How to eat like locals when you travel? There’s an abundance of advice out there: slurp soup from a street food stall, sample home-cooked food at a local home, savour creative cuisine at a secret supper club, or… eat fast food at KFC or McDonalds. Which advice should you follow?
How To Eat Like Locals When You Travel
It seems odd after so many years writing about local travel on Grantourismo to be giving advice on how to eat like locals when you travel. Because everything we’ve written here on food is essentially about how to eat like locals when you travel.
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, and 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 we felt the need to address some bewildering advice that we’ve spotted on the web recently on how to eat like locals when you travel. Some of this advice, such as ‘eat at McDonalds/KFC/(insert another global fast food franchise)’ is so ubiquitous and the advice has been repeated so often that it’s become something of a myth as far as we’re concerned.
So, first, let’s dispel some myths out there on how to eat like locals when you travel…
Myths To Do With How To Eat Like Locals When You Travel
Eat Fast Food
One blog 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. Seriously?
As far as developing countries such as Cambodia go, that’s fine if you only want to eat with middle to high income locals who are giving the kids a treat, or giving mum a break from the kitchen, or are teenagers. Because in Asia, 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.
Frankly, fast food joints have never really been on our radar (unless we were hungover when we were young), and we don’t really consider them places that are conducive to meeting people. The advice isn’t very helpful to people who appreciate 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 blogger 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.”
Rarely the case? Really? The author’s experience is at polar opposites 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 Bangkok, Hanoi, Saigon, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Shanghai, 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, more affluent, urbane, well-travelled, upper and middle class Asians are going to eat out more, 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 continues. Well, the truth is a little more complex than that.
I’d argue that even in ‘Western’ countries such as Italy, people are mostly eating Italian food, and in France and Spain, they’re mostly eating French and Spanish food. Ditto for Argentina, Peru and Mexico. Sure, if people live in big cities, they might eat Japanese, Chinese, Thai, too.
“Local folks” definitely go out to eat national dishes that might be far too time-consuming to make at home. In Mexico, for example, 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 contemporary 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, 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, 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 our attention recently for the wrong reasons when the writer declared that after a bad restaurant meal in Bangkok he was never again going to eat inside a “real restaurant” in that part of Asia again. One bad restaurant meal is all it took? Again: seriously?
As professionals who’ve been writing on food since the mid-90s, we can tell you that it’s not unusual for professional writers to occasionally eat a bad meal. No matter how much research we do, we don’t always eat well. We’ve had bad meals all over the world, in restaurants, at street food stalls, at markets, at food trucks, and so on. Professionals don’t let one bad meal deter them from ever again eating in that type of venue again, whether it’s a restaurant or a food stall.
“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 of travelling there, 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. Bangkok is no different, so why hold one bad restaurant experience 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, and you need to accept there’ll be the occasional dud meal.
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.
We used to live in Bangkok so we know that Bangkok does have 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 that would mean that he will never eat at Nahm, Le Du, Issaya Siamese Club, Bo.lan, Eat Me, Smith, Soul Food, Appia, Opposite Mess Hall, Supanniga Eating Room, Bagadin, and another 20 or 30 superb 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 a few 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 enhances 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, as I said, 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 good research or consult experts.
Only Eat Street Food
The rest of that author’s story is essentially a case for only eating street food in Asia. Because of course eating street food is how to eat like locals when you travel.
Frankly, 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 bad food that has caused 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 and nearly all of them have tiny plastic stools.
Chefs and restauranteurs we know across Asia 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, such as using factory-made sausages instead of home-made.
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 where teenagers eat: outside schools, high schools and universities, at the McDonalds or KFCs of street food stalls that sell processed sausages, ‘seafood’ sticks, and ‘pork’/‘fish’ balls, and all kinds of other luridly-coloured unidentifiable objects (often round or long) that you really don’t want to put in your mouth, 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 How to Eat Like Locals When You Travel
Be Discerning — Not All Street Food is Good Food
Following your nose is a great start if you want to learn how to eat like locals when you travel. 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 (even if they are piled in a big plastic container of soapy water that’s sitting in the dirty gutter). It means the vendor has been busy because she probably has a lot of loyal regular customers because her food is 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 is cooking with poor quality produce.
Appreciate that people have different ideas of what’s ‘poor’ food 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 any 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 street food tour.
Food tours ran by locals, preferably locals who were born and bred in that place, provide fantastic introductions to the street food scene of a city. They’ll point out the best markets, stalls, neighbourhoods, eat streets, and vendors you should try and give you guidance on what to eat, where and when.
Your food tour guide should also be able to share some good restaurant suggestions for when you feel like wine with dinner, need air-conditioning, want to use your credit card, or would just like to sit on a proper chair.
Eat Everywhere — Street Food and 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 — whether it’s food from roadside stalls, hawker centres, markets, mobile carts, and roving vendors, which is really all ‘street food’ or ‘traditional food’ — can not only offer a more delicious and healthier fast food option when it’s done well than the rubbish served at KFC and McDonalds, it’s also where you’ll find the locals eating.
But to only eat street food because a writer’s told you that’s how to eat like locals when you travel means you’ll 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.
Our favourite advice on how to eat like locals when you travel: mix it up.
We all like to mix it up when we’re at home, don’t we? We might cook in one day, eat a home-cooked meal at the house of family or a friend the next night, eat breakfast at a local café, grab some noodles in Chinatown for lunch, and indulge in a degustation menu at a fine dining restaurant for dinner on a weekend. Why shouldn’t we do the same on holidays?
Eat As You Would At Home
It’s unfortunate to see bloggers and writers giving you such bad advice as to how to eat like locals when you travel. By telling travellers to skip traditional food, avoid restaurants, and only eat fast food or street food, those ‘experts’ are 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.
Do you have any tips on how to eat like locals when you travel? How do you eat like to eat when you travel?