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Food Tourism: How Culinary Travel is Winning the World

Do you ever find that the smell of local foods is one of your strongest travel memories?  

When I think of South Africa I smell grilled BBQ, with Naples I smell pizza crust and in France freshly-baked croissants from the boulangerie down the street. Bangkok? Durian, I'm afraid...

I find that food is one of the best ways to experience a culture, and food tourism, which is also called culinary travel or tourism, is a growing travel trend - and even passion.

French patisserie - a favorite of food tourismCan't you smell the warm crusts straight out of the oven?

Food tourism: how to combine food and travel

When I'm preparing a food-related trip (most of my trips are food-related to some extent) these are some of the things I do beforehand to make sure I have the most delectable experience possible:

  • Buy a few cookbooks and try cooking a few dishes to get a feel for the ingredients (fun, necessary, but not always successful, see photo below).
  • Closely related to the above point, plan to learn to cook. I've taken a cooking class in Tuscany and in Bangkok and loved every minute. You'll find private and group classes, lasting from several hours to weeks, in proper culinary institutes or in hotels, restaurants and even in people's homes. And yes, my cooking has improved.
  • Read up about the cuisine and its history, or read novels that deal heavily with local foods. The Lonely Planet World Food books used to be great but they haven't been updated in years. Instead I'd recommend Jodi Ettenberg's Food Traveler's Handbook.
  • Explore the specialties. Whether it's tapas or tartiflette, every destination has at least one culinary specialty you should try. Sometimes it's a stretch, like tripe or insects (but perhaps you're braver than I am...)
  • Learn about different kinds of cuisine - molecular gastronomy, for example, where food is deconstructed and reconstructed, or stacked food, or barbecue. How you cook something is at least as important as what you eat. 
  • Look for special events. Some restaurants offer an evening with their celebrity chef or a session visiting their kitchen. If a high-end restaurant is beyond your budget, plan for it as a one-time luxury. 
Food tourism - or burnt ribs?One of the reasons I sample so many foods when I travel. They do it better - but I'm learning fast.

I love cooking (despite the occasional accident) but a major part of any travel adventure is eating wonderful foods I haven't cooked myself.

The advent of celebrity chefs and online food sites, the proliferation of cooking shows and the Food Network and the popularity of the likes of Anthony Bourdain all help promote the discovery of new foods, making culinary travel more popular than ever.

The 2016 Food Travel Monitor (a global study by the World Food Travel Association - here's their Facebook page) says an unbelievable 95% of American travelers are interested "in some kind of unique food experience". I can only believe that the figure is at least that high for travelers from other countries.

The search is on for new experiences, especially for something that tastes like a true slice of local culture. And what can be closer to a culture than the way it eats?

So... is Chinese food in Shanghai the same as you know it at home? Is your 'authentic' Thai corner eatery really authentic? Food tourism or travel will answer those questions.

Culinary Tourism includes culinary experiences of all kinds. It's much more than dining guides and restaurant weeks. It encompasses cooking schools, cookbook and kitchen gadget stores, culinary tours and tour leaders, culinary media and guidebooks, caterers, wineries, breweries, distilleries, food growers and manufacturers, culinary attractions and more. Authenticity is also of critical importance to culinary tourists.
- International Culinary Tourism Association

What are the best culinary tourism destinations?

Every destination has its own specialities, many of them great.

Given the impossibility of listing them all, I've highlighted a few of my own favorites, just to make you hungry (and myself in the process).

Food tourism Italian foodItaly! Whether for risotto or ossobucco from Milan, fegato from Venice, the pastas, the cheeses, the truffles, the wines, the vegetables, the oil, the fresh fish, the ice cream... oh, the gelato! And here, shop after shop of hanging sausages, stacked cheeses and other delicious products in Assisi, Italy
Food tourism - fruits confits from ProvenceCooking from Provence, which locals call the cuisine du soleil et du coeur - cuisine of the sun and heart. It is sun-drenched and bursting with freshness, from the well seasoned bouillabaisse fish soup to the simple ratatouille (the best result is achieved by cooking each vegetable separately). Good French cooking (and yes, there is such a thing as bad French food) is among the most sublime on earth. Here, one of my favorites: fruits confits, or candied fruit
Food tourism USA - pancakesNew York's diverse heritage makes it a food mecca, with different waves of immigrants contributing their cuisine to the mix, from foot-high pastrami sandwiches to lox and bagels (although Montreal gives it a run for its money on this one!) New York has wonderful, healthy and varied foods - but once in a while I need comfort food, and this is what I get
Food tourism - Middle Eastern and Turkish foodMiddle Eastern food is hugely popular, whether from Lebanon or Turkey. Greece isn't far from that neighborhood either - from mezze, those bite-sized starters, to the grills and fresh vegetables and cumin-flavored delights of any good table, all rounded off with baklava or similarly addictive pastries. And let's not forget stuffed vine leaves, tabouleh, hummus, babaghanoush, feta... When traveling through the Middle East I inevitably gain weight - I don't know what to eat, or what not to eat. Sweets are always a good bet
Food tourism - Thai royal foodTo me spicy food means Thailand, where I lived for two years. The more I ate it the spicier I liked it. Thai food is incredibly rich and textured, with tastes ranging from sweet to salty to sour to spicy all in a single bite. Much of this comes from the influence of neighbors like Burma, Malaysia and China. Miangkham, a traditional pre-prepared Thai delicacy sold on the street, is also a staple of good restaurants now
For food tourism with heat, those with a robust palate should head to Mexico for chocolate-based mole sauce and ceviche, of course, but also for more unusual fare. In Oaxaca, you can brave the chapulines - deep-fried grasshoppers with garlic and lemon. Mexico's regions each have their own cuisines, from the Northern meat-based meals to Yucatan's spicier, more Caribbean-tasting dishes
Sushi, sushi! I have had the fortune of spending a bit of time in Japan, long enough to sample Japanese cuisine at its most elemental. Japanese food exports well so chances are there's an authentic sushi or tempura or steak house near you but... you haven't tried fresh sushi until you've bought it either at the fish market or in the basement of any major Japanese department store
Of course there's extraordinary cuisine in many other countries: Peru is becoming a food tourism destination;Caribbean cuisine has a perkiness all its own; Brazil's feijoada and Argentina's steaks; North Africa for tajines, briks and couscous; and China has thousands of dishes you've never even heard of (except for the above dumplings - which you HAVE heard of
Serrano ham in MadridSpanish food is more about preparation - as in tapas - than anything else. Jamon de bellota is so tender it melts - there's hardly any need to chew. I lingered and lingered at this stand in Madrid's San Miguel market

Culinary experiences don't only happen in restaurants

One of the most common foodie finds will be a restaurant - big or small, modest or luxurious, street stall or in luxurious surroundings.

Whether you're experiencing Noma for the first time (I haven't) or chasing the best burger in the city (the In and Out in Los Angeles), eating in a restaurant is a central part of food tourism.

Central, yes, but not the only culinary tourism event.

A great experience is to dine with locals. Plenty of organizations are popping up in cities around the world to match up travelers with locals. Not only do you get to taste home-cooked food but you'll also experience a slice of local culture. And meet people.

Street food can be extraordinary. In Thailand and Mexico, I'll eat street food over restaurant food anytime - I just find it more varied, tastier and fresher.

You can visit a market, many of which provide far more than produce. The Mercado San Miguel in Madrid, for example, is designed around an eating experience, tapas and all.

And while we're on the subject of Spain, you can also eat in a bar - that's usually where you have tapas, just like in the UK you can eat in a pub.

One activity I enjoy when I travel is visiting the local supermarket. Foods are often different and I'll get ideas - and inspiration. Just step into a supermarket in Japan and you'll immediately understand what I mean.

A local supermarket or small grocery store is also the best place to grab some local cheese, cold cuts and spreads for that all-important picnic along the Seine in Paris...

Food tourismPicnic along the shores of the Seine in Paris

Tips for a great food tourism experience

With the growing popularity of culinary tourism, be cautious about the quality of what you get. As with everything else, popularity may breed contempt.

Try to fit in one tour guided by a local. There are many wonderful tours and classes led by expats or long-term residents (I thoroughly enjoyed this food tour of the Lower East Side in New York), but travel is also about coming into contact with the local culture so don't let that dimension pass you by.

Look for variety in a food tour, course or experience. This Istanbul food tour had me sample more than two dozen dishes over two continents. Viator has plenty of food tours in just about any city if you're hungry!

Don't just be an onlooker. I've attended classes where one student stood at the front preparing everything while the others watched. You need to get your own hands wet and taste your own meal if you're ever going to understand exactly what went into preparing it.

Try different courses. Some places are known for starters - tapas and mezze for example - while others are known for stews or desserts. Focus each meal on a different part of the meal each time.

Food tourism in IstanbulIn some countries, especially in the Middle East (above) or Spain, starters can be the entire meal

Avoid asking for ingredient changes unless you're truly allergic or despise something - especially in places where you know the chef pours her heart into her art. Each ingredient has its place and it's the package that makes the experience a marvellously balanced one.

Reserve or at least call ahead - especially if you have your heart set on eating in a specific place. I've at times been disappointed to find a place full, closed or otherwise unavailable. Your hotel desk can make the call if you don't speak the language!

Remember that food tourism includes drinks. Wine, of course, but I'm thinking chocolate con churros in Spain or Turkish coffee, as specialized as the food.

Check for cleanliness because standards differ. If things are a little messier than you're used to, that doesn't mean you're facing a health emergency. Still, keep an eye on hygiene.

Don't be afraid of street food. If it's cooked freshly, cleanly, at high heat right in front of you, it will be as safe as anything else you eat, possibly even safer than hotel food that may have skipped a link in the food chain.

Beware the much-translated menu. This isn't always the case but I've found that a menu translated into a dozen languages screams 'tourist place' - and I know they're not all bad but I'd rather eat where mostly locals go.

Buy a local cookbook before you leave (for yourself or as a gift), along with a few special spices or condiments. Wrap these well in foil and plastic or your closes may smell of coriander for weeks (and you'll get the airport sniffy dogs all excited).

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