Last Updated: 4/8/22 | April 8th, 2022
This is a guest post by my friend Jodi Ettenberg. Like me, she loves food. Her blog, Legal Nomads originally focused on telling stories through food. However, after a botched spinal tap in 2017 she was left disabled and in chronic pain. She still writes about food, though she also now writes about grief, curiosity, resilience, and more. She is one of my favorite bloggers and in this guest post, she shares some of her tips and tricks to help you make the most out of your food and your travels!
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 Legal Nomads to document whatever adventures came my way.
I never thought that I would be still writing years later.
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 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:
1. Start with the basics
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 through 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 on a trip to China, you are afforded a whole other lens through which you can view your adventures. A delicious lens at that!
2. Learn about the etiquette and social norms
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.
3. Packing tips
Most travelers are familiar with packing the basics for their trip. These are usually things like a first aid/medical kit, headlamp, water bottle, padlock for lockers, etc.
But what about packing for the food traveler? Specifics include the following:
- Travel Chopsticks: Great for when the food is fresh but the street stall’s dishes may not be as clean as you’d like. An alternative is bringing baby wipes with you to wipe down the utensils.
- Google Translate: I always download the local language to my phone so I can translate things without data. That way, if I need to ask questions I’m not left hanging. This is especially important for travelers with dietary concerns.
- Hand Sanitizer (especially important post-COVID)
- Reusable Tupperware: In many countries, portions are incredibly large. Save those leftovers for later (without using harmful styrofoam packaging).
- Water Filter: Avoid single-use plastic and bring a water bottle with a built-in filter (like LifeStraw. That way, you can drink the water in destinations even if the tap water isn’t safe.
4. 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.
Not sure where to begin? Ask your local hostel/hotel staff for their favorite places to get breakfast or their favorite breakfast staples. That’s the best way to get insider tips and information you might not find in a guidebook.
5. Be mindful of 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.
When in doubt, look for places with lots of locals. They know what is good and what is unsafe. After all, they wouldn’t keep flocking to a stall or restaurant if it always made them sick!
Other Foodie Tips
Here are a few extra pointers to help you make the most of your culinary adventures — both at home and abroad:
- 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.
- 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!
- Always ask locals for their tips and suggestions. Taxi/Uber drivers, hotel staff, and other travelers you meet are all amazing resources. Don’t hesitate to ask them about their favorite places to eat or and dishes you need to try. You’ll not only get some great tips but it’s an easy way to kick-start a conversation.
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.
Jodi Ettenberg has been eating her way around the world since April 2008. She is the founder of Legal Nomads, which chronicles worldwide travel and food adventures. Her Patreon, Curious About Everything is full of insightful content for curious learners, artwork, a podcast, and more!
Book Your Trip: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner. It’s my favorite search engine because it searches websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is being left unturned.
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as it consistently returns the cheapest rates for guesthouses and hotels.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- SafetyWing (best for everyone)
- Insure My Trip (for those 70 and over)
- Medjet (for additional evacuation coverage)
Want to travel for free?
Travel credit cards allow you to earn points that can be redeemed for free flights and accommodation. They are what keep me traveling so much for so little. Check out my guide to picking the right card and my current favorites to get started and see the latest best deals.
Ready to Book Your Trip?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use when I travel. They are the best in class and you can’t go wrong using them on your trip.