Thursday, February 5, 2015

Ahh...the joys and delights of travel dining

Want to dine like a local kingpin – that can be fairly easy. The following outlines how to find the tastiest local food while traveling.
1. First and foremost, it is key to search for restaurants that care less if tourists notice them. These ones are not courting foreigners over locals and are your best chance to find authentic, local flavor.
Indicators of restaurants that cater to locals over foreigners include lack of a fancy signboards, sometimes none at all, or only in the local language.
2. Another indication, the menu, if the establishment has one, then usually it is available only in the local language.
3. Additionally, the restaurant interior will not be shiny and sparkly clean compared to ones own standards. Although it might not be inviting to travelers and not reassuringly comfortable — it will be in local style whatever that is, maybe with simple utensils and table ware, maybe darkened interiors and loads of tacky lighting and design. Locals like local styles, and they already know what the restaurant serves and are there for the fancy exterior and cozy external trimmings that tourists often gravitate toward and expect in a dining establishment.

If you follow the above, the restaurant is likely to be empty of fellow travelers and patronized only by local denizens (and busy, too, if it is a good one). It might take extra courage to enter such a place where you will stand out like a sore thumb, but almost always, you will be welcomed and will be in for a royal treat or at least a memorable experience…it will likely be similar for them, too--they will get a kick out of the foreigner who wandered in and got their special plate! Language facility helps (true local establishments prefer not to go out of their way to cater to people of other countries and languages because they often don't speak any language well but their own).
Don’t get hung up on it if you cannot even pronounce ‘hello’ correctly in the local tongue. Generally, basic English greetings are common enough and you can always point and gesture and remember to smile, don’t take the situation and yourself too seriously and then they will know not to either.

And one final bit of advice...don’t get too carried away! At a local eating joint in the middle of northeast Thailand along the Mae Nam Kong River (Mekong River) over decade ago, I had nothing in mind to eat — and was already familiar with the typical standbys of pad thai, papaya salad and basic Thai-curry. Therefore, I made a request of the chef who was also the owner who was also the waitress (all in one). I asked her to give me the ‘number-one house special’…when she finally understood what I was  requesting, she tilted her head with a twinkle in her eye, faint smile, then a nod and ‘okay, no problem you’. Ten minutes later she delivered a stinking plate of unpalatable Mekong-amphibian curry over rice…it tasted horrible to my uninitiated palate. I had to choke it down not wanting to waste food in a hungry world, especially after having requested it.
The take away lesson — clarify a bit what you want — do not leave everything up to the restaurant--as their favorite will not likely be your favorite. Local diners often crave exotic local flavors that are too strong for all newcomers. At least, the memorable, bad taste of pungent, feral animal flesh helped me on my journey to be a vegetarian.
Now get out of your comfortable, cushy tourist venues and find some local flavor — authentic dishes prepared the way locals prefer them, not just food advertised as ‘local’ by touristy restaurants that rarely have local patrons and have only watered-down tastes!

Remember to explore the local drinks, too, they can be a refreshing, enjoyable discovery, too…again, moderation advised!

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