Slurp soup from a street food stall, sample home-cooked food at a local’s house, savour creative cuisine at a secret supper club, or, eat American fast food at KFC or McDonalds… there’s an abundance of advice out there on how to eat like locals when you travel but which should you follow?
It seems odd after four years writing about local travel here to be giving advice about how to eat like locals when you travel. Because everything we’ve written here on food is essentially intended to do that.
Whether it’s our local guides by resident foodies, our eating out guides, our focus on local chefs, restaurants, markets, street food, eat streets and neighbourhoods, cooking schools, food tours, or our series The Dish about learning to cook the quintessential dishes of places, we’re committed to encouraging you to eat like locals when you travel.
Which is why I felt the need to address some bewildering advice on the web recently on how you should eat like locals when you travel.
Eat Fast Food
One post titled ‘Want to Eat Like a Local? Why KFC Might Be Your Best Bet’ suggests you head to KFC, McDonalds or Burger King to mingle with locals.
As far as developing countries go, that’s fine if you only want to eat with middle to high income locals who are giving the kids a treat or mum a break from the kitchen, or teenagers. Because in Asia, especially in rural areas, the majority of people can’t afford to eat at foreign junk food joints.
For the affluent minority in cities who can – teenagers aside, who in metropolises like Bangkok seem to live on junk food – visits appear to be special outings on occasions like kids’ birthdays. Here in Siem Reap, well-off Cambodians tend to frequent the more affordable, homegrown franchise Lucky Burger for their fast food fix, while tourists pack KFC.
Fast food joints have never really been on our radar (unless we were hungover), and we don’t really consider them places that are conducive to meeting people. The advice isn’t very helpful to people who love good food and who wouldn’t step into a fast food factory at home, let alone abroad.
Avoid Traditional Food
“For many the first instinct is to seek out that country’s traditional dishes and find the place with a good reputation for serving these favourites,” the same author elaborates, “After all, if we want to get a flavour of the local culture, surely there’s no better way to do it than through the food that people typically eat. Isn’t that where we’ll find the locals, munching on their food in authentic restaurants that aren’t in the guide books? Well, that’s rarely the case in my experience.”
The author’s experience is vastly different to ours. Even in big cosmopolitan cities, where there are a wide array of eating opportunities, including ‘ethnic’ restaurants and modern cafés serving ‘international’ food, locals still eat traditional food.
They do so particularly in countries with rich culinary heritages, including strong street food cultures, where many people still do a daily shop at the local markets. In cities like Hong Kong, Shanghai, Bangkok, Hanoi, Saigon, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore, locals are mostly eating traditional food, whether they’re eating it at home, on the street, at a market, or a hawker centre.
Of course affluent, well-travelled, upper and middle class Asians are going to eat out more, be more urbane and eat a wider array of cuisines, however, while they might dine on French one night and Italian another, I bet they’re still going to be eating traditional food at least once a day.
“But the truth is that in many places local folks would never go out for these national dishes – they are exactly the food that is best cooked at home,” the author writes. Well, the truth is a little more complex than that.
Local folks do go out to eat national dishes that might be far too time-consuming to make at home. In Mexico, Chiles en Nogada can be made at home but it’s complex, plus Mexicans love to eat it out on national holidays, because the dish is historically tied to Mexico’s independence. Mexicans love to argue about which restaurants do the best Chiles en Nogada.
In Mexico City, restaurants such as Pujol and Dulce Patria do modern versions of classics that are more sophisticated than what grandma would make at home. We dined with a local friend at Dulce Patria and he was blown away by a dish that is his mother’s speciality.
In Hanoi, where the city’s most famous dish is the soup called pho (and, yes, we do know there’s more to Hanoi’s cuisine than that), locals eat it out on the streets, at their favourite stall or pho shop specialising in the soup, like Pho Gia Truyen on Bat Dan Street, pictured above. Because to make the broth properly so that it tastes as sublime as these street chefs can make it taste, it involves far too much work and people simply don’t have time to make it at home.
When we lived in Hanoi for a few months last year, we walked past Pho Gia Truyen at least once a day and would see the cooks stirring their monumental pot of stock in an alley beside the eatery well into the night to start dishing it up around dawn. When the soup sold out by late morning, the family would sit down to eat lunch, then put another massive pot of stock on, which they’d work at all afternoon for the evening crowd.
The same can be said of many of Asia’s best traditional soups and stews that have become national dishes. Why would people cook it at home when someone else does it better and they can buy it for around $1 a bowl?
In Bangkok, locals eat dishes in restaurants that are authentic traditional dishes in Thailand but might be dishes that their family has never had a history of making at home, because the dishes are from a different region of the country. If you go to Nahm or Bo.lan, you’ll see locals eyes light up as they try things they know about but have never had before.
Never Eat In Restaurants in Asia
‘The Lions of Street Food’ was another post that grabbed my attention for the wrong reasons when the writer declared after a bad restaurant meal in Bangkok that he was never again going to eat inside a “real restaurant” in that part of Asia again.
“That experience, coupled with other letdowns over the past decade of travel to the Far East, helped form the basis of what I’ll call the Pretty=Shitty Postulate: That is, the more attractive the restaurant in Southeast Asia, the less likely it is to serve delicious food.” Right. Well, I know which writer I won’t be going to for recommendations, and that’s not only for his use of “Far East”.
“There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but they are shockingly scarce,” the writer admits before declaring: “No, to eat well in this part of the world, look for the establishment with the tiny plastic stools, the gathering insects, the fluorescent glare of the hospital waiting room.”
The writer then advises you to skip restaurants with credit card machines, his and her bathrooms, teams of waiters, and menus.
If I were to base my judgement of a city’s restaurant scene on “other letdowns” – let’s say, a dozen or even two dozen bad restaurant meals over a decade, then I wouldn’t be sending people to eat in Paris or New York.
For every sublime meal we’ve had in Paris over fifteen years we’ve probably had five underwhelming meals in Paris. Aside from breathtaking experiences like lunch at Eleven Madison Park, most of our meals in New York were disappointing on our last trip and yet we were using respected local sources, including the New York Times and Village Voice.
We all know those cities have great dining scenes despite being home to more than their fair share of dreadful restaurants, so why hold that against Bangkok? There are thousands of restaurants in Paris and New York – and in Bangkok. You need to know where to go, from doing thorough research, using trusted sources.
My guess is that the writer has had some terrible restaurant tips over the years and hasn’t been consulting the right people. We go to local chefs, sommeliers, waiters, suppliers, food writers, and foodies for tips when we don’t know a place well.
Bangkok does have some horrible tourist restaurants and we wouldn’t dine at most in Bangkok hotels, but there are long list of exceptions, including Nahm, Thailand’s finest Thai restaurant.
I feel sorry for the author, because if he keeps his own promise he’s never going to experience some of Asia’s – and the world’s – greatest eating experiences in Bangkok if he never eats at Nahm, Issaya Siamese Club, Bo.lan, Gaggan, Eat Me, Smith, Soul Food, Appia, Opposite Mess Hall, La Table de Tee, Supanniga Eating Room, and another 20 or 30 fantastic restaurants in the city.
What each of those restaurants offers is some of the finest produce available in the country and the most authentic, accomplished, innovative, and, in some cases, wildly experimental food that you won’t find on the streets of Asia. They also offer superb wines, creative cocktails and atmospheric settings – along with credit card machines, bathrooms, teams of waiters, and menus.
The author’s “Pretty=Shitty Postulate”, that the more attractive the restaurant the less likely it is to serve delicious food also doesn’t apply as the restaurants above are in some of Bangkok’s most beautiful dining rooms. If anything, the fact that they are in gorgeous spaces adds to the experience of eating beautiful food.
Every city in the world has disappointing restaurants, just as every city in the world has outstanding dining destinations. The best restaurants are rarely going to be on a main street or off a hotel lobby – although, of course, there are exceptions such as Nahm – so you’re hardly going to stumble upon them. You need to know how and where to find them. You need to do some research.
Only Eat Street Food
The rest of the author’s story is essentially a case for only eating street food in Asia. Yet the same goes for street food as for restaurants – not all street food is great.
There is truly sublime local food to be found on the roads and in the lanes of Asian cities, in hawker centres, at mobile carts, and from roving vendors, in cities such as Bangkok, Hanoi, Saigon, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Penang.
There is also really horrid street food. We’ve all eaten bland dishes that have had us demolish most of the soys and sauces on the condiments tray or suffered from bouts of food poisoning that have kept us in bed for days.
Again, you need to know where to find and how to identify the great, safe street food spots in Asia. If you think you’re going to stumble upon an incredible dish just by looking for tiny plastic stools as your guide, good luck. It’s estimated that there are over 500,000 street vendors in Bangkok.
Chefs and restauranteurs we know often say that while hygiene standards are generally good on the streets, the quality and authenticity of the dishes is on the wane, with vendors taking shortcuts, like using factory-made sausages instead of home-made, which would have been a given a few years ago.
You can follow your nose, if you know how to identify the good from the bad. But never follow a teenager. The worst street food in Southeast Asia is generally found outside schools, high schools and universities, at the McDonalds or KFCs of street food stalls that sell highly-processed sausages, ‘seafood’ sticks, and ‘pork’/‘fish’ balls that you really don’t want to eat, let alone know what they’re made from.
In Asia, there are street food stalls where you should definitely not be sitting down at, despite the obvious appeal of those cute little plastic stools.
Our Advice on eating like Locals
Be Discerning – Not All Street Food is Good Food
Following your nose is a great start. Sniff out good, aromatic smells and stay away from bad odours, like over-used frying oil or meat that has been left in the sun too long. Look for stalls that are clean and vendors with high standards of hygiene, top quality produce that looks fresh and is vibrant in colour, noodles that are handmade and stocks that appear to have been simmering all night. Look for massive pots and high piles of plates. It means the vendor has a lot of loyal regular customers because her food is obviously superior.
Avoid stalls where vendors seem to be cooking up food they didn’t sell yesterday that might have been sitting outside all day, re-using oil over and over again so everything has a rancid burnt taste, using highly-processed or frozen foods, or cooking with poor quality produce.
Appreciate that people have different ideas of what’s ‘poor’ too. The chicken breast, expensive in Australia, the UK and US, is cheaper in Asia because it doesn’t have fat. Asians like fat on their meat, because it gives it flavour, as well as parts of animals that some foreigners aren’t used to eating.
The meat that is close to the bone, and even gristle or shells, are not bad signs in Asia, where they’re treasured. But a bowl of soup that contains bones without much meat or fat to accompany them, or crustacean shells that are empty, is definitely not what anyone wants to be eating.
I remember years ago sitting at a celebrated soup stand in Bangkok and hearing a backpacker boast to his mates how he’d eaten an even cheaper bowl of soup the day before that cost 50 cents less. The young traveller obviously hadn’t tasted the difference of this superior soup, nor looked around him.
The place was full of local office workers, there were several colossal pots of steaming broths that were close to empty, and the cook’s prep area was spotlessly clean. This was a serious soup joint and yet he couldn’t tell that. We’re always going to head to a stall where the bowls of soup might cost 50 cents more, because it probably means the cook is using better quality produce and putting more time and effort into making what’s going into our bowl.
If you don’t think you have what it takes yet to identify the good from the bad, do a food tour. Food tours ran by locals provide fantastic introductions to the street food scene of a city, pointing out the best markets, stalls, neighbourhoods, eat streets, and vendors you should try and giving you guidance on what to sample.
Eat Everywhere – Street Food, Restaurants, Markets, Cafes etc
We love street food. We eat it all the time. We spend a lot of time writing about it here on Footpath Feasting and in print. Eating street food is a fantastic way to try to get beneath the skin of places.
Street food – along with food from hawker centres, markets, mobile carts, and roving vendors, which is really all ‘street food’ or ‘traditional food’ – is not only a far more delicious and far more healthier fast food when it’s done well than the rubbish served at KFC and McDonalds, but it’s also where you’ll find the locals eating.
But to only eat street food or fast food when you travel, because that’s where writers tell you that locals eat, is to miss out on the countless other rewarding culinary experiences of rich food cultures that places dish up –experiences where you can eat with locals, whether it’s at a market, a festival, a shopping mall food court, a funky café or fine dining restaurant, or even a local’s home.
Because, I don’t know about you, but whether I’m at home or away, I don’t always eat the same kind of food the same way everyday. Man and woman cannot live on street food – or even fast food – alone. Our food-loving friends don’t. I bet our readers don’t. Nor do the locals we meet when we travel.
We all like to mix it up. We might cook in one day, eat a home-cooked meal at a friend’s place the next night, sip a breakfast soup at a street food stall, lunch on a sandwich at a café, and indulge in a degustation menu at a fine dining restaurant for dinner.
Eat As You Would At Home
It’s unfortunate to see writers telling travellers to skip traditional food and only eat fast food or street food because they’re discouraging people from being adventurous and sampling the array of tantalising culinary experiences that places offer.
They’re also discouraging you from meeting people like yourself, people who like to eat the way you and I do. Our best advice on our how to eat like locals when you travel – and how to eat with locals who love food like you do? Eat as you would at home.