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Is Travel Gastronomy A Thing?

Over the years I have indulged in local cuisine while travelling. My favourites have included spring rolls in Vietnam, pizza in Italy and ceviche in Peru. I have never travelled for gastronomy but it has become an important factor and one that is well worth including in your travel plans. I'm excited to share Mark Bibby Jackson - How To Experience A Country Through Its Food. It's filled with top tips, interesting facts and fun anecdotes! I hope you enjoy reading it, as much as I did.

How to experience a country through its food

By Mark Bibby Jackson,

Nothing provides the traveller with a better insight into a country’s culture than its food. When I reflect upon the moments when I feel I have started to understand different cultures, then invariably they have revolved around food – or more likely drink.

In Vietnam, the traditional greeting is “ăn cơm chưa?”, which literally translates as “have you eaten rice yet?” There is no feigned interest in the weather. They get straight to the point, and if you answer “chưa”, meaning “not yet”, they will invariably suggest that you go together for something to eat, or cook something for you themselves.

Eat Like the Locals

My most memorable meal in Vietnam, where I worked for two years, was a fish meal our team shared in a restaurant in Hanoi. When I say fish, I mean fish. One fish between the dozen or so of us, served over numerous courses, leaving nothing to waste – even the innards. This fish must have been related to Moby Dick.

Unlike the way that Vietnamese is often served in the West, dishes do not arrive haphazardly at roughly the same time, but in Hanoi they are carefully choreographed. The tastiest dishes arrive first while your palette is at its most refined. The rice comes towards the end of the meal sometime around the vegetable course and broth to ensure that nobody leaves hungry. The meal always concludes with a fruit dish.

I believe I understood more about my colleagues in that one meal than I did from weeks of working with them. I also realised how much we have in common. After all some of my strongest childhood memories are of going to my Nana’s house to have our Christmas lunch. The food might have been different – I don’t think my grandmother could have fed the whole family on a solitary cod – but the importance of food, and the ceremony of the turkey being presented to all assembled prior to carving was an essential part of our family life.

Part of the culture of food lies not just in what you eat, bit in how it is presented. In Japan, so much of the food culture revolves around the ceremony. This helps to swiftly remove any lingering discomfort you feel from sitting cross-legged before some miniaturised table that would better serve as a foot-rest.

Leave Your Comfort Zone

Eating as the locals do involves an element of risk. I soon realised the best way to avoid nasty surprises in Vietnam was to explain that I did not eat the insides of animals, not that this always helped me as I discovered when I tucked into a piece of pasta that turned out to be part of some animal’s stomach.

However, to really understand a culture and to get to know the people better you should be prepared to leave your culinary comfort zone. Whether it is eating fried spiders in Cambodia, snake blood in Vietnam or guinea pigs in Peru, you will begin to understand more about what makes your host community tick if you join in too.

Eat Local Food

Wherever I am I always ask to eat and drink whatever is local. Putting aside the environmental benefits of ordering locally sourced food, sampling what your host community eats provides you with an insight into their culture, environment and history.

Cambodians eat a lot of prahok or fermented fish. The pungent dish is not to everyone’s taste, but it makes you realise how the local people used to preserve food through the dry season when the waters of the Tonle Sap Lake in the middle of the country receded and there were fewer fish to preserve. The Faroe Islands also traditionally fermented food to preserve it, as well as smoking fish, as we have in the UK. You see there are so many similarities despite the apparent differences.

Nepal is one of my favourite countries to visit. As soon as I touch the ground, I want to try some dal bhat. A simple thali dish consisting of rice, dal, vegetable curry, poppadum and pickle. It is cheap, voluminous and really nutritious. Waiters will willingly top you up all day if you like. I would eat it happily for lunch and dinner every day and did so often while trekking. In Kathmandu, they sell t-shirts announcing that dal bhat will give you power for 24 hours, which is good to keep in mind if attempting the Everest Base Camp.

Avoid Cookery Classes and Tourist Traps

Many tourists opt to go on cookery courses or cookery tours. Personally, I am rather sceptical of these, having gone on a few disappointing ones in the past. Essentially, they are designed for tourists and as such, they can easily fall into the trap of providing travellers with what the host thinks they want, not what the locals actually eat. However, I did once have a great time in El Salvador trying to prepare some pupasas, the natural dish made of flatbreads stuffed with a combination of cheese, pork and refried beans. My effort tasted great, despite not quite looking like my instructor’s prototype.