Resolved to Eat Better? Here's What a 'Top Chef Canada' Judge Suggests
Travelzoo is on a mission to inspire its members to "dine outside their comfort zone" in 2019, and we're partnering with Top Chef Canada judge Mijune Pak, who will take on role of Travelzoo Global Food Correspondent. This is the first of a blog series where Mijune -- Canada’s most recognized food blogger (FollowMeFoodie.com) -- shares with us her views on how Canadians can become global food explorers, whether at home or while travelling abroad.
What’s going on here? “Resolving to eat better”? It’s not exactly what you think, in the traditional sense at least. Sure, I get making New Year’s resolutions revolving around eating fewer desserts or cutting out processed food, but my definition of “eating better” is a bit different. It’s fun! In 2019, I’m encouraging people to focus not on foods they can give, but on what they can gain from eating authentically, especially when travelling.
Eating authentically is a way of gaining a new appreciation for cultures beyond our own
In every culture around the world, food has a meaning beyond sustenance; it’s associated with survival, local agriculture, religion, hospitality and celebration. That direct correlation between culture and food, as well as natural curiosity, is what triggered my interest in writing about it in the first place. It all started in my year abroad in Europe, when experiencing culinary traditions and dishes became an obsession.
Eating authentically is a way of gaining a new appreciation for cultures beyond our own. It makes every trip that much more meaningful and memorable.
Here are some of my tips on how you can eat more authentically in 2019.
1. Do your research
Before travelling to a new country or city, learn everything you can about the cuisine. Not only will you learn a host of fun facts about the culture, but you'll be able to make a “must try list” of local foods you won't find anywhere else. When I'm going somewhere known for an iconic dish, I’ll try to go to the original birthplace first, so I have an idea of what it’s like traditionally. Then I’ll start to explore how the dish has evolved.
Did you know that the original restaurant that invented butter chicken still exists in Old Delhi, India, or that the delectable Sacher Torte chocolate cake was originally invented in the still-thriving Sacher Hotel in Vienna, Austria?
I’m a big advocate for research. It’s hard to “judge” any dish without the education, and as cliche as it sounds, knowledge is power. It’s not always about finding “the best dish”, although I love doing this too, but also about food history, and how the dish came to be, and why it is the way it is.
2. Ask the Experts
Food is the number-one thing I focus on when I travel, and social media makes it easy to scout out the best places in a new region. I search location tags on Instagram and try to find someone who’s a credible source – an established food writer or influencer or chef. I'll look at their writing and past reviews to see if our palates are similar; if so, I'll probably like the restaurants they enjoy.
It's a good idea to arrive knowing a few restaurants you want to visit for sure, and letting the rest come together a little more organically. You can ask for recommendations at your hotel, but take them with a grain of salt, and do further research on their suggestions. Sometimes the concierge is paid on commission, or the recommendations can be touristy since they rather give an approachable place than somewhere off the beaten path. For example, you may be told to go to place X because it’s clean and nice and the menus are in English. It’s fine if that’s what you’re looking for, but sometimes it’s not always where you’ll get amazing food.
Arrive knowing a few restaurants you want to visit and let the rest come together organically
Finally, when I do find a restaurant where I’m enjoying the food and getting a good vibe, sometimes I’ll approach the bartender or the chef. I’ll talk to them and say these are the places I had in mind -- do you think I’m on the right track? They'll often suggest additional places to try. I’ll sift through my original list a few times before I decide to take something off.
3. Shop at the local farmer’s market
If you’re staying somewhere with a kitchen, it’s really fun to buy ingredients at the farmer’s market and cook a meal with local produce. It’s worth hitting up the market and talking to farmers even if you plan to have all your meals in restaurants. If you try something you like from a farmer, they can recommend restaurants that are using their products. Most likely, those restaurants are going to be more ingredient-driven, because they are prioritizing fresh, locally sourced food.
4. Find a food tour
This one can be hit and miss, because they’re not all created equal, but it’s a good way to get an idea especially if you have limited time. (Start by checking out Travelzoo's selection of food and wine experiences.) It gives a good sense of geography and neighbourhood and they can point out places you may have missed. Plus, you get to try local specialties from a range of places – giving you a jump start on where you might want to eat during your stay. Finally, and this would be my main reason, you’ll find yourself in the company of other foodies, which is a bonus if you’re travelling alone and looking for dining companions – or even if you’re just looking for recommendations.
Not all food tours are created equal, so do your research
What you do will depend on your budget, but remember that not all food tours are the same. Do your research and be very specific about the type of tour you pick. If you’re going to go for value, you might end up trying things at food trucks. If a tour is a little more expensive, sometimes it might be worth it for the experience. I went on a very intimate food tour in Israel where they took us into the house of a Druze woman. We stood in her kitchen as she cooked authentic Druze dishes, and we ate family-style. It was really out of the ordinary and nothing I could have arranged by myself.
5. Take a cooking class
If you want to learn how to prepare the local cuisine in an authentic way, consider making time for a cooking class. The more acclaimed the cuisine, the more classes you’re likely to find; cooking classes for tourists are very common in Italy and Thailand, for example.
You can also take a cooking class in your own backyard to learn about new cultures or to reminisce about travel memories. For instance, you can learn to make pasta or bread from scratch in the heart of downtown Vancouver at Palmer & Sons.
I was in Italy a couple years ago and ate at an Italian restaurant where the owner/chef grew his own rice and had his own water mill and husking system. It was like the “holy grail of risotto”. I also got to cook with him and learned so much more. For instance, I was always taught to constantly stir a risotto for 15-20 minutes, but he told me to not stir it until the end. I was pretty shocked. It made me question what was “authentic” and “traditional”. Everyone has their own style, but it was a lot easier of a technique and the result was just as delicious. The more I learn about something the less I feel like I know about it.
6. Make the most of every meal
When you’re visiting somewhere for a short time, you want to try as many dishes as possible. I’m notorious for ordering a lot of dishes, especially when I’m traveling because I don’t know when I’ll be back. I also don’t like wasting, so I’ll end up making friends with the people at the bar, because they’re usually solo diners. I’ll just offer them my dish to try and most likely they’ll reciprocate, or I’ll just pack it and give it to someone in need outside. I don’t want to waste it, but I still want to try it! I might even ask the server, what’s the best way to sample as many dishes as possible. At some restaurants, if they know you’re by yourself, they’ll try to help you out. It doesn’t always happen, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
Ready to eat more authentically? Try one of these fantastic food and wine tours from Travelzoo. Plus, Mijune is curating Travelzoo Restaurant Month, so look for exclusive menus at Canada's top restaurants on our website this April.