Taste in Travel: Understanding Cultures through Food

The number of times I’ve been asked how I became a culinary {and travel} writer is too many to count. Frankly, I’m not exactly sure how to answer. Eating is an essential part of life, and I appreciate good food, whether it’s chicken and rice served from a Singaporean hawker stand or a perfect French foie gras in a Michelin-starred restaurant.

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My eyes are bigger than my stomach in Buenos Aires.

I’m not a typical writer of food, since I rarely review restaurants in the traditional sense. Instead, I’m more interested in food’s origins and what it reveals about cultures. For instance, how did Mexican cacao get to Europe, and how did the Czech kolache find its way to Central Texas? Knowing the story behind such things is a lesson in history that goes far beyond a pretty pastry presented on a plate. In February, my culinary-fueled trip to the Mie Prefecture in Japan with Michelin-starred chef, Cyril Lignac, was much more than visits to oyster and seaweed farms and fish auctions. Rather, these opportunities were direct reflections of the Japanese culture.

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An oyster fresh from the water in Japan

As people became mobile and started exploring parts unknown, they brought with them sustenance, which included animals, spices, and plants. Traditional dishes in one culture were influenced by various other cultures. Eventually, some of these dishes morphed into something unique. Think about goulash. Thanks to the Habsburg Dynasty, the same dish exists in Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic. However, the flavors are vastly different. Similarly, there’s boudin in southern Louisiana and France. The Cajun version is pork dirty rice stuffed into sausage casings, whereas the French version is a traditional sausage. Louisiana boudin traces its origins back to the Acadians and their French Canadian roots, therein explaining the tie.

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I learned to make authentic Hungarian goulash in Budapest.

From Cape Town to Chicago, food and flavors are reflections of the people who eat it. For me, there is no better or quicker way to understand a destination than through its food. And whether I’m doling out travel advice or planning a trip myself, I always make sure that food and drink play a prominent role in the itinerary.

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Paella, a traditional Spanish dish, is served in Arles, France.

Culinary Tours

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This market in Mauritius was an explosion of smells and tastes.

I’ve devoured olive oil, cured meats, gelato, and limoncello in Italy and cheese, chocolate, bread, and Champagne in France. I’ve seen fruits and vegetables that I never knew existed in Dubai, Mauritius, and Singapore. I’ve met a fourth generation butcher in Buenos Aires that is carrying on his family’s business and a couple in their 70s who still make their own Cognac.

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She climbed the ladder and scooped some of her Cognac straight from the barrel so I could taste.

Whether you’re vineyard hopping New Zealand’s Marlborough region by bicycle, visiting coffee plantations in Costa Rica, or taking a chocolate walk in Paris, there’s not a more delicious way to get a taste for a place than by taking culinary-themed tours. Many tours include market visits, which is the best way to experience life as a local. Markets are the hearts of communities and reveal the way a culture not only eats, but also how they communicate and interact. Finding a tour that both suit your tastes and interests is important, as is finding the right guide. Great culinary guides are part historians, entertainers, and epicureans.

Dining with Local

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Ama divers are a dying tradition in Japan, and I was invited to a fresh seafood lunch in their hut.

One of the biggest trends in travel is dining with locals. Not too long ago, a traveler who wanted a genuine local culinary experience was relegated to finding that tucked away restaurant where nobody spoke English. You suffered through the stares and pointed at the menu, hoping that you picked something you could stomach. Now, with a few clicks on the computer’s keyboard, you can arrange a meal in a local’s home.

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Great food doesn’t have to be fancy, like this home-cooked meal in Normandy, France.

Some of my most memorable travel experiences resulted from invitations into people’s homes: a family’s ancient wine cellar in Spain, tea with Bedouins in Wadi Rum, lunch in an Ama hut in Japan, and Champagne with an 80-year old woman on her Innsbruck terrace. Although quite diverse, the common thread is that I was allowed glimpses into their personal lives. For future travel, I plan on integrating dining with locals into my itineraries. It’s certainly on my list of things to do in Rome, Lisbon, and Marrakesh.

Cooking Classes

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Last year, I took a French cooking class in Paris. The amount of butter used was shocking.

Apple strudel in Budapest, macarons and croissants in Paris, pasta in Umbria, bread in Salzburg, and ceviche in Riviera Nayarit…the number of cooking classes that I’ve taken around the world can’t be counted. Now, I’m no Alain Ducasse in the kitchen, and rarely, if ever, do I cook or bake. However, including these types of classes into my travel itineraries is something that I immensely enjoy.

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I learned how to make ceviche at Four Seasons Punta Mita.

Traditions and culture are deeply rooted in food and through culinary lessons, I learn more than the amount of butter goes into a batch of croissants {a lot!}. And even though the acquired cooking skills don’t translate back to my home kitchen, the cultural understanding still resonates.

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  • Traveling Ted
    March 13, 2016

    This is something I need to do more of. I always make a point to eat the local delicacies, but I rarely do any food tours or cooking classes. In fact, I have never done one. I have been taken to cool places by locals, but never done a tour or class. Will have to change that. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Leah Walker
      April 21, 2016

      I think a food tour would be a good start for you, especially if it’s in out-of-the-way markets. It would definitely appeal to your adventurous side. 🙂

  • Erin
    March 14, 2016

    One of the best ways to learn about a country and culture is through the food! Love cooking class and food tours, plus when you make local friends, you really get a sense of culture. I found this to be especially true in India and was lucky to have a relatively local experience, especially at my yoga school. In fact, today, I spent time in Little India in NYC and bought flat rice, which is traditionally served for breakfast. It was one of my favorite dishes in India and I cannot wait to make it.

    • Leah Walker
      April 21, 2016

      You’re so right. Friendships are often made over a plate of good food and glass of wine. I bet your culinary time in India was incredible. I love their food, though I’m sure it’s quite diverse.

  • I totally feel the same way! I think there’s way more to food than just how it tastes. There’s definitely a history and tradition behind it all. I have to say, I often think about the kolache in Texas. I remember your story about that a while back and it’s still fascinating.

    • Leah Walker
      April 21, 2016

      One of the first things I’m going to do when I return to Texas is have a kolache. I have access to the best pastries in the world, but I just want a kolache! I hope you get to Texas to try one for yourself.

  • Lance | Trips By Lance
    April 3, 2016

    I would like to do a eat with locals experience, but I usually travel with friends who aren’t up for that or a child who shouldn’t bring his wrath to someone’s home. But I’ll say thanks to having family in England we’ve had some of the most authentic experiences I could imagine in that country because we’ve done so with locals.

    • Leah Walker
      April 21, 2016

      No matter how you do it, having local experiences really enhances a trip. You’re quite fortunate to have family in England. It really puts the country in another light to see if from their points of views.


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