Strolling along the streets of Hanoi, Beijing or Bangkok at lunch time, with restaurants spilling out onto the pavements, packed with locals slurping and talking their way through steaming bowls of unpronounceable foods, you’ll learn a simple lesson in local culture. Food, in Asia, is important.
In China, “chi fan le ma”- meaning “Have you eaten?”- is a common greeting, and you won’t go far in Vietnam without a local interrogating you on the meals you’ve tried. Why? Because food is a vital thread woven into the historical and cultural fabric of Asia. For travellers, food is one of the simplest and most enjoyable ways to understand something about a country. Trying new dishes, learning the art of eating with chopsticks and sitting down with locals for a communal meal are all ways to immerse yourself in culture and local life.
Let’s delve deeper to find three special ways to experience a culture through its food.
Take a Cooking Class
Cooking classes are becoming one of the most popular tourist activities around and for good reason; they are really fun, you’ll learn a skill and at the end of the day you get to eat a whole lot of food. A good teacher will not only teach you how to cook your favourite dishes from scratch but they’ll help you understand where that dish came from, how it has evolved and why it is important.
Being taken to the market first you’ll also learn where your ingredients come from and hopefully a trick or two about bartering.
Eat a Dish in its Place of Origin
Around the world there are those dishes that transcend location and become synonymous with the country itself, irrespective of their roots. In Vietnam phở is that dish. But have you heard of phở rán? Phở rán is phở deconstructed with the noodles deep fried and served in pizza-style slices with the beef and greens served on top. It’s unique but not only for its flavour; it is rarely found outside one specific market in Hanoi and only at night.
There are hundreds of these dishes throughout Asia, offering a memorable meal alongside a slice of history and culture. You can read about a few more here.
Try the Restaurants Making Dishes and a Difference
We always encourage you to follow your nose and take to the streets for small local restaurants or street eats, but sometimes it’s important to do a little research to discover the restaurants doing something a little different.
Why not try eat a delicious local meal while giving a little extra back to the community? KOTO in Vietnam and Cabbages and Condoms in Thailand are two restaurants with a charitable focus, helping travellers to understand cultural issues in context. KOTO trains disadvantaged youth in hospitality and its restaurants help employ up to 200 people at a time, while Cabbages and Condoms is a condom themed restaurant promoting safe sex and family planning in Thailand. Eating great food and being mindful don’t have to be mutually exclusive!
Is food a big focus of your travels? What else do you do on your travels to help understand more about a culture?