The culinary travel phenomenon
Why? When? Where? Who? How? Join the edible journeys trend and let your taste buds do the walking — and the talking.
An earlier version of this story ran in the Sunday Tribune travel section.
Story and pictures Wanda Hennig
Quite a few years ago I was sent by an editor on what seemed like a dream assignment. The magazine had teamed up with a travel company and would offer readers a trip to experience “the best” of what Thailand, Hong Kong and Singapore had to offer. I would go with the travel company head honcho to preview the sights, the sounds, the smells — and the tastes — for an article. A complete flavor package, if you will. “It’s a tough life but someone has to do it,” I told my friends as they drooled with envy.
Imagine my surprise when the man I would spend 10 days with told me, within minutes of our first meeting: “I leave my stomach at home when I travel.” He continued, literally purring with self-satisfaction, that he had lived for two years in Hong Kong, “and I never ate Chinese food.”
I was aghast.
Gaddi’s, the famous haute cuisine restaurant
And after our third French restaurant dinner in a row, this one at Gaddi’s, the famous haute cuisine restaurant at Hong Kong’s Peninsula hotel, I put my foot down. I told him I would go directly to the airport and take a plane home if we went to one more restaurant that was non-Asian and non-“local.”
Don’t get me wrong; I like French food. But we weren’t in France.
Wasn’t it logical that if you were in a place planning to write a “best of,” you’d want to eat the food? After all, how better to get to know a country, a city, a culture, traditions, than through what (and how) the people eat (and drink)?
After that we had memorable Chinese in Hong Kong, mouthwatering Thai in Thailand and I subsequently returned to Singapore several times to enjoy more of the famed food stalls that I ate from while my curious travel companion looked: hungry.
When the term ‘culinary tourism’ was coined
That particular “best of” trip took place before 1998, which is when the term “culinary tourism” was coined, by a researcher at Bowling Green University in the United States. Five years after that, in 2003, a canny American with an eye for a trend — and on the money — founded the International Culinary Tourism Association (ICTA).
In 2006 the United States Travel Industry Association, researching the eating habits of leisure travelers, came up with three classifications.
Deliberate, opportunistic and accidental culinary travelers
They found that for one in 10 people, food or wine was a major factor in choosing a destination. These, they called “deliberate culinary travelers.”
Those who claimed to occasionally seek out culinary activities while traveling, they called “opportunistic culinary travelers.”
The ones who reported randomly stumbling upon the odd memorable culinary experience, they called “accidental culinary travelers.”
Given how food has come out of the kitchen and moved into the public arena along with, for instance, the overwhelming popularity of food TV — and the fact that we now have culinary stars like Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Rachael Ray who are household names — I’d happily bet 10 servings of Beluga caviar that, were they to repeat the 2006 study now, the “deliberate culinary traveller” category would have jumped several hundred percent. The fact is, now that your average Joe is been served this option on a plate, culinary travel has evolved into one of the fastest growing tourism niche markets.
In its broadest sense, culinary travel is defined as the pursuit of unique and memorable culinary experiences of all kinds, often while traveling — although also at home.
As foreign as you got
Talking about home, when I was growing up in Durban, South Africa, cheap Chinese sweet and sour pork was about as foreign as you got.
Now one can go, if not right round the world in KwaZulu-Natal, at least on a long and winding culinary journey of East meets West. In addition there are the many exotic local experiences to be had, from bunny chow and Durbs curry (the culinary legacy of indentured Indian laborers who came to work on the sugar plantations more than 100 years ago) to authentic “colonial” Portuguese (which originated in former Portuguese colony, Mozambique) to, well, why not pop down to the Bovine Head Market on Warwick Avenue for a few slices of boiled cows head with some flour dumplings?
Talking about exotic, self-proclaimed cultural anthropologist and Travel Channel “Bizarre Foods” host Andrew Zimmern has eaten flying ants in Uganda, porcupine in South Africa (ag shame), armadillo in Bolivia, raw camel kidneys in Ethiopia, scorpion in China, Hunan-style rooster balls in Los Angeles — and that’s just for starters.
‘Bizarre Foods’ host Andrew Zimmern
He summed up the reasons to make food a focus when I interviewed him about culinary travel for a California–based magazine. “Food is a primary avenue to discovering what is most authentic about cultures everywhere,” he said. “I can learn much more about a people, a place, its history and traditions in a jungle market in Thailand than at the antiquities museum in Bangkok.”
And, Zimmern added, “One man’s weird is another man’s wonderful. The raw meat dishes of Ethiopia, for example, may seem strange to someone (not used to them), but it’s what they eat every day. Think about it. We’re all products of our culture.”
Zimmern does not advocate extreme for extreme’s sake. And to be a culinary traveller no more requires one to eat strange foods, except maybe once in a while out of curiosity, than it requires one to eat at famous gourmet restaurants: except also maybe once in a while out of curiosity. “If people eat from across a broader buffet, it’s good for the planet,” said Zimmern. “Think of overfishing (caused by over-demand). Think of foods that have become extinct (under-demand). Think of traditions that are dying out. By becoming aware, we can reverse trends.”
The flavors, the spices, the culture, the traditions, the stories
If I had space, I could share volumes focused on the flavors, the spices, the culture, the traditions — the stories — of what I’ve personally been served up on plates around the world.
I could go into great detail, for example, about the day in Venice I ate the sublime taste-explosion thin-crusted basic garlic pizza that defined — and reduced — all the pizzas I’ve eaten since; and partaking in a 700-year-old Maori tradition where mussels and prawns were cooked in “the lizard,” a bubbling natural geothermal cauldron in New Zealand; and buying the freshest organic heirloom fruit and veggies at one of San Francisco’s must-visit attractions, the Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market; and the carnivorous delights of Madrid bars; and visits to Princeton-by-the-Sea south of San Francisco in Dungeness Crab season; and recently, braving crunchy fried locusts at the Friday night walking street market at Bophut’s Fisherman’s Village on Koh Samui island, Thailand.
And what about the sheep’s milk yoghurt with honey eaten for breakfast on a Greek island; and the cheese fondue devoured while a gigantic storm raged over Lake Lucerne in Switzerland? Both of these were with my daughter for company when she was 13 and I took her backpacking through Europe for three-and-a-half months.
You have to eat, right? Why not make it an adventure?
The only thing I still get the creeps thinking about is a serving of sheep’s testicles at a nightclub with belly dancers in Abidjan in the Côte d’Ivoire.
Those small roasted rodents impaled on wooden skewers that the Ivoirian children were selling along the roadside? They may have been delish, but those, I did not try.
Exploring tastes, traditions and cuisines while traveling — and savoring how other cultures eat, drink and make merry even in restaurants close to home or in ones own kitchen — opens up a whole new world. Of course being aware of what we eat and preserving culinary traditions are politically correct right now. But I vote we just do it because it’s delicious.
So what makes a culinary traveler? I’d say You know you’re a culinary culinary traveler when:
- Whether it’s a day trip, a weekend escape or a round-the-world vacation, what and where you will eat and drink is a highlight of your planning.
- Returning from a vacation, it’s not tschotkes that weigh down your suitcase. It’s foodie photos, food memories shared on Facebook and Instagram and things you can eat.
- Even if it was a business trip, you’ve made it your business to spend some downtime indulging in the culinary pleasures of the place.
- Your travels excite your inner chef. You return from Spain itching to invite friends for a tapas party; you get back from Munich dying to serve them sausage and beer.
- You consult the library, read books and use Google to inform yourself on the defining foods and culinary traditions of a country before you visit.
- You prefer not to eat anonymous food.
- You may not watch the food channel but you’re curious to learn, probably subscribe to a couple of food-focused mags and most likely have an enviable selection to cookbooks.
- You care about where your coffee was grown.
- You could get very excited about a vacation built around a cooking class anywhere in the world.
- You return from your trips with more pictures taken in restaurants than in museums.
- You see food as a delicious adventure.
© Wanda Hennig, 2016 — Story and pictures