Why do you travel? Beaches, culture, sights, wildlife, full moon parties, languages? The options are endless and come in various order of priority for most of us. For some the priority is local food. Places like Italy, Mexico, Vietnam, and of course Thailand come to mind, which are (in)famous for their food and the fact you usually come home with teary eyes, because you got pulled over by customs and had to relinquish your curry powder or parmesan cheese.

streetfood china

I think these food heavens should only be visited by people who love food and who like to eat. But if you don’t, what sort of human are you anyhow?! You can tell where I am going with this – I am a person who loves to eat and as I mentioned in my post about the joys of travelling alone, I almost broke up with a boyfriend once because he wanted to go to a McDonald’s while in Rome. When in Rome, eat pasta three times a day; do not go to McDonald’s! Of course I had to deal with the side effect of coming back a few pounds heavier, but they were happy pounds coming from the most delicious plates of fettuccine Alfredo, fried zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella, and pine nut gelato.

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Different people have different opinions on how a holiday itinerary should look like and what is their top list of things to do. On top of my list is always to eat all the food and I find nothing wrong with planning my daily route based on where I want to eat and what I want to eat.

In most places the best food is found in the streets: at markets, little side alleys, and from street vendors, eaten with your hands off wobbly camping tables. And in South East Asia,usually while sitting on tiny plastic chairs that make you worry you may break it while trying to handle your chopsticks and not getting run over by a motorbike. That’s where the food of a country reveals it soul, where it turns from pure sustenance into an integral part of its culture; it is rarely found on menus that offer western food alongside pho or at fine dining establishments that could easily live in New York, Paris or London in their uniformity. Not that I mind fine dining, but there is a time and a place for it and for me its place is in a metropolis not in a country where such a meal could feed an entire family for a month. And though I do get cravings for a familiar sandwich, after a while of eating my way through foreign pots and pans, I have realized that whenever I order such a piece of home, it simply doesn’t taste like home and sometimes outright horrible. So I stick to the local, the new, and the unknown.

streetfood china

During a recent homestay in Chiang Mai we got served a feast for lunch: mushroom tempura with mushrooms we had picked ourselves, lemongrass pork in coconut milk, potato curry, and many more delicious things that made us all go for seconds and thirds. A lovely girl from Australia I met over lunch said she was surprised at how good the food was and that she originally thought she would only dare to eat at KFC or other fast food places. While I had the impulse to laugh, especially in sight of a meal fit for royalty, I realized that some people seem to be scared of food in a foreign country. While I am not the most adventurous eater myself, my parents always insisted that I try at least everything once and for the main part I have stuck with that and have only ever been rewarded. I have learned in the souk of Fez that camel burgers are delicious, have finally found a noodle soup that I love in Hanoi, and drank spider wine in rural Cambodia just because I could.

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Some of my fondest memories in general evolve around food and travelling is no exception. Sharing meals with old and new friends, understanding a foreign country and culture a little bit better once put on a plate, the excitement of trying something utterly new, and the feeling of falling in love a little when you discover a different taste that you truly enjoy – you can only get that by eating.

The idea that someone would come to Thailand and not wanting to eat everything was a strange one for me. Especially as I rejoiced when I read in my travel guide that in general Thais eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner and a whole lot of snacks in between, so basically what they like, whenever they like. It also mentioned something about the nutritional values of the food and that one wouldn’t have to worry about overindulging. I don’t think they counted on the amounts of sticky rice with mango and pad thai a person can eat in a week, but for now I am still happy to take their word for it.

With that in mind I wanted to share the (food) love and some tips next time you find yourself looking for the nearest fast food chain in a foreign places instead of going local:

  • Get acquainted with what goes into the meals you are about to have and go to a market. Instead of heading towards the hippie pants, go to the food section. Look, touch, smell!

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  • See the inside of a kitchen. I take after my mother in the regard that I will just walk into restaurant and private kitchens alike to check it out. In a lot of places that is actually quite alright; I have met many chefs that don’t mind if you look in their pots and over their shoulders and will gladly explain what they are doing. A more ‘legit’ way is to take cooking class where you can you will learn about a country’s produce and how to make some of its signature dishes.

streetfood china

  • When hungry, look out for people. Even if like me, you generally don’t like crowds, the more people, the better the food and the faster the turnaround time. Unlike restaurants, food stalls close down once they are sold out for the day, so whatever you are eating will be fresh and prepared directly in front of your eyes. Once you found such a busy place ask, point, gesture – I am always surprised by the friendliness and willingness to help of locals in pretty much any country when you approach with a smile and hungry curiosity.

street food

  • Join a local food tour. Most countries that are famous for their food culture offer these. On a food tour you will walk or drive through different culinary areas and eat to your hearts content with a local guide.I did a tuk tuk midnight tour in Bangkok which stuffed me with duck noodle soup, crispy pork which was flambeed in front of us in a little side alley off Dragon Street, and the official best pad thai of the city. The great thing was not only to eat, but also to learn about the food traditions and how to eat in Thailand.

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food tour wellington

  • I am the fussiest meat eater I know, so when I am unsure what’s in a dish (offal on rice anyone?) I usually go for vegetarian. Most Asian cuisines have no shortage of amazing options, so even carnivores have known to volunteer for rabbit food here.
  • If you do eat meat and fish, get it while it’s fresh. While it might be a sight to get used to if your dinner is still alive or in one piece when you order, you can be pretty sure you are getting the freshest of the fresh. Just don’t make friends with little Nemo before.

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  • Still nervous? Start with dessert. There is little you can do wrong by tasting local sweets and fruit. Just be careful with the durian, which has an acquired taste and is so smelly that some hotels will not allow its consumption in the rooms.

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Bon voyage & bon appétit!