I'm embarrassed to say, but the first meal I ate in France was at McDonald's. There, it's out there. I was 21 years old, traveling alone, exhausted, hungry, and I didn't speak a word of French. As I walked along the Champs-Élysées after an overnight flight, the Golden Arches appeared in front of me, instantly recognizable and comforting in their familiarity.
Food is a basic aspect of culture that binds us to our families, our heritage, and our homes. It is among the first learning experiences we have, and thus it is one of the most foundational connections we have to our culture. So when you are tired, hungry, and don't speak the local language, the easiest thing to do is find food that feels safe and familiar. You know how it will taste, how to eat it, and how you will feel afterward.
Conversely, one of the best ways to explore a new culture is through its cuisine. Because food is such a fundamental aspect of life, culinary vacations are a wonderful way to come in contact with everyday people living their lives, often with traditions that have been passed down for generations.
Here are the top five ways to get to know a destination through its food:
1. Learn About the Culinary Traditions
Understanding the culinary traditions of a country can instantly teach you about the history, environment, and lifestyle of a region. For example, the cultural influences on cooking styles reflect historic migratory patterns, religious missions, military conquests, and trade routes. The climate and landscape largely determine what locally sourced ingredients are available. And the spiritual customs of the region have an enormous impact on both day-to-day foods and special foods made for religious events.
2. Discover How Local Foods Are Produced
Take the opportunity to see how local food is produced, both on farms and in factories. Sometimes food is produced in the same way that it has been for centuries, or increasingly modern techniques are being incorporated. Learning about the evolution of food production in a region can yield tremendous insights into a culture. For example, on my first visit to Vietnam 20 years ago, all the rice cultivation that I witnessed was manual, with the assistance of water buffalo. Today you still see traditional farming, but in many places it is much more mechanized, giving clear insights into the massive economic progress the country has seen in the last two decades.
3. Wander Through Vibrant Markets
Visiting local markets is a hands-on way to see how people live. Although grocery stores and supermarkets dominate urban areas, in rural areas of developing countries, people still gather regularly at outdoor markets. In the Ourika Valley of the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, for example, the souk lathnine, or Monday market has been a meeting point for the villagers of the valley as long as anyone can remember. Some people go on foot, others by car, and still others by donkey. Not only can you purchase your fruits, vegetables, spices, and meat at the market, but it is the social hub of the valley. There are food stalls and tea shops where people stop and visit with each other to catch up on news. There is even a barber, a blacksmith, and a dentist for those who don't otherwise come to town. For the culinary traveler, it is a magnificent slice of life, an opportunity to people watch, and see how the locals live their lives on a day-to-day basis.
4. Learn To Cook the Regional Cuisine
Taking a cooking class from a local chef adds an authentic person-to-person element to the food-culture connection. Often, these chefs grew up learning to cook from their mother or grandmother and for them much of their culture revolves around food. So not only will you learn to cook spectacular meals, a souvenir which you can take home and enjoy again and again, but you will hear stories about how food was a key part of their family life. You will learn what foods were used for special family holidays, what foods were cooked for the children, what foods and herbs had medicinal value, what was cooked in lean years, and what was considered a delicacy.
5. Eat, Savor, Repeat!
And finally, eating the local cuisine is such an incredible part of the adventure of traveling to a new place. Even if you think you are familiar with an international cuisine from restaurants at home, you haven't really tried it until you are sitting at a table, sampling foods from a native chef. There will be so many more options available to you, from simple street food, to traditional delights, to innovative fusion cuisine. You travel to see new places and learn about other cultures. Don't take the easy route and stick with what's familiar - you can do that at home. Let your sense of adventure, and your palate, lead the way.