Food is an integral part of our lives, even when it comes to travel. We need to eat whether we’re home or away, so what’s the big deal? Well, there is more to it than meets the eye. Our collective penchant for unforgettable culinary experiences has gained traction in recent years, making culinary tourism a profitable business.
From Anthony Bourdain’s raw and sometimes shocking culinary narrative to Stanley Tucci’s crush on Italian cooking, we’ve learned to see food and travel as two things that go perfectly together. You don’t have to be a foodie to understand that food connects people, and culinary travel is a great way to explore the cultures, vibes and cuisines of the places we visit.
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What is food tourism?
What exactly is food tourism and how does it play into our dreams of culinary vacations? The World Food Travel Association defines food tourism as “the act of travelling for a taste of place in order to get a sense of place.” In other words, every region has its own identity, and food serves as the conduit to unravelling its culture. Immersing ourselves in local dishes is in itself a pursuit of unique and memorable experiences for our palettes.
As cuisine is a manifestation of culture, food tourism (or culinary tourism) becomes a subset of cultural travel. Due to its deep roots that connect it to the land and people, it also has connections to agritourism and experiential travel. Eating, after all, can be all of those things.
From taking cooking classes, attending food festivals, food and drink tours, partaking in bespoke dining experiences, or visiting farmers’ markets and farms, the opportunities to engage in culinary experiences are endless. You don’t have to be a foodie to participate. After all, we all eat and drink in our daily lives whether we travel or stay at home.
5 Tips for planning epic culinary experiences
As the popularity of food tourism grows, so do the options for travellers wishing to immerse themselves in the culinary scene of their destination. From street food and food markets to five-star restaurants and everything in between, the success of your culinary vacation will depend on several things.
1. Set your expectation
If you’re one of those people who can eat anything and anywhere, good on ya. The world is your culinary oyster and no matter where you travel, you’ll find something to eat. That doesn’t work for everyone. If you have any dietary restrictions, be that health-related or influenced by personal beliefs or ethics, planning your foodie travel adventure might not be as easy.
That doesn’t necessarily limit your ability to enjoy culinary experiences. It comes down to your expectations and research. If you’re like me, you look up local delicacies and traditional food before you travel. I don’t eat meat and I’m not great with spicy foods, so I am not that adventurous with food, especially in places where I don’t understand the language. Looking up foods in advance helps mitigate potential issues and I know what to avoid or look out for. Learning key phrases in the local language is also a good strategy for identifying foods I can eat and those I won’t.
The beauty of food is that it’s constantly evolving. While it was challenging to find vegetarian restaurants in meat-dominant destinations in the past, it’s a lot easier to do today. Some places even make non-meat versions of traditional meat dishes and I’m totally here for that. Knowing what to expect ahead of time also helps to avoid disappointment when you get there and there is nothing that you can eat. Nobody likes that feeling.
2. Pick the right food destination for you
The beauty of travel is that it’s so versatile. When it comes to food, it’s no different. Ask five different people about their ideal foodie destination and you’re likely to get five different answers. They might reflect yours or be the opposite of that. Neither is wrong, just different.
If you want to stuff your face with pasta and sip gallons of wine, you might choose Italy as your ideal destination. However, if you’re more into beer spas and schnitzels, Hungary or the Czech Republic might be more your speed. If you’re after fragrant and spicy flavours that blend sweet and sour tones, you might head to Thailand, India or Japan. The list goes on and on.
Whether you decide to travel for specific food offerings or you’re incorporating culinary experiences into your travel, your interests, budget and time will be the key considerations. You might set out on your own, or decide to participate in a cultural or food tour or a retreat that combines food with your favourite activity, like yoga, for example. Whatever it is, it has to work for you.
3. Get hands on with local cuisine
One of the best ways to immerse yourself in the country’s flavours is to go to the source. This is when things like cooking classes or food tours come into place. It’s a perfect way to understand how the food is made and an opportunity to try it yourself. Food tours are great because they are a safe way to explore culinary specialties with someone who can offer insights into the food’s history and explain unfamiliar dishes and ingredients.
If cooking classes aren’t your thing or you want to take that culinary experience to a different level, shop locally and try your hand at making the dishes on your own. Local food markets and shops are great for finding fresh ingredients. Just make sure your lodgings come with a kitchen so you can make your cooking dreams a reality.
Visiting local farmers, food producers and wineries is a great way to deepen your understanding of how the food is grown and made. With the popularity of culinary travel, more places open their doors to visitors interested in food production, be that learning how to make cheese or turn olives into oil. Always make sure to check ahead if the place you plan on visiting is open to the public. Just because you want in doesn’t mean you can.
4. Eat with the locals
Culinary travel is about experiencing local flavours and trying out new dishes. Sometimes that can be an intimidating experience, but it doesn’t have to be an uncomfortable one. Instead of heading for the nearest fast food or chain restaurant, choose to eat where the locals eat. Ask about their favourite dishes and drinks.
If you opt to stay with the locals (Airbnb, farm stays or family-run lodgings), you have an opportunity to ask them about food and places to eat. They are more likely to stir you away from tourist traps that sell bland and expensive food that doesn’t reflect the local culture. Take advantage of their knowledge and hospitality to open your mind to new flavours, spices and seasonings.
Don’t forget to check out local food and drink festivals. It’s a great way to discover new dishes, hang out with the locals and make new friends. Whether you’re at a fish fry, a chestnut festival or a night market, you will discover new dishes and flavours that will alter your perception and enhance your understanding of the destination.
5. Culinary experience don’t have to be far from home
You don’t always have to go far to have an unforgettable culinary experience. We are all guilty of the grass-is-always-greener-on-the-other-side mentality, and we forget that eating local can also be amazing. Chances are that there is something to discover in your own backyard. Be that a new restaurant, food festival or a winery.
The world today is a very different place than it was 20 or 50 years ago. The movement of people across the globe also played a role in culinary offerings. This means the flavours associated with a particular destination are no longer confined to geography. Each wave of immigrants brought their native dishes, that over time, blended with those in their new home. From that emerged a unique style of food—a fusion of different cultural flavours.
I am fortunate to live in one of the most multicultural cities in the world. That means I have a choice of authentic food from different cultures at my fingertips. I can leave the city and drive to different wineries, breweries and farms to explore local food. If that’s not enough, I can visit other cities, big and small, for local tastes and flavours. No matter where you live, there will be something to enjoy. Or you can always take a cooking class and cook up a storm at home.
Choose your culinary adventure
As culinary travel gains momentum, many destinations make significant investments in attracting foodies with great results. It’s not surprising, considering that most people enjoy a good meal. Add in cultural and hands-on experiences, and you got yourself a winning combination.
Culinary travel is poised to grow even more in popularity. Food brings people together and creates connections that can last a lifetime. Whether you explore the culinary scene in your backyard or in a foreign place, you’ll learn something new about yourself and the people who fed you. That’s what makes travel so enjoyable.
What are some of our favourite culinary destinations? Let me know.