This 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 home 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).
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 its 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 lie 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!
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 are 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 the following:
- 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.
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, the 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.
- 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, 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 traveling, I’ve found it an excellent addition to what was already a fulfilling experience. By focusing on food, I’ve added some fascinating stories, found great new friendships, and — of course — eaten some delicious meals. If you have any food questions, I’d be happy to answer them at email@example.com or in the comments.
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 she is a contributing editor for Longreads. She gets the shakes when she goes too long without eating sticky rice.