Updated 22 February 2018 — 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 gastronomic tourism, culinary tourism or travel and even foodie tourism, is a growing travel trend - and even passion.
When I'm planning a trip (most of my trips are food-related to some extent) hre's how I make sure I have the most delectable experience possible:
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 food and travel blogs, 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 vacations 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 these food tourism statistics are 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? A foodie trip is cultural travel at its best.
So... is Chinese food in Shanghai the same as you know it at home? Is your 'authentic' Thai corner eatery really authentic? Your food holidays should have the answer.
The more we travel, the more sophisticated we become - and the more we need to experience a destination rather than simply see it. Gastronomic travel provides a perfect window for that experience.
Even if gastronomy isn't the main reason for a trip, it often plays a key role. When you start plotting and planning what you'll eat where, you are engaging in some sort of foodie or gastronomic travel.
Often, people interested in food and travel visit food destinations - those with a reputation for good products, well prepared.
There are a growing number of culinary tourism destinations and I can't list them all so... here are a few of my faves:
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 yet) or chasing the best burger in the city (the In and Out in Los Angeles), a sit-down meal is a central part of food tourism.
Central, yes, but not the only culinary tourism experience.
Another 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, which can be fun if you're traveling solo.
Street food can be extraordinary. Food tourism in Thailand and Mexico means superlative street food - I just find it more varied, tastier and fresher than anything you'll find sitting down within four walls.
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 small supermarket or 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...
With the growing popularity of food travel, 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.
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 course.
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 step in the cold 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 trap' - and while I know they're not all bad I'd rather eat where mostly locals go.
Buy a local cookbook before you leave, along with a few special spices or condiments. Wrap these well in foil and plastic or your clothes may smell of coriander for weeks (and you'll get the airport sniffy dogs all excited).
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!
Admit it. Each time you nibble that cheese in a French farmers' market or let some prosciutto melt in your mouth, you're really thinking: "I wish I could take some home with me!"
Sometimes you can.
Each country has its own list of what's permissible, and some are surprisingly liberal.
The US, for example, seems to have radically liberalized its rules about what can come in and it allows all sorts of foods - cheese, cooked meats, spices, even fruit, which certainly wasn't the case when Deputy Beagle barked at my illegal apple at Dulles Airport in Washington DC a few years ago and caused me great public embarrassment.