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... but also the bubbling curries of street stalls.
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) here's how I make sure I have the most delectable experience possible:
I love cooking (despite the occasional burnt offering) 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 (not to mention the stupendous late Anthony Bourdain, who turned food and travel into a passion for many of us) ― all these help promote the discovery of new foods, making culinary vacations more popular than ever.
The Food Travel Monitor (a global study by the World Food Travel Association) 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 look for the best foodie destinations ― those with a reputation for good products, well prepared.
There are a growing number of culinary tourism destinations but I can't list them all so... here are a few of my faves:
Italian cuisine: Whether for risotto or ossobucco from Milan, fegato from Venice, the pastas, the cheeses, the truffles, the vegetables, the oil, the fresh fish, the ice cream... oh, the gelato!
And shop after shop of hanging sausages, stacked cheeses and other delicious products.
While most people go to Milan for the fashion, I go for risotto and to stock up on carnaroli rice (like arborio only creamier), good pasta, olive oil and bottles of Crodino for the winter.
Risotto is a rice dish that is anything but light, so it’s more of a fall or winter comfort food. This is partly because of the natural creaminess of the rice, of course, but also because of the butter and cheese that are liberally mixed into it.
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Cooking 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 most certainly such a thing as bad French food) is among the most sublime on earth. Above is one of my favorites: fruits confits, or candied fruit.
Speaking of French food, many people make a face when I mention Lyon’s frogs’ legs and escargots. They require slightly cooler weather and come fall, I hop on the train for an hour to visit my favorite food mall in France, the Halles Paul Bocuse.
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New York's diverse heritage makes it a food mecca, with successive 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 smoked meat and bagels!) New York has wonderful, healthy and varied foods ― but once in a while, when I need comfort food, this is what I get.
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Middle Eastern food is hugely popular, whether from Lebanon, Egypt 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, so I eat it all.
I love Turkish food under any circumstance; like baklava, for instance - that feathery pastry gooey with honey, filled to the brim with chopped walnuts or pistachios. It is often sold by the tray load in pastry shops but when you go for coffee, you can order a single one – and one will be more than enough. Or these sweet round pastries whose name I don't know - they look like churros but are drenched in honey!
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To 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 traditionally pre-prepared Thai delicacy sold on the street, is also a staple of good restaurants now. But in Thailand, street food still reigns!
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For foodie tourism with heat, those of you 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 (I said you, not me!)
Mexico's regions each have their own cuisines, from the northern meat-based meals to Yucatan's spicier, more Caribbean-tasting dishes, but they never fail to impress me.
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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
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Madrid’s mercados are as much about the eating experience as about the shopping. I try to visit Madrid each year and I go with an open mind, but as soon as I enter the Mercado San Miguel, there’s a jamón stall on the right that grabs me and simply won’t let me go.
The artists who slice this ham of hams do so by hand and manage to produce unbroken slices as thin as paper.
Tapas may well be my favorite type of meal – hop from bar to bar and munch along. Even paella comes tapas-sized!
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Of course there's extraordinary cuisine in many other countries: Peru is an acknowledged food tourism destination; Caribbean cuisine has a perkiness all its own; Brazil's feijoada and Argentina's steaks can be memorable; North Africa is the place for tagines, briks and couscous; and China has thousands of dishes you've never even heard of (except for the above dumplings ― which I'm sure you HAVE heard of).
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, a sit-down meal is a central part of food tourism.
Central, yes, but not the only culinary tourism experience.
Eat with a local! The growing number of social dining networks make it easy to find a chef or cook who will host you for a meal at a reasonable price.
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. EatWith, the world's largest such network, has 25,000 hosts in more than 130 countries! Enjoy good company along with good food and gain a better understanding of your host culture.
Street food can be extraordinary. Food tourism in places like Thailand or 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, not just shopping.
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 a 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, 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 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 (and I loved it so much I retraced my steps on my own the next day). I also think you'd enjoy this Lisbon food tour. There are plenty of food tours in just about any city if you're hungry, and I admit being guided around a city's best foods is one of my favorite activities.
Well, let's see... do you recognize yourself here?
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.