Eating as the Romans do
Many of us live to eat, especially when we’re traveling. But what’s the best way to suss out the difference between a tourist trap and a genuine find? By Jennifer Chen
The menu was the giveaway. After a long day of wandering the streets of Barcelona, we were hallucinating about paella and pa amb tomàquet, washed down with a bottle of Ribera del Duero. But there was something about the plastic rusticity of the tavern that we stumbled into that didn’t seem quite right. Our waiter came by, wielding thick plastic folders that contained the menu—printed in Spanish, English, German and Japanese. My husband and I glanced at each other, and without a word, slipped out, preferring hunger to the risk of a mediocre meal.
Food is probably one of the main reasons why I travel, and, judging by the number of gastronomically inclined blogs, websites and tweets out there, it’s a fixation many others share. Hotels are chosen by the quality of their breakfasts; weekend getaways are planned purely because of a random craving. The lure of exotic countries is sometimes dampened by the knowledge that the local cuisine is based on, say, overcooked mutton (sorry, Mongolia). Winging it, as we learned in Barcelona, doesn’t always work, especially when you’re in a popular destination where tourist traps abound. Yet, meticulously planning every meal robs you of the chance of happening upon those truly great finds. So I asked some of Asia’s top food writers to share their tips on how they hunt down the best local eats during their travels.
1. Talk to taxi drivers. That’s something T+L contributor Robyn Eckhardt, author of the acclaimed Eating Asia blog, always does when she lands somewhere new. This approach can sometimes backfire—some drivers are prone to regurgitating what they think tourists want. Just try to make it clear that you’re looking for places that they patronize. You’ll get better results if you name specific dishes. Best cities for tips from taxi drivers? Food-obsessed Taipei and Singapore, where cabbies are often friendly and loquacious. Eckhardt has also scored in Penang and Chiang Mai, where one driver helped her scour the city for gai yang (grilled chicken) during the bird flu outbreak.
2. Make some local friends. Nothing quite beats having your own local guide. Plug into your network and ask around for contacts.
3. Get online. Though time-consuming, trawling through the Internet and Twitter is a great way to glean information about where to eat now. Jarrett Wrisley, a food writer and owner of Bangkok’s fabulous Soul Food Mahanakorn, is a fan of foodie chat room e-gullet.com. U.S.-based chowhound.com, a gathering place for obsessive types, is always a good place to start when researching a destination. In Asia, besides Eckhardt’s blog, I’m a regular reader of Bangkok Glutton, a lively blog focused on the city’s street eats by Thai writer Chawadee Nualkhair; A Hungry Girl in Taipei, an invaluable guide to the city’s eateries—and one of the few that’s in English; photographer Austin Bush’s blog; Hong Kong’s E*ting the World; veteran food writer Karen Coates’ Rambling Spoon; Hong Kong’s Life as a Bon Vivant; and Singapore-centric I Eat I Shoot. You can follow most of these writers on Twitter as well.
These blogs are mostly devoted to humbler establishments. When it comes to fine dining, I scan reviews on websites such as Singapore’s hungrygowhere.com, openrice.com in Hong Kong, and Beijing’s localnoodles.com. As with tripadvisor.com, you’ll find a fair share of irascible cranks on these sites, but they’re still better than local publications that exchange good reviews for ads.
4. Don’t ask professionals. It might seem counterintuitive, but chefs and restaurateurs are often too busy with their own establishments to discover new places, notes Wrisley.
5. Eat when the locals eat. A packed dining room is obviously a quick gauge of how good a restaurant is. But if you’re eating dinner at 7 P.M. in Spain or lunch at 2 P.M. in Thailand, you’re more likely to be faced with empty eateries and puzzled staff. Unless you’re in a 24-hour city like New York or Tokyo, tweak your habits.
6. Hit the morning markets. Unlike night bazaars, mornings markets are geared towards shoppers who are looking for good food rather than a scene, says Eckhardt. They’re great hunting grounds not only for tips but also for hearty, authentic breakfasts.