Whether you're traveling for business or pleasure, you may be tempted by a glossy magazine or guide book to ring up the best four-star restaurant and plunk down hundreds of dollars, rupiah or euros for a rich meal in a glistening dining room. While an upscale night on the town can certainly be a memorable experience, it rarely offers insight into the local cuisine and lifestyle, which is one of the great rewards of venturing abroad. Dining out like a native often means understanding different approaches in each country. Here are tips for eating like a local in some popular destinations.
You'll need to venture further than tourist eateries to find dishes featuring coriander, cumin, clove and nutmeg that accentuate meals with an earthy spiciness. Many Balinese foodies don't eat at restaurants, they prefer ‘warungs’ (family owned eateries based out of a shack or a street cart), where the cooking is done by the matriarch and the dishes are more distinctive. You can find several great warungs in the Balinese highland town of Ubud. Be prepared to eat with your hands or a spoon. Popular dishes include catfish with chili sauce, chicken skewers with peanut sauce and sticky rice balls.
Eating like a local in the United States varies quite a bit depending on what part of the country you're in. The southeast is renowned for its barbecued meat, fried chicken and sweet pies. Tourists are as likely to find good barbecue in a roadside shack or greasy diner as they are in a restaurant with white tablecloths. In New Orleans, cuisine has roots in the creole culture that mixes French, Spanish and African influences into rich, spicy gumbos and crusty po' boy sandwiches. In southern California, some of the best "local" cuisine is imported by Mexican and Thai immigrants who make international dishes at "hole in the wall" restaurants. San Francisco has numerous cafes that make innovative sandwiches on sourdough bread. New York and Chicago are both known for pizza. The Big Apple excels at thin crust while the windy city has a great reputation for deep dish.
If you want great, cheap Thai food you'll often need to eat outdoors, either from a food cart or a stall that has bench seating. Popular dishes include Pad Thai (rice noodles and shrimp seasoned with fish sauce), Tom Yum (prawns in a sour broth), green curry (a chicken, tofu or meat in a spicy coconut milk sauce) and Phat Kaphroa (fried meat with basil and chili). Be mindful to eat with your right hand since, customarily, the left hand is reserved for bathroom use. While you might expect to eat with chopsticks, Thais typically use a combination of a "Chinese spoon" and fork.
China is a huge country and its cuisine varies quite a bit depending on which province you're in. Also some local markets are more welcoming to tourists than small, crowded canteens. In certain cities, gentrification projects have moved the street vendors into restaurants. Don't be surprised if you find a lot of dishes that don't resemble the take-out offerings you know from home. Adventurous diners may want to try snake meat and fried bugs. Those who want to stick to traditional favorites should definitely find the smaller sample Beijing Duck (a sweet and crispy dish), dumplings (usually filed with meat, vegetables or pork), noodles (there are several kinds, most of them great), and deep fried bread sticks (a breakfast staple). Expect to eat with chopsticks and don't be surprised if you see some men spitting on the restaurant floor.
While Great Britain may not be known for great eating, there are still plenty of excellent cafes, bars and pubs where delicious meals can be eaten. Fish and Chips might be on a lot of travelers must-try lists, but you should also track down delicacies such as pie and mash, potted shrimps and sticky toffee pudding. Visitors to Ireland may want to hunt down a hot pot, coddle and tea brack.
Wherever you go, a little research never hurts if you want to eat like a local. Sometimes that means checking a newspaper you find on the street or just asking a passerby for advice. If you want to be a little more technologically savvy, there are now local food apps to help you find your next great meal.