When traveling abroad, the food tells stories
When I remember being in the English town of Bath, I immediately taste that venison stew.
We had trudged through the rain from the train station and found ourselves in a cozy pub on the edge of a cobblestone square in the shadow of a cathedral. As the fire crackled in the nearby hearth and we gratefully sipped from our frothy pints, the waitress delivered the steaming bowl of stew.
Rich, succulent meat, juicy button mushrooms, sweet chunks of mushrooms and soft bites of tender potato swam in a thick broth with rustic hints of a deep red wine. As with so many English dishes, the dish came capped with a pastry crust, but this crust – oh, this crust. It was flaky, buttery and sinfully good.
It was, in short, the kind of dish one always remembers.
During overseas travels, experiences with cuisine should be as much a part of the experiences as the places and people we discover. Approaching daily dining as a simple pitstop for refueling? You’re missing the point.
Food is a window into a country’s soul, a peek into local produce and products, and a sensory experience that cements memories. Dining in foreign countries is as much about the cuisine as the ambiance – like experiencing the warmth of an Irish pub, or the din and colors of a foreign street market.
As with any travel, what one eats is often a result of time, resources and opportunity. Maybe you’re in a hurry, or short on cash – or contrarily, ready to splurge. Or maybe you end up in an unintended neighborhood. You have only so many days and dollars. Here are some tips for making the most of it all and ensuring your meals on your next stay overseas are as fulfilling culturally as they are calorically.
Go where the locals go
Markets and off-the-beaten-path spots are the best for absorbing the authenticity of your location. In Oaxaca, Mexico, a friend took us to the local market, where we ate fresh tamales, drank a milky substance with puffy rice, and ate warm, salted tortillas freshly pressed. I didn’t love everything I ate, but it was all interesting, and we never would have experienced it had we not left the tourist strip and headed into “real” town.
As you meet hotel or hostel staff, bartenders or shopkeepers, ask where they go. What’s good? What’s new? And don’t forget to ask what’s bad. A crowd outside a restaurant doesn’t mean it’s the best around. Rather, it may mean that’s where a mass tour company sends its buses, or that it’s got a killer Groupon. Once in Maui (OK, not overseas, but an island nonetheless) a local lady insisted my brother and I write down all the restaurants that were played out and overpriced, and we were grateful.
Embrace the cheap and easy
In Ireland, my travel companion and I established a standard daily lunch: stopping at the small mini-marts, we would purchase one of the freshly delivered, crusty baguettes and buy a package of white Irish cheddar and some salami. The simple sandwiches we assembled roadside were, well, simple. But dang if they weren’t tasty, and cheap too.
In London, I became addicted to the ham, cheese and tomato croissants at Pret a Mangre, sort of London’s version of the L’Aroma deli counter at New Sahara. Had I skipped this busy local coffee shop for a sit-down breakfast elsewhere, I would have missed experiencing London commuters’ go-to morning pit stop – and missed out on the delectable breakfast treat!
Try new things
I still regret not trying fermented shark in Iceland. Not because it was likely any good, but because it’s the thing Icelanders eat and I let my own squeamishness thwart me. Maybe I would have loved it? Or at least I could have said I tried.
Pay attention to local fare and be bold. Eat blood sausage in Ireland, dip those fries in gravy when you’re in Canada, and in Turkey, try çig köfte, a raw meatball dish that’s quite good. And if it turns out tasting nasty? Cross it off the list and move on.
I still remember Paris, age 17, gamely trying escargot for the first time, terrified then amazed at the tastiness of the garlicky, buttery snail. Now I order them at least once a year at Club Paris.
Do your homework
Before visiting a new place, I always buy a corresponding travel book – yes, an actual book, with a cover and pages and, for sure, a map. I read about a town’s different neighborhoods and pay attention to where the restaurants are.
I also Google top 10 lists to find both the newest and most venerable dining rationale, which is this: On a trip you have only so many meals to burn. Why waste one on subpar food? I’m not advocating for shirking spontaneity entirely, but do have some guideposts and ideas so you don’t end up at McDonalds or Subway.
Traveling is special, and traveling abroad is the pinnacle of it all. There are tons of ways to save money but now and then, it’s worth spending, too. Find out where the best restaurants are and make a night of it. Street tacos are great, don’t get me wrong; but fancy tacos are good too. Most of us can’t afford nightly fine dining, but it’s worth budgeting for at least one indulgent meal.
The Alaska Alternative
WHERE: Pangea Restaurant and Lounge
WHEN: Lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner 5-10 p.m.
Anchorage has plenty of restaurants serving niche regional cuisine – like Turkish Delight, or Cafe Amsterdam’s German fare, or Indian food from Bombay Deluxe. But the inspired menu at Pangea features global cuisine that deliciously covers all the bases.
INSIDER TIP: Skip the entrees, bring lots of friends, and order and share from the scrumptious and varied small plates menu.