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Before we left for our first world trip we had no idea what to expect, especially about food. It seems to be really important you eat on a daily basis. We had no practice or experience in finding and tasting food in foreign countries. Sure, we have Chinese and Thai food in the Netherlands, but it’s nowhere near the real stuff you find in China or Thailand.
When we arrived in Moscow, our very first stop, we found out that Russian food isn’t much different from Dutch food, but with more flavors. In China, it became a real issue. Most menus were in Chinese and most people didn’t speak English. This is where we visited KFC and Burger King the most. But we did try.
It was in Vietnam where we finally learned about real Vietnamese food, thanks to a food tour we did here. With that knowledge, it was easier to discover Thai food. We noticed we needed a little nudge to finally try food that was way out of our convert zone.
In 2022 and 2023 we went back to Malaysia and Thailand and we dove right in. No western food, but the real deal as soon as we touched down. And we love it!
So, how do you find good food? Here are some tips and tricks you can use to find that authentic food wherever you are.
One of the best ways to learn about a country’s cuisine is by doing a food tour. There are a lot of food tours you can take, but it always helps if you have a connection with the tour operator. In some cases, your hotel/hostel/motel/whatever has a food tour or can help you find one.
In Vietnam, we found a tour operator that also had (has) food tours. We walked in, booked the tour, and had to report back in the evening. So, here is a problem: I don’t eat fish and Rieneke doesn’t eat eggs. Strange, isn’t it? Who doesn’t love eggs? Anyway, I stepped out of my comfort zone and did eat some fish.
The benefit of a food tour is that a local person will show you all kinds of places and dishes to eat. From a stall with tiny plastic chairs to a bar-ish establishment. Besides the food information we also got information about Hanoi, but that really depends on the guide.
We ate things in Hanoi I never thought of eating in my life, and I mean this in the most positive way possible. I can’t name the food, because the names are just too hard to remember. But I did remember eating something with a rice pancake, fresh herbs, shrimp, and a lot of other stuff. Roll it all together as a spring roll and eat it.
Another thing we tried was banh mi, a relative to the French baguette, but with meat and fresh vegetables, and herbs. We also drank egg coffee, which is from the time there was no milk in Vietnam, so they used egg white. Can’t say I loved it, but it was okay.
Another way to do a food tour is through Withlocals. This is an online platform with locals that offers you different experiences. From clubbing to local games. But also food tours. It usually is a bit cheaper, but I notice that a lot of tour operators are on this website and fewer locals.
The second best thing you can do to explore the local food is to attend a cooking class. Although it is a good idea to have some idea of the local food, cooking it pushes it to another level. You will learn about the different herbs and vegetables.
Did you know that little peppers are spicier than larger ones? I didn’t! But thanks to the cooking class in Chiang Mai I learned a lot about spicy food, pastes, and curries. It really helped me order food in restaurants.
In a cooking class, you will learn about how to make food. It’s not all the same. In The Netherlands, we just put it all together in a pan, but in Asia, it’s totally different. A cooking class doesn’t only help to look for local food in Asia, but improves your cooking when you go back home as well.
There are different ways to find cooking classes. You can ask your hotel, they usually know a place. Or ask the many tourist information booths. Just don’t book anything. If you get a name of a cooking class, do some research. The internet is a good place to find cooking classes. It also allows you to read some reviews.
Another tip I can give you is that you should look inside a restaurant. If it’s full of locals it’s a good local restaurant. It’s even better if you spot a few tourists. Do expect spicy food, even when you don’t expect it. Is that a bad thing? Not really. I mean, you want to experience real local food, right?
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If you see a restaurant packed with tourists it’s probably good, but not really local. The food is usually adapted to the tourists. Less spicy, different herbs. The menu usually contains a lot of western food too. And one thing that usually makes me sick is western food in Asia.
In the years we are traveling we found only one or two places that were really disappointing. Mostly because we were tired and not paying attention. After we left and checked the reviews we noticed we weren’t alone in our disappointments.
Don’t be ashamed to walk into a Mcdonalds’ or KFC once in a while. After a few days of spicy food with rice, my tongue could use something different. We make it a habit to do fast food once in a while. Don’t expect it to be cheaper, because it’s usually way more expensive than local food. With good reason.
Or find a restaurant with western food, with very good reviews. A club sandwich or pasta is nice once in a while. Just stay away from the pasta carbonara, because it contains raw egg. Most places have no idea how to handle it.
You will encounter spicy food, even when you won’t expect it. Can’t take spicy food? No worries. You can do three things:
- Avoid spicy food
Good luck and you will end up eating fast food each meal. Although, in Sri Lanka even the Mcdonalds’ is spicy.
- Suck it up!
Your body, especially your mouth, needs to get used to it. I didn’t eat spicy food until I was 33 years old. Which was the age we went to Asia. Now, I can take it way better by just doing it. You will cry, but it will get better.
- Ask for less spicy food
Although this is a great way to avoid it, it won’t always work. If you have never eaten spicy food you will still cry. Your food will be cooked in the same pan as the spicy food. Thus, making your food a bit spicy.
Another thing: If you are in a restaurant where they don’t speak English, they won’t understand “no spicy”. Learn the local phrase for none-spicy. You can look it up with Google Translate or ChatGPT.
Of course, not each country is based on spicy food. You will find it in Asia or South America the most.
Don’t experiment at home
You planned your trip to wherever you want to go, cool! Then you go to your local supermarket or restaurant, and you find all kinds of food of the country you are going to. Yeah, that is not going to help. Food in that country is way different than what you find in your own country. Like I said before: Thai food is totally not the same deal as real Thai food in Thailand.
The same goes for pizza. Pizza in your own country is not the same as pizza in Italy. Although some people get angry that the pizza in Rome is not the same as in their home town.
These are the main reasons why you shouldn’t try the food at home. You will be disappointed, or not. You could do it the other way around. If you come home from Thailand for example, try to find a Thai in your own country. It will make you sad and it wants to make you go back to that one place you found at the corner of that one street in Thailand.
A food court is a perfect way to find all kinds of local and international food in one place. In Kuala Lumpur, there is a really big food court at KLCC. It has local Malaysian food, but also western food or Indian food. If you are traveling with a group and you can’t decide on where to eat, go to a food court and everyone can choose his or her own dish. Smaller food courts usually have only local food.
Most stalls have pictures so you can see what you can order. If you are in a bit of a tourist location, the pictures also have an English description. If not, you can ask. But keep your English to a basic level. Don’t try to have a conversation with high-end English words.
A food court is usually pretty cheap. The portions don’t look much, but it never leaves my stomach empty.
If you really want to taste local food and sometimes have no idea what you are eating? Go to a food market. Not only very fun to walk over, but also try all kinds of small bites. Don’t expect big plates with meals, but you can scavenge everything you want and need.
Food markets in bigger cities with more tourists usually have signs with English explanations. In smaller towns, it’s usually a hit-and-miss, although you can’t miss if you look at what they make and sell.
Visiting food markets is a great way to experience local cooking. And not only the cooking. The whole ambiance is different. People are talking, looking, eating, laughing, and more. It’s not only about the food, especially in the smaller towns.
Food markets are usually not expensive. Food is cheap, unless you go to tourist places, like the Jalan Alor in Kuala Lumpur.
Cooking on your own
If you have an Airbnb or an apartment that allows you to cook yourself, that’s great. But if you are in Asia, remember that going out for food is cheaper than making it yourself. There might be nights that you don’t want to go out and just want to eat in front of the TV, which is totally understandable.
In other countries, like Australia or America, it’s cheaper to cook on your own. Going out for dinner can be really expensive. In Perth, we went out one night and paid € 150 for two people. When we stayed in Australia we had Airbnbs or did housesitting. Both are excellent for cooking.
But groceries can be expensive too. Make sure to find the right supermarkets since some can be really expensive and some can be cheaper.
If you stay in the USA and go from motel to motel, you might have a microwave in the room. Americans love their microwave. It’s no secret that Walmart has a frozen foods section. Here you can find all kinds of meals you can warm up in the microwave. Way cheaper than going out for dinner.
And these are just a few items we keep in mind as we travel. And of course, it’s a hit-and-miss sometimes. But you will learn along the way, especially when you travel for a longer period. Don’t be afraid to try or to be sick once in a while. It’s all part of the experience. Although I could miss the experience of food poisoning.
And don’t avoid spicy food. Yes, you will catch fire. Yes, you might be crying… Yeah, I am not a very good example of motivational speeches. But you will get used to it. Just remember to have enough rice with your meal.
Furthermore: Enjoy. Food can be something that makes you very happy in a way you won’t know it is possible. In Asia food is not about getting the food, but it’s a social event. I never saw something so special with food as in Asia. Try to experience it.
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