Having worked in Vietnam for two years, I am very familiar with the phrase “ăn cơm chưa?” This traditional greeting translates as “have you eaten rice yet?” Nothing provides a traveller with a better insight into a country’s culture than its food.
When next you travel, here are a few tips to try:
Eat local food
Wherever I am I always ask to eat and drink whatever’s local. Putting aside the environmental benefits of ordering locally-sourced food, sampling what your host community eats provides you with an insight into their culture, environment and history.
Cambodians eat a lot of prahok or fermented fish. The pungent dish is not to everyone’s taste, but it makes you realise how the local people used to preserve food through the dry season when the waters of the Tonle Sap Lake in the middle of the country receded and there were fewer fish to preserve.
The Faroe Islands also traditionally fermented food to preserve it, as well as smoking fish, as we have in the UK. You see there are so many similarities despite the apparent differences.
Nepal is one of my favourite countries to visit. As soon as I touch ground, I want to try some dal bhat – a simple thali dish consisting of rice, dal, vegetable curry, poppadum and pickle. It’s cheap, voluminous and really nutritious. Waiters will willingly top you up all day if you like. I would eat it happily for lunch and dinner every day and did so often while trekking. In Kathmandu they sell t-shirts announcing that dal bhat will give you power for 24 hours, which is good to keep in mind if attempting the Everest Base Camp.
Leave your comfort zone
Eating like the locals does involve an element of risk. I soon realised the best way to avoid nasty surprises in Vietnam was to explain that I didn’t eat the insides of animals, not that this always helped me as I discovered when I tucked into a piece of pasta that turned out to be part of some animal’s stomach.
However, to really understand a culture and to get to know the people better you should be prepared to leave your culinary comfort zone.
Whether it is eating fried spiders in Cambodia, snake blood in Vietnam or guinea pigs in Peru, you will begin to understand more about what makes your host community tick if you join in too.
Avoid cookery classes and tourist traps
Many tourists opt to go on cookery courses or cookery tours. Personally, I am rather sceptical of these, having gone on a few disappointing ones in the past. Essentially, they are designed for tourists and as such they can easily fall into the trap of providing travellers with what the host thinks they want, not what the locals actually eat.
However, I did once have a great time in El Salvador trying to prepare some pupasas, the natural dish made of flatbreads stuffed with a combination of cheese, pork and refried beans. My effort tasted great, despite not quite looking like my instructor’s prototype.
On one of my recent trips to Thailand, a country I have visited for three decades including establishing a lifestyle magazine in Bangkok, I found myself in a tourist resort town surrounded by fellow travellers. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t find a local place to sit and try the local fish washed down with a bottle of Leo beer with ice.
Eventually I chose one touristy restaurant, and sat next to a table of European tourists who asked for their food to be without heat. Now asking for Thai food, which is based upon the principle of balancing spice with sugar to be “without heat” is a bit like ordering fish without chips. You might like it, but it’s not authentic. Hard as I tried to explain that I wanted Thai food like Thai people, my blond hair, blue eyes and paltry Thai betrayed me, so I settled down to an average meal, surrounded by a cacophony of approving ‘delicious’ from my neighbours.
You can hardly blame the locals for providing the food that they assume travellers prefer. However, it can result in people getting completely the wrong impression of the food of a country and consequently their culture. Back in London, I have had chefs apologising for not serving proper Thai and Cambodian food, explaining that if they had prepared it authentically nobody would eat it.
Embrace slow food
As with all travel there is no quick fix. If you want to have a cursory understanding of a country’s culture and food, you can go on a tour or a cookery class and emerge with a stage-managed understanding. However, to really start to understand how the food of the country has emerged, you have to spend some time with the local people, visiting the local markets with them, preparing food with them and then dining together.
And the slower you do it, the better the understanding you will get of the local community that is hosting you, and the more enriching your experience will be.