How to Travel And Eat Your Way Around the World

By Nomadic Matt | Published December 17th, 2012

jodi ettenberg the legal nomadThis is a guest post by Jodi Ettenberg, foodie extraordinaire and writer of The Food Traveler’s Handbook. She is one of my favorite travel bloggers and it’s a honor to have her guest post here while I am in Africa!

The beauty of traveling the world is that you can hone in on the things you are most curious about or the themes that bring you joy. For many people, this means adventure or volunteering or climbing as many mountains as possible. For me, it means eating my way around the world and learning about food.

I never started out this way. I planned my travels to last one year, expecting to return to my lawyering job in New York in 2009. After saving up as much as I could, I started a site, Legal Nomads, to document whatever adventures came my way. I never thought that I would be still writing years later, and certainly did not expect to have written a book about food.

Somewhere between Mongolia and China, I figured out that what I ate would become more of a focus for my travels. Growing up, food was never a big part of my life, but as time went on and I began to travel, it was obvious that my destination choices and daily schedules were planned around my taste buds.  Moreover, I wanted to travel so that I could learn about what people ate, and why. It wasn’t just about the enjoyment of a meal or two, but went much deeper. How was it that these tastes and traditions that fascinated me came together to form the historical backdrop for countries I was only beginning to explore? Food was a never-ending source of wonder (and delicious meals).

Chicken gizzards in Istanbul, Turkey

But for those who want to do what I do, there are some valid concerns. How do you eat safely, without getting sick? What do you need to pack before you go that helps you on your tasty travels?  And what do you need to know to build out an itinerary based around food?

I just wrote a book, The Food Traveler’s Handbook, answering these questions and more, and Matt asked me to post my thoughts here about how I eat the world.

Here are my five tried-and-true tips and tricks for discovering the hidden secrets of food:

Start with the basics: the dishes themselves. One of my favorite places to start is Wikipedia, specifically their page on national dishes. Jumping from that landing page through to the ingredients named in it, or a historical footnote that fascinates you, means that you can take a journey though the anthropology of a country’s food before you even set off. For example, many travelers do not realize that ketchup’s origins lies thousands of miles away from America, in Fujian, China. By learning about that history before you set off to a trip to China, you are afforded a whole other lens through which you can view your adventures. A delicious lens at that!

Pork floss corn muffins in Chiang Mai, Thailand

You’ll appreciate food more if you also learn about the etiquette and social mores that accompany it. Part of the fun in learning about food is also trying to understand and/or mimic the cultural and food habits of the countries you visit. I’ve found asking locals about their traditions or their table habits is an excellent conversation starter. For example, in much of Asia, staking your chopsticks vertically in rice is frowned upon, because it is a Buddhist rite for the dead to burn incense in a bowl of rice at the altar. And asking about this topic at a dinner in Bangkok turned into a long discussion about the many other food quirks in our respective countries. Pre-trip, a good starting point for learning is Etiquette Scholar’s international dining etiquette section, divided into regions.

Two brief packing tips. Whether you travel with or without food, a good first aid and medical kit is important, as well as my recommended packing essentials like a headlamp, doorstop and safety whistle. For my first aid kit’s full contents, see my resources page. But what about packing for the food traveler? Specifics include:

  • I never leave home without portable chopsticks, great where food is fresh but the street stall’s dishes may not be as clean as you’d like. An alternative is bringing baby wipes or Wet-Wipes with you to wipe down the utensils. That’s not to say I wander around disinfecting all of the cutlery, either! But for those street stalls with a fast turnover but less exciting washing methods, it’s always good to take that extra step.
  • I also carry a Point-It Dictionary, easy to use when the language barrier gets in the way. You can point at the animal, condiment or other item in the book and be guaranteed a minimum of communication. For those with iPhones, an alternative is ICOON, a picture dictionary.
Steamed pork and mushroom spring rolls topped with fried garlic in Muang Ngoi, Laos

Don’t ignore breakfast options. Be it nasi lemak in Indonesia or mohinga soups in Myanmar, breakfast is often an ideal time for you to explore your destination’s culinary offerings. Another option, particularly in Southeast Asia and South America, is to find the fresh food markets at dawn – they will almost always have food stalls attached where shoppers stocking up on ingredients stop for a meal. Turnover is fast, food is fresh and it is almost always cheap.

What about food safety? Street stalls and markets are the best way to try food and not break the bank, but their safety is a concern for a lot of people. To be honest, I’ve been sicker from restaurants more often than from street stalls on my travels. The beauty of frequenting streetside restaurants is that they are open and accessible; you can see how the food is treated and cooked, and how clean the stall is – or isn’t.

Harira soup in Marrakesh, Morocco

Other tips:

  • I aim for stalls where the person cooking is not also handling the money, and if they are then they are handling that money with gloves on, taking them off to cook the food.
  • I also take a close look at how the town or country eats; if a big meal for locals is at lunchtime, that would be my choice for experimenting with new meats or exciting dishes, when the food is freshest.
  • For those with food allergies or restrictions such as avoiding meat or dairy, Select Wisely has allergy and/or food cards that you can print out and take with you in the local language. Very helpful for a celiac like me who has to avoid gluten and wheat, barley and rye!

These are but a few tips that can help guide you toward safe, delicious and inexpensive eats on your travels. While food wasn’t a priority when I started travelling, I’ve found it an excellent addition to what was already a fulfilling experience. By focusing on food, I’ve added some fascinating stories, great new friendships and – of course – eaten some delicious meals. If you have any food questions, I’d be happy to answer them at jodi-at-legalnomads.com or in the comments.

Bon Appetit!

Jodi Ettenberg has been eating her way around the world since April 2008. She is the author of the recently published Food Traveler’s Handbook. She is also the founder of Legal Nomads, which chronicles worldwide travel and food adventures, and is a contributing editor for Longreads. She gets the shakes when she goes too long without eating sticky rice.

comments 38 Comments

Great post, Jodi! As an expat on a budget I’ve lived on street food for years, especially in Asia where eating out is cheaper than cooking for yourself! I’m especially a fan of pork floss :)

I have to say it didn’t go well with muffins but does taste great in many other dishes ;) Glad you liked the post!

Elize

Great post. something I would like to do when I travel again, is take a cooking lesson somewhere. Not just eat the food, but learn what goes in it :)

Agreed! It’s not only a fun way to connect with the country but if you ask your cooking instructor for food recommendations at the end of the class, you’ll usually get some fun choices you’d otherwise miss. I try to take the courses that emphasize market trips and a food-gathering/food history component and not just the cooking class itself.

People always have a bad comment when I talk about eating street food. I seriously want to carry around your book and just hand it out when that happens!

You’re aren’t the first to say so! I always try to explain that street stalls are great because you can see the kitchen in front of you – how the food is prepared, how the raw ingredients look, etc. Rare to get that very close view in a restaurant’s kitchen, and I feel more comfortable choosing based on what I see. Safe travels to you!

Loved the post Jodi, some great food for thought (no pun intended), and useful tips.

Fantastic post! I’ve only been sick once from food poisoning and feel lucky that it was only that once. I try almost everything, sometimes recklessly…. those pork floss corn muffins look yummy!

Jodi, you’re awesome! Street food is one of my favorite things, but you bring up some excellent points about cleanliness and etiquette. Also, these photos are to die for. *swoon*

I completely agree with your opinion about street food. Every time I’ve gotten food poisoning, it’s been from a restaurant, never from anything off the street. It’s a great way to get to know the local culture!

I totally agree about street stalls! At least you can judge the cleanliness etc for yourself. The restaurants usually have closed kitchens so you can’t see hat state they are in.

When I was travelling through South East Asia I was definitely planning 3 meals ahead. The food was definitely a highlight.

Thanks for the tips! Definitely will keep those in mind (especially to bring my own chopstick and wet-wipes).

Great Article Jodi,

First i am also fear to take street foods. Because when i am in travel that time i am suffered from street foods. its spoil our vacation totally. But i get clear point from your above article and your reply “Street food kitchens are in front of you” . So we clearly know how they are prepare. So here after i am choose a street food and enjoy with this different taste in my travels.

Thanks
Lovisa Princess

Great tips! Love eating the local foods and am a huge fan of street food. Never thought to bring anything to clean the cutlery. That is brilliant. When backpacking, I usually have cutlery in my pack for the hostels….that could easily be transferred to my purse or pocket for eats on the streets.

I rarely use my own chopsticks, but when I need to, I’m glad to have ‘em. ;) Many restaurants will provide a washcloth to wipe down the cutlery too, and locals here in Vietnam have said when all else fails there’s usually a lime around and you can wipe them down with lime juice.

Visit Singapore or Taiwan for good food! I had no problems touring Italy and eating lots.

Great post! And can I just say, those photos have made me extremely hungry! :)

Jodi, this article is awesome! I like it how you make an emphasis on safety and clean eating even in street foods.

I love your tips for eating from street food stalls. Getting sick is always a worry for me because I do not like wasting precious travel time.

Ryan Brown

Total om-nom-domination! I love street food and can’t wait to hit Asia where it is famous for it and will definitely be concious of what I’m eating when I go, thanks!

I really like your packing tips. Congrats Jodi!

I’m a huge fan of Jodi’s site, adventures and words of wisdom! The food experiences that come with travel are just amazing, i’m currently in Sri Lankan and have been spending time with an amazing Sri Lankan family who have been cooking me beautiful home cooked Sri Lankan meals every evening!! I’ve even been getting tips from this family on how to cook nutritious, vegan and vegetarian meals!!

Cara

One of my greatest fears about traveling & eating foods others have prepared is my Celiac. I often worry about offending a host or not knowing about hidden gluten sources because of a language (or gluten-related knowledge) barrier. I know others have done it, but hearing straight from someone that it is doable is a great comfort! Thank you!

Thank you Cara! It’s certainly not easy in many places, and often people do not understand why or how you can get sick from something like wheat or barely. But you should definitely come to Vietnam because it’s been the most simple place I’ve ever eaten: so much of the diet is rice, and even the soy sauce here does not have wheat flour. It’s fantastic! I’ve never had to ask what is in the meals because it’s all friendly for celiacs. There are a few dishes to steer clear of (mi soups, banh mi sandwiches and nui noodles) but otherwise, HCMC’s been a joy :)

I was recently told by a travel expert at Intrepid that food is the main motivator for approximately 50% off travelers when planning a trip, so I love that food became such a motivation for you, and you are sharing your great tips with everyone.

What an awesome post! I’m vegetarian and really enjoy trying to find local vegetarian dishes around the world. Of course I sometimes mess up not fully knowing ingredients but I do try! Cleanliness is hard in some places so standards have to sometimes be lowered slightly to experience.

I’ve also gotten sicker from restaurants than street food. They always heat it right in front of you, so you know what’s being served and how they’re preparing it. Plus, it’s usually much more delicious!

NomadicMatt

Exactly how I feel!

Yes, same in my experience! And great with the bonus people watching factor ;)

Great post! That definitely got my tastebuds watering. One of the best things about travelling the world is tasting the unique flavours of each region. In my opinion, if you travel somewhere and find yourself eating at ‘westernized’ restaurants or fast-food joints, you’re missing out big time! It’s so much fun going to a morning or night market and sampling the local cuisine..street food is the best, and the cheapest :)

Safe (and healthy) travels!
Goats On The Road

We have just finished a book called “Sharing the world’s local food”, which explores the dishes that people really eat and yet still seem to fade into obscurity without a trace. I couldn’t agree more about how food is a window into culture.

In fact it is the only human need that is necessary in keeping us alive that is also truly intertwined with the social and cultural parts of humanity. A truly fascinating area and a lovely blog that sets me off on a rant at all times!

By the way Jodie I’d love to hook up online with you to discuss your book and food around the world some more. Food + travel is a definate sweet spot in life as you know. @aroundtheworId (capital i in world!)

Hi Al, I can be reached at jodi-at-legalnomads.com. Safe travels!

Great article! Food has become my favorite pastimes, and In particular, I’ve come to love watching the composition of food change subtly from one region to another. It really speaks volumes about the people that settled and live there. I also agree about food safety. I’ve found food stalls with high turn-over, and plenty of local customers to be just fine. Anytime I’ve gotten any kind of sickness from food, seems to come mostly from restaurants and the like (this is based primarily in SE Asia). Food stall owners tend not to kill their neighbors, or they wouldn’t be in business. I think that’s good enough for me.

I really enjoyed this post Jodi. Taking the time from work to enjoying life. I also love food and hope that one day you will get the chance to visit Jamaica and try out some Jamaican food.

Great post. I’ve been following you on twitter for ages and it’s always a good read… Even if you do normally make crave Vietnamese food!!

Thanks Grant! I’m sad to have left but I suspect I’ll be back soon enough ;) It’s too delicious to stay away. Glad you’ve enjoyed the Twitter feed!

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