For some people food is a mere means to fill their bellies in order to keep going on with their busy sightseeing schedules. Or maybe they have a list of recommended budget/vegan/gourmet restaurants to work within which all you do is order, eat and pay. But if I have changed anything about my way of travel in the recent years, it’s my attitude towards food. You see, when I travel I hope to crack the code of a place and people I know little about. And food has provided the key to understanding a culture on more than one occasion.
You could say I travel for the food. What we eat, the way we produce and prepare it, and the atmosphere we create in order to fully enjoy a meal says a lot about our values and beliefs in addition to our tastes and preferences. Food and its surrounding elements vary from culture to culture, and yet, it deserves an equally important spot in everyday life around the world.
The single most eye-opening activity to learn more about a region’s food culture is the food tour. Accompanied by a local expert you roam markets, try traditional delicacies and visit select shops and restaurants you would probably have overlooked had you been on your own. Food tours are ubiquitous and I’ve experienced them in different formats around the world. Let’s have a look at a few of these experiences and see what food can tell you about a culture.
Photo by Or Kaplan
On a recent trip to Rome, I signed my partner and I up for a local food tour in Trastevere with The Roman Guy. Our tour guide Fiona had lived in the city for over 20 years and had a Food story or two to tell about her Italian husband and in-laws. On the tour that lasted 4.5 hours we visited several restaurants as well as the shop of a local dairy cooperative; we ate cheese, fish, potato pizza, cheesy pasta, seasonal bruschetta, artichokes and gelato, but the real learning experience lies in the stories and details Fiona told us between courses.
In Italian food philosophy, simplicity is key. Better to bring a dish with just one or two ingredients to perfection, than throwing in too many flavours to make it sound more fancy. Which is why the two most common pizzas ordered by Italians are pizza bianco (just the baked bread) and pizza rosso (with tomato sauce only), and something as simple as a potato pizza with nothing else on it is a real delicacy.
There is however another element to Italian food culture that stands symbolically for the Italian state of mind in general. Italians use Italian produce – and not just any Italian produce, but local ingredients. 0 km food or the farm-to-table movement are not new and trendy here, they are an essential part of Italian cuisine. This appreciation of the local reaches much further than just the food. There is a reason why we perceive Italians as particularly fashionable or well- dressed, and it’s because they seem to value local production and craftsmanship higher than low prices and economic flexibility. It is this value that people show for food that translates into the value of agriculture, family businesses, well-being and authenticity.
This value of food was also a key element of my food experience on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao – if only in the other direction. When I joined a press trip to Curacao some time ago, food was a massive focus on our itinerary. We ate so much you wouldn’t believe it. One of our activities was a food tour through the centre of Willemstad, the island’s colourful capital, with Ms. Clarita. She brought us to food stands, introduced us to local sweeties and took us for lunch at the street food market Marshe Bieu, which is a local favourite.
We also hit up the floating vegetable and fruit market, which is a must-see for every visitor. Here, merchants sell fresh fruit and veg which is shipped from Venezuela to Curacao every morning. You will find larger than life pumpkins, the sweetest mangos and huge plantains, and many locals come here to buy their vegetables.
I asked Ms Clarita why all the produce is imported from Venezuela, rather than being produced in Curacao, and she told me that large-scale farming would be hard to maintain as a profitable business model, because of the arid and windy climate on the island. And small-scale farming? Like people growing their own vegetables in their back garden for personal supplies? This is where the sad side of the story starts. One of Curacao’s leading industries is the refining of oil. Ms. Clarita explained that many people who used to farm on a small scale dropped this kind of work in order to earn a better and more stable income by working at the refineries. And so agriculture lost its value, and the majority of food is now imported from the Americas.
There is a lot of room for improvement, but luckily with the local economy stabilising and improving in recent years, many people from Curacao who expatriated to the Netherlands are now returning home, and with them come some new approaches to solving these issues. I visited Curacao in 2014 and could not have been happier to read my colleague Caroline’s 2016 article about a young couple that opened a farm-to-table restaurant on the island to promote the idea of locally grown produce.
Photo by Caroline Schmitt
Which brings me to a third culinary experience that I will never forget – my trip to Israel in 2015. Despite the arid climate and limited natural resources the agricultural sector of Israel is thriving. During my weeklong trip I ate some of the tastiest vegetables, tried a variety of dishes mixing influences from Jewish, Middle Eastern, Greek and Northern African cuisine and visited a hotel that grows the majority of food served in its restaurants onsite in the north of Israel. We also participated in a guided neighbourhood tour through the Old Town of West-Jerusalem which was organised for us by Abraham Hostel.
This tour did not have a culinary focus in particular, but we still learnt a lot about the different traditional dishes eaten by Christian, Jewish and Muslim worshippers who visit the Old Town. We tried freshly made falafel, still-warm sesame bread dipped in a mixture of salt and herbs, and visited a large indoor food market.
Israel was the first destination in this part of the world that I visited, and the food – especially the diverse vegetarian and vegan options – was an eye-opening experience for me. Why am I not always eating such fresh and plant-based foods?
As was to be expected when writing about Israel and its multicultural food culture, my article on the favourite foods I tried in Israel caused quite a backlash – and while in my opinion no country can ever claim a specific dish all to themselves, it is interesting what kind of cultural debates food can trigger. Ever since I have been interested in learning more about the Israel-Palestine conflict. If you want to find out more about the impact the occupation of Palestinian territories has on local farmers and food production, watch the documentary Resistance Recipes which is available for free on Vimeo.
Photo by Or Kaplan.
Food tours are not the only way to learn about a country’s food culture – even a visit to a local market or the apparently secondary remarks on regular city tours can convey ideas of the value of food, the pride of a nation, and the conflicts that might cause.
Wherever it is that your next trip will take you, try to find out whether someone offers a food tour in the area. Chances are that you will find one, and if like me you want to explore the key to understanding another culture while stuffing your face with delicious treats, a food tour will be perfect for you.
All other photos by Kathi Kamleitner.