Travel Internationally, Eat Locally

12 Apr

Photo courtesy of Dan Kelliher via Flickr

Here’s a question — why do people fly half way around the world for travel and then go straight to McDonald’s to eat?  For me, half the fun of travel is trying out local flavors and cuisines.  I’m ALL about taking in what the locals eat — and drink.

Back in February 1994, I took my first international trip since living in Brussels in the mid-1970s.  I went to Singapore to cover the Singapore Air Show.

Back then, the Internet was in its primitive stages, so I bought a “Lonely Planet” guide to get an idea of what I would do in my off time.  I’ve always been a big foodie, so I wanted to check out what was available locally.

Photo courtesy of Steel Wool, via Flickr

Singapore is a very modern city that nearly had its ethnicity beaten out of it after decades of British colonial rule.  The city is clean, modern and efficient.  Unfortunately, it looks like any large north American city, and the restaurant scene is similar.

Lonely Planet told me about the famous Singapore food courts, which focus on local cuisine and delicacies in a basic setting at amazingly reasonable prices. 

My boss wanted to have dinner at TGIFriday’s that first night we arrived. I demurred, saying I could go to TGI any day of the week at home.  But how often was I going to have the chance to eat foods from China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Indian, sometimes fused together?

Some of the dishes I still remember include chili crabs, fishball noodles, hor fun, shark’s fin and satay bee hoon.  The servers are very helpful in navigating the dishes, some of which might be a bit much for some American palates.  Alcohol tends to be expensive, so we all just drank Tiger Beer, which wasn’t bad, although I’m not much of a beer drinker.

I love Paris, and have been many times for work and play. One time, I had a wonderful meal from Michelin-starred chef Guy Savoy — and at a fraction of the price of his usual expensive restaurants.  I ate at a tiny six-table bistro across the street from his flagship restaurant, where, on that night, Savoy himself was running across the street between the two eateries, cooking in both kitchens.  He visited each table and praised us for being so smart by eating at his little bistro with the smaller price tag.

I traveled to Sweden several times in the 1990s and fell in love with reindeer, especially a leg loin with a lingonberry sauce.  Everything is served with Aquavit (similar to vodka), Sweden’s national drink.  I did not, however, develop a taste for herrings in cream.

Photo courtesy of Carlaarlena, via Flickr

I’ve been to Brazil at least 10 times since 1994.  I could do a whole blog post about the wonderful food of Brazil, some of which is similar to soul food.   The national dish is feijoada, a wonderful stew of black beans, beef and pork. It is served with white rice and is eaten with your choice of farofa (made of toasted cassava flour and is similar to corn meal), pork rinds, bananas, fried collard greens and Brazilian pepper sauce.  And of course, you MUST drink Brazil’s national drink, the  caipirinha, is made with cachaça (Brazilian rum) and two limes, muddled with sugar served over ice (I make a mean one).

I made several trips to Oberpfafenhofen, Germany, near Munich, to visit a now-defunct aircraft manufacturer.  The trip was never complete without a visit to Kloster Andechs, a monastery where the monks’ vocation is to make beer.  Again, I’m not a big beer drinker, but this beer, coupled with the sausages, also made by the monks, was a meal that could become a vocation.

I attended a conference in Baveno, Italy, in the Lake Maggiore region north of Milan.  The resort where we stayed had some of the worst food I’ve ever had in my life.  But the trip ended on a high note when we were leaving. Our flight was leaving out of Lugano, Switzerland (too many strikes in Milan).  The airport had a divine little restaurant run by a retired Michelin-starred chef who ran it as a hobby.  I still dream about the pasta I ate there.

In April 2008, I went to Seoul, South Korea, with another reporter to write a series of stories on Korean Air.  Our host was a young woman who was Korean but had grown up in the United States.  She had created a list of places for us to eat, and all of them were American or Western.

But both of us wanted to focus on Korean cuisine, and our host obliged.  I’ve always been a fan of Korean food (I could eat kim chee every day), but the highlight of my trip was to a hidden jewel of a restaurant called Sanchon

Sanchon's food Photo courtesy of Julie Facine, via Flickr

Sanchon, owned and operated by a former buddhist monk, serves Korean Temple Food.  I’m probably one of the biggest carnivores on the face of the earth, so I was highly suspicious about an all-vegetarian menu.  I ate at Zen Palate in New York City and I still have nightmares about that meal 20 years later!  But I digress.

The meal was fantastic.  We sat on the floor, and our server brought a series of dishes in small bows nestled in baskets, and each one was delicious.  We were also served a wonderful tea.  We also went to a Dak-gui (grilled chicken) restaurant and a traditional Korean table barbecue restaurant.

So when you’re planning that next international trip, take a quick surf on the Internet and see what’s what in local cuisine at your final destination.  Food is a key part of the journey and you’ll really miss out if you stick with restaurants you can easily visit when you’re at home. 

I’d love to know some of the great places you’ve frequented when traveling internationally!

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