When I think back to the year I spent in Italy as part of my undergrad degree in languages, what sticks in my mind above all else is the food. Sure, I was able to visit some fascinating historical sites up and down the peninsula and make some great friends, but food has an emotive quality like no other.
There was the bewildering evening of my arrival when my new landlady generously invited me over for dinner (heaven forbid an Italian supermarket would be open on a Sunday). After filling up on my “starter” – a hungry person’s portion of spaghetti in a rich tomato sauce – I smiled and nodded my way through an unexpected four additional courses.
Then there was the unforgettable trip to a Naples Christmas market with my classmates where I tried my first sfogliatella, a traditional southern pastry. Fresh from the oven, warm, sticky custard is hidden in layers of crisp, buttery pastry. Even the honey-flavored biscuits that I was tricked into buying for 20 euros at a dubious local market – every taste carries a memory. Immersing myself in the food rituals of Italy helped me bond with new friends (whether over a hurried espresso or a four-course meal) and feel more connected to the places I explored.
Having traveled abroad quite a bit, I’ve always been spoiled for choice when it comes to food. No item on the menu is too unusual. I arrive with my taste buds tingling and an open mind, and leave with new favorite ingredients and recipes to take home.
But you don’t have to book an expensive international flight to be a food tourist. Using a little imagination, it’s easier than you might think to recreate exciting food encounters at home. Here are my tips to get started.
While I find it easy to spot the must-try delicacies when visiting a new place, it takes a little more thinking outside the box to find inspiration at home. I love flipping through a recipe book for ideas, but a more budget-friendly alternative is to check out blogs, Instagram, or Pinterest, which are bursting at the seams with recipes to suit every taste and budget. My go-to site is The Minimalist Baker, which is packed with vegan-friendly, Asian-inspired recipes. And I always turn to Amy Riolo’s blog when I long for the tastes of Italy.
I’ve even found inspiration on Netflix. If you haven’t seen “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” yet, consider watching that your official homework.
Find your local farmers market
Before I discovered farmers markets at home, I thought the experience of wandering through outdoor aisles of deliciously fresh local produce was something I’d only be able to experience abroad.
Selling a mixture of locally grown, organic produce, farmers markets never fail to inspire me away from safe dinner options like a trusty baked potato when cooking at home. My dinner menus change to match the seasons, and the produce that’s available on any given day becomes the star of the show. Just-picked blackberries make a hearty crumble in late summer, while I serve buttery, roasted artichokes in winter.
Head off the beaten path
It’s easy to settle for chain restaurants that will please everyone when dining out, but opting for a locally owned restaurant has proven to be the best way to discover new cuisines in my part of London. I’ve never looked back since my boyfriend (and fellow foodie) and I wandered into the Brazilian restaurant at the end of my street. Their steaks are better than any I’ve had in a classic steakhouse.
I’ve also learned not to judge a book by its cover. One of the best meals I’ve ever had was in an Afghan restaurant that looked like a run-down takeout place from the outside, but on the inside featured fantastic service and delicious lamb biryani. Trying one new restaurant a month is an easy way to start exploring the food available wherever you live.
Buy that weird ingredient
How many times have you found an exciting new recipe, only to discount it when you discover a complex ingredients list? I’m certainly guilty of this, despite living in London where the local supermarket shelves are impressively cosmopolitan.
Buying that one weird ingredient is an easy way to push yourself outside your comfort zone. If your local stores are less well-stocked, find out which unique ingredients or spices they do sell, then use Pinterest or food blogs to build a recipe around them. Now that my cupboards are stocked with the likes of mirin and bonito flakes, I’m always ready to take on my next culinary challenge.
Embrace a new tradition
From Swedish “Fika” – making time for a coffee, cake, and a chat with friends or colleagues every day — to a calming Japanese-inspired cup of tea, adopting rituals inspired by other cultures has allowed me to appreciate the social importance of food and enjoy life’s simple pleasures. Making time to enjoy food traditions with friends and family makes every day feel more like a vacation.
Originally published on June 4, 2019.