are locals eating it?
Not everything that locals do automatically expresses local culture. Locals are as likely as foreigners to patronize chain restaurants, for example. In fact, many of the international food chains dotting European and Asian landscapes are catering to a local market. In some instances, these are even adapting accordingly, at least paying some tribute to local eating patterns. (Whether this constitutes authentic cuisine, however, is the subject of another debate.) Chains aside, it may seem like the best approach is to go to a restaurant clearly known for serving local /regional specialties. But if you notice that your (would-be) fellow diners are all foreign tourists like you, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate. That local restaurant may be popular with tourists because it serves up a nostalgic version of regional cuisine. This is likely because its management believes that nostalgic food is what the tourists will pay for.
In contrast, truly authentic local cuisines still continue to evolve and adapt to new ways of being. They may start to add some fusion twists, particularly if that region has been influenced by immigration, and new immigrants have brought new herbs and spices into the mix. I will never forget eating at a locally-focused restaurant ten years ago in Rome, where I had the most amazing butternut squash ravioli with an array of seasoning I had never encountered before while eating in Italy. The restaurant, which local friends took me to, also served organic Planeta (Sicilian) wine –an up and coming brand in vogue with all the locals at the time. Bottom line: consider consulting restaurant listings that cater to locals, or that have been written by them. In large cities, Time Out guides can be helpful. And in cities of varied shapes and sizes, an increasing number of locals and ex-pats living abroad these days are also writing about great local restaurants and neighbourhoods, based on a closer relationship with the community and, ideally, conversations with friends from that culture. Some even offer food-based tours, based on their local knowledge.
Is my eating experience connecting me with the local terroir?
I only encountered the term “terroir” two years ago, but it’s an idea that resonated with me. It recognizes that the context where food is grown, raised, and/or processed will have a big impact on how it tastes. This includes how much sunlight and warmth particular crops receive (or don’t), down even to the minerals and microbes that various fruits and vegetables take in as they grow. It also considers traditional relationships between people living in the region and how they produce their food. The concept of terroir, then, boils down to respecting regional food. And, of course, giving yourself the experience of eating food that was produced in the local terroir when you are travelling.
This doesn’t have to be an elitist concept, or force you into eating only at the priciest of restaurants. Sometimes a trip to a local market or grocery store will expose you to regionally produced foods /emerging local favourites in delightful (and reasonably priced ways). But these outlets are less likely to be in the heart of a town’s tourist district. In at least one earlier column I’ve encouraged readers to live like a local by exploring the suburbs of their host city -and with good reason. Because real people live (and shop) in them. As an example, one of Montreal’s best public markets is a 20-30 minute metro (subway) ride away from downtown. In my hometown of Victoria and the nearby Cowichan Valley (1-hour drive away) there is a terrific awareness of local food culture. One of my favourite grocery stores, The Root Cellar , makes a point of selling as many locally-produced fruits, vegetables, meats, and delicatessen items as are available in any given season. To get there you either have to rent a car, or rent a bike and take the Lochside cycling trail as far as McKenzie Avenue before diverting east for an additional five minute cycle.
While there are many options for authentic eating while travelling, a good starting point is to try to find restaurants that are popular with locals and offer some connection to the region, either through the cuisine served, the ingredients used, or its popularity as a local hangout. Also consider venturing out a bit further from the downtown core, in search of food supplies grown and produced in the local terroir. This blog post has explained why these two approaches might help, and suggests a few tips for starting your own search for authentic local food.