“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.”Anthony bourdain
Who better to speak to the importance of food when traveling than Anthony Bourdain. He will be quoted often on this topic of Dining Abroad. He inspired people to experience international cultures through food while encouraging them to be brave enough to embrace the unknown.
Food is an intricate part of the travel and cultural experience. It would be best to embark on this quest with a sense of adventure and a willingness to experiment in ways you had not imagined. People speak through their food. It is a window into their heart, culture, and traditions. We need to take the time to listen to them and appreciate the story.
The core of most cultures lives in food; it is what family, friends, and communities gather around. As we, the traveler, enter their world, sharing that food is a means to show respect for what is important to them. We are a guest in their home at that moment, while there chose to be a good one. The value of that should never be diminished or dismissed.
Even if a full-size octopus arrives on your plate and you have no idea what the parts are or if you can eat them.
Blushing, Joelle subsequently asks, “is there any part we can’t eat?”
No eat it all. Really? Ok then, we dig in.
Why be so bold, because every table around us ordered it. The look of pride in the server’s eyes when we asked about it hints at the value of having this experience. Later, when the Chef comes out to speak to us about the meal but only talks about the Octopus, we realize what this simple act meant to him. Then he regaled us with fresh octopus stories and how nobody in Lisbon does it better than he does. It was the icing on the cake of incredible dining abroad experience.
Was it good? It was. We found it flavorful, fresh, not chewy or fishy. A unique experience.
It was like no other Octopus we have ever had before. But that is a lot of Octopus to eat, and the tentacles were a bit creepy.
Seek unique and authentic
We are firm believers in seeking off the beaten path authentic local cuisine. Whether it is a hole in the wall with three tables or an upscale restaurant, seek out the region’s cuisine. You can get a burger at home.
Please don’t order a burger! Really just don’t!
Travel is the time to take your palate on an adventure. Why should it only be your eyes that get to experience adventure? The rewards and memories will be incredible.
Will there be times you will find it less than desirable? Sure it will, but the stories will be well worth it. Traveling is a journey, and food is an essential component of that journey.
How to make the most of your culinary adventures when dining abroad
- Before you go, research the cuisine and unique specialties of the regions you will visit.
- Avoid touristy restaurants, especially in busy waterfronts or near tourist draws. Google reviews of the restaurant before you enter.
- Find where locals eat. Ask the hotel desk, the Uber driver, or the Airbnb owner where the locals go. Pick their brains, ask what their favorite restaurant is and where tourists don’t go. Our Octopus experience in Lisbon was such a case. Our host was so excited when we asked that we were willing to do what he suggested. He made the reservations and walked us there the day before to make sure we could find the place. It would have been not easy otherwise. He said he lived his whole life in Lisbon, and other than his mother, no one in Lisbon made Octopus better.
- Query people about the next place you are heading to. We were in Zagreb, Croatia and the staff asked where we were going next, which was Pula. They said, oh, one of the team is from there; let us find her. She was glowing as she shared suggestions for the best places for regional food. We took her guidance, ate at an authentic Konoba full of locals that were entirely off the beaten path.
- Ask your server for suggestions from the menu. What is traditional? Is it a local favorite? Of all the choices, what do you think is the best? They maybe seem irritated at first, as was the case in a Bosnian restaurant we visited. But then he engaged and picked our whole menu. We trusted him and had a delicious and authentic meal!
- Don’t be afraid to explore food you never imagined trying. Some of our best memories are from those experiences. We will suggest, though, avoiding raw food that smells odd, looks old, or seems not recently caught. It is ok to ask the server if the item is in season or fresh. We often do so by asking if they recommend it today or at this time of year?
- Most of us will not speak the language, especially when it comes to food. Use Google translate. In a restaurant, the server can read it easily. The easiest; “Can you pick for us? We trust you.” Have them point out what they are picking out to see the price, so you don’t get sticker shock at the end. Once you do this, the server often becomes so much more attentive and excited about your visit. Their pride is so apparent and quite touching.
- Allow yourself to wander off the beaten path, get lost, and find a hole in the wall eatery. If you get a little nervous about that, Google it before going in, just in case the reviews are awful. One advantage of Google reviews is you might learn what the best dishes to order are.
- Take the time to find some local produce markets and street food stands. There you will get an inside look at the food the locals are buying for their meals. Most of these markets serve local specialties, so you get an inside perspective of what the people are enjoying.
- Dining abroad should be an adventure; make it one.
- Finally, stand back, watch, and absorb.
The Drinks While Dining Abroad
One of the true pleasures of dining abroad is learning what that country or local region has as its favorite beverages. It can be so varied and distinct. We found it is as central to the experience as the food is. At times we have found it outshined the food.
In Greece, most restaurants ended the meal with a complimentary shot of Mastiha, which tastes a lot like tree bark because it is. It takes getting used to, but you come to expect it with the bill with time, and you are disappointed when it does not. They serve it with such pride and glint in their eye, and it would be insulting to refuse. It is a gift; accept it with the same manners and grace as any gift.
Espresso is a classic end to a meal in most European countries, and they surprisingly seem put off when you say no. As if to question how can you digest your food without a coffee? In Europe, that honestly is a good question.
While in Croatia, we were often offered grappa at the end of our meal. In Pula, the server joined us with his own shot. While in Iceland, they can begin the meal with a shot of Brennivin. In Portugal is was port at the end or even the beginning of the meal. The French often have Pernod, Suze, or a Kir Royal as an aperitif. In Italy, it was often Aperol. Scotland whiskey and so on.
Rarely a day goes by that we don’t stop at a pub for a beer to rest our feet, preferably a dark brew.
Wine accompanies all our evening meals. It would not be a meal without it.
When dining abroad, we have found that most restaurants in Europe are happy to help you pick the wine and offer many complimentary tastes to help you decide. As if to commit to a whole bottle of anything you haven’t tasted first is silly. This rule often applies to beers, too, especially when choosing a microbrew. In the Normandy region of France, there are lots of varieties of Hard Cider.
Look around you and inquire
The regional drinks culturally are as an essential part of dining abroad as the food. It is rare to look around at a restaurant and not see some alcoholic beverage on the table. It starts from the beginning until the completion of the meal. These meals tend to run long, so you rarely see people drunk as it accompanies food.
But then there are many ways to enjoy these libations outside of cafes, restaurants, and bars.
Wineries, Breweries, Whisky Distilleries, Port Houses, Meaderies, Cider houses, Coffee roasters, Rum Production Facility……..
We visit these on all our travels both internationally and in the US. What we learn and the fun we have we can’t even begin to describe. In some places, the tastings are free or a small fee. Engage your pourer, and your three samples can turn into 10. Next, you know they are opening “special bottles.” You go in planning 15 minutes, and 2 hours later, you walk out. The people you meet are extraordinary, and if you show genuine interest, they will talk your ear off.
We do have a warning. You will want to take some home with you, and those bottles are quite heavy!! Keep track if you plan to pack them. If you are forced to drink three bottles the night before your flight, it will make for a miserable flight home. Many places can ship directly if you can’t go without them. The price tag is hefty, but it is an option.
How to make the most of your visits to wineries, breweries and production facilities?
- Before leaving for the trip, take the time to research the alcoholic drinks and beverages of that country or region. Learn the history and the work behind the product.
- If going to wineries, Port houses, breweries, and such, go midweek if you can as there will be fewer crowds, and you get more personal service. You also find midweek they are more liberal in the number of tastings than stated and larger pours. When done with your tasting, ask if they have anything else particular they suggest trying. Most of the time, not all, they will start pouring more for free. This is more likely to occur when there are not many guests around.
- There are often behind-the-scenes aspects that are not open to many. If the place is quiet next thing you know you are in the back room having a barrel tasting.
- Book in advance, especially in peak season. In Portugal, we planned a day in Douro Valley to visit the vineyards. It was the offseason, but we learned quickly that the best port vineyards were booked solid. We were able to get some in but not our first choices. In Porto, the Port House tours were often full as well. This was often the case along the Whisky trail in Scotland. We always travel shoulder season, so for peak travel season, this is even more important.
- Engage the pourer. Be inquisitive. We have discovered the pourer often does this work because they are passionate about it. If you show genuine interest, you will be well rewarded.
- Try something new. Stop yourself from saying, “I don’t like X.” How they make it or the varietals used could be a whole different experience for your taste buds.
- Want to try many different ones, but you have to drive? Ask if they have samplers or flights. They can be five to ten for beer. Wine and Port can be three to five? You don’t need to each get your own flight; you can share. Or each gets different kinds of flights, so you get to taste a wider variety of the collection they have. We often get one white and one red flight when we are at wineries.
- We tend always to buy something if we enjoyed the product. Let them know pretty early which ones you are considering buying or have decided to buy. If they think you are purchasing something, you will find much more attention your way and bigger pours.
Heading to the bar or pub?
- If you have a hard time deciding what to order, tell your server that. They will often offer you samples to help you discover what you would prefer.
- Ask if they have flights or samplers. Share one, or each gets different ones so that you can try many of the brews on tap.
- Raising your glass to the time-honored practice of clinking glasses and wishing good cheer exists throughout the world. The act of raising glasses is a universal experience. The distinct action and the words used have many variations. Therefore, take the time to learn the drinking toast tradition or ask your server to teach you. Repeat the best you can, and they will often enjoy helping your pronunciation. It can bring many a giggle and or some rolled eyes in jest. Make sure to thank them in their local language for their effort. Appreciation and kindness go a long way.
- Seek places away from tourist areas. You can have a brew or cocktail with lots of Americans around at home. Avoid that when overseas.
- Ask for locally made beers or wine, not just the country but the region. Seek recommendations of the local favorites.
- With Gastropubs’ growth throughout the world, it has redefined the Pub/Bar dining abroad experience. The most delicious meals of your trip can be found in these settings.
- Sit in a location to people watch. Make the experience all it can be.
- We have found some of the coolest places are the ones you go down into. This means don’t be afraid of going underground. In Croatia, on the island of Krk, yes no vowel, the restaurant has the original 2000-year-old Roman walls of the city and relics on display found when building the restaurant. Therefore, it was a bar, restaurant, and museum all in one.
- Mingle if you can. Meet and get to know the locals. They tend to be inquisitive. Read cues.
- If you hear music, enter. It can be a language all of its own; it tells stories and brings communities together. You can be in a small village pub in Ireland when suddenly the locals break out in song. It is an experience that always stays with you.
- Lastly, on the safety side, always drink water, and get at least a snack while consuming alcohol.
We hope you will join us as we explore the cuisine and libations of each region we visit. We will tantalize your palate, share cultural elements, and inspire you to make the most of your dining abroad experience.