And why is it important to eat local when you’re abroad? Why not just go where fellow tourists go, in places made by locals, for tourists?
These are run-of-the-mill questions that inspire an existential answer. At least, if you’re existentially minded. And if you travel, you probably are, even if you don’t know it. Your girlfriend probably knows it.
The trend in modern travel has been to move away from package tourism and towards more independent, adventurous tourism which takes you, as the stereotype goes, off the beaten track. But if it’s beaten, doesn’t it mean it’s tried and tested? I would rather call it the lazy track. Tourism of old is lazy tourism. Go where the brochures, the travel agent, and tourist office tell you.
Better to do your own research, find your own path, and beat at it yourself, make your own memories and don’t just end up being another souvenir. You don’t want a souvenir holiday.
Which brings us to the existentialism – don’t fear the existentialism! It’s important to eat local because it will help you get outside yourself. Food is the metaphysics of life, it’s bread and butter; the way people eat reflects the way they live, think, love, die. If you could share in their experience then, for a time, you can be other.
Eat like a tourist and all you get is insight into the tourist industry. You might meet some colourful individuals but you didn’t travel so far to meet people you could meet from the comfort of your home, did you?
1: If it says it’s local, it isn’t.
Any restaurant or bar that mentions the word local, isn’t local. It’s an oxymoron (and we’re back onto existentialism) – and an easy one to fall into. The tourism industry, that big-brained, Big Brother snake, knows where the trends are going, and so do restauranteurs. They will happily advertise the best of local cuisine: cacio e pepe in Rome, bistecca in Florence, callos in Madrid, fish and chips anywhere in England… but if they’re advertising it it means it needs advertising. The best of these dishes, the authentic stuff, advertises itself by word of mouth.
Don’t let lazy-minded restaurants make you lazy. Walk on, move along. And as you’re walking along, keep something very important in mind:
2: Stay away from tourist traps.
If a restaurant or bar is within a few hundred metres of a major attraction, view, waterfront or square – run for the hills (you might find better food there anyway). These places tend to be the laziest of all laziness. Think about it, when you’re back home, do you ever go to these mainstream places? Do you ever even recommend them to anyone? Not likely. Because you know, deep down, that a place that boasts of its prime location (even its name is linked to the attraction, isn’t it?) then you know it’s going to be resting on its laurels. It’s a false comfort. So as the Johnny Cash song goes, “it don’t mean nothing, drive on.”
To where? Well:
3: Ask locals!
This might seem an obvious thing to say, but sometimes, when you re-state the unmentionable obvious, a new profundity emerges like snails from the rocks after the first rains. This is the best research you could do, use the proverbial horse’s mouth. And by locals I don’t meant your hotel receptionist or taxi-driver for they are also in league with the evil tourist Empire. Make friends, ask the people going to work (they need a good meal and drink more than anyone), talk to shop-keepers, walk around and ask at bars, even the iffy ones.
And while we’re on the theme of common sense, well, use it. Common sense is always there, it just needs to be summoned, drawn upon! If places look stereotyped, clichéd, they look like every other restaurant you’ve seen in the city, move along. Find the places which look half-hearted. Run-down, where the clientele don’t have backpacks and look like they’ve been going to the place for lifetimes. The elderly are good indicators too.
4: A bonus tip: Eat diverse!
I know I said 3 tips – but hey, I’m a socialist, I’m kind that way.
Besides, this is important: try eating at ethnic restaurants, for lack of a better word. This sounds counter-intuitive: how can eating, say Cuban, a local experience in Madrid? Well, there is logic to it, if you follow through.
These non-generic places know that they won’t be attracting mass tourists. It’s an oxymoron in the good direction this time. Therefore, they’re going to try and attract an even tougher crowd: adventurous locals. You’ve done it at home, we all have, going out for Thai, Indian, Argentinian, whatever it might be, because you’re tired of eating the same food that you yourself can cook at home! Thus these places go the extra mile, they are ironically non-generic.
And yes, you will be eating like a local; you’ll be living like one. You’re thinking like they are, cutting out the middle-man, changing your mind-set, becoming another, exported you. Isn’t that what travel is about?
Best local places I’ve eaten in abroad:
Ristorante Alessio in Rome
La Pepica in Valencia
Taqueria Mi Ciudad in Madrid