Three years ago in China, on my very first food tour, I found myself face to face with a sad little barbecued seahorse. It was spring in Beijing and I was wandering the stalls of the Donghuamen food market. Alongside candied strawberries and grilled squid, I saw crispy tarantulas and boiled testicles of unclear provenance. The next morning, I woke early for a classic northern Chinese breakfast: chive and pork dumplings, pork buns, braised tofu in a black bean sauce, wonton soup and pickled vegetables—all washed down with warm soy milk. It was a delicious and cheap alternative to the $30 continental breakfast I had at my Western hotel the day before joining the tour.
I’ve become hooked on this particular niche of travel. I’ve been on a series of food-focused adventures—including nine very happy days in Italy, where we snacked our way through Rome, Bologna and Venice. On one magical day, we visited Parma ham, Parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar producers, sampling as we went. True, signing up for a food tour requires one to shell out money for a guide, and that’s on top of travel costs and accommodations. But an organized food tour can actually be the cheapest way to sample the widest variety of local foods when you travel. Best of all, food tours weed out the worst overpriced tourist traps and instead focus on eating like the locals.
Food tours run a serious gamut. There are weeks-long intensive itineraries that offer a robust perspective on a food’s history, cultural significance, key ingredients and even cooking techniques. And there are also short hits—an afternoon or evening—that offer a quick glimpse into the world of local street food. In Lima, I signed on for the Lima Gastronomic Experience by Urban Adventures (urbanadventures.com; US$45, including all food), an evening foray into the Peruvian capital’s famous cuisine. My guide, Cesar, took me through the back streets of the hip Barranco district to sample key local food groups—Pisco Sours, grilled cow hearts and wonderfully fresh ceviche—in a variety of low-key venues. It was a wonderful introduction to Peruvian food, particularly in a city where travellers can be wary of exploring on their own.
Erica Kritikides, food product manager for tour operator Intrepid Travel, says that a lot of people find eating locally and affordably challenging, so having a guided tour “eliminates confidence issues when it comes to chutzpah.” In 2012, Intrepid Travel (intrepidtravel.com) introduced a series of “Real Food Adventures” that prioritizes street food, rustic local restaurants, markets and off-the-beaten-path bars. “It’s about experiencing a culture as it is, not as it’s designed for tourists,” says Kritikides.
Intrepid offers tours that range from a few hours to 15 days. Prices range from US$31 for a “Hanoi Street Food by Night” tour and US$375 for a three-day “Bite-Size Break Istanbul” (including some meals and two nights in a hotel) to US$3,925 for the 12-day Real Food Adventure Japan, which includes accommodations, some meals and other sightseeing activities.
Kritikides’s list of amazing local foods includes pho on the streets of Hanoi and ice cream sandwiches in Sicily. “The best food experiences I’ve ever had were the ones where I spent little and had an incredible local interaction,” she says.
Some of the largest tour operators offer food tours. Two websites—Taste Trekkers (tastetrekkers.com) and Food Tour Finder (foodtourfinder.com) serve as aggregators of food tours. And there are apps, too: Get Your Guide, Zerve and Peek can all help you find a local food experience in cities around the world.
There can be drawbacks to eating like a local. You sacrifice a good deal of comfort when you eat standing up in a market versus luxuriating over wine in a mainstream restaurant. On more than one occasion when I’ve joined a lineup of hungry locals, I have been less than totally clear about exactly what I’m eating—tough for those with dietary restrictions. Still, Jodi Ettenberg, who blogs at Legal Nomads, recommends embracing the beauty of the street stall. “People are often scared or afraid of getting sick, but it can be the safest and cheapest way to eat when you travel. The people who get sick always seem to be the ones who eat at tourist restaurants.”
On my last food tour, I worked my way through Thailand. A guide introduced me to the country’s ubiquitous food markets. From Bangkok to Chiang Mai, we lined up behind locals waiting for bags of roasted chestnuts, grilled catfish and all manner of items served on sticks. “We don’t eat full meals,” my guide explained, as we munched on small sticky rice pancakes with coconut milk. “We just graze on snacks all day long.” It was an easy—and inexpensive—attitude to adopt.