The Traveling Spoon: 6 Ways to Experience New Cultures Through Food

Under normal—aka non-COVID-19—circumstances, food is one of my favorite ways to get the most out of travel. While abroad or even on domestic trips, experiencing a destination through food is always a top priority. I’ve been fortunate enough to take a food tour of New York City, walk through Seattle on a coffee tour, go wine tasting in Sonoma, and even try whale on the North Sea in Norway. (Very chewy.)

RELATED: Making Food Choices for a Healthier Planet

These days, of course, the coronavirus pandemic has put the kibosh on international travel (waaaaah) but, never fear—have fork, will travel! With a little creativity, I’m finding it is still possible to take virtual trips via my home kitchen. Here are six ways to experience another culture through its food. 

1. Pair a traditional dish with a movie

Make movie night a little more interesting by pairing a foreign film to a corresponding dish. Roll your own sushi alongside master chef Jiro in 2011’s “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” or make a dinner of corned beef and colcannon (Irish mashed potatoes and cabbage) to go with a viewing of “The Secret of Roan Inish.” Bonus points for any movie that offers sweeping shots of scenery or authentic food.

2. Cook your way through a region of the world

Get thee to a library (with a mask)! Picking up a cookbook chock full of recipes from a specific region of the world can inspire some amazing DIY culinary adventures. Why not cook your way through an entire section of a country-specific cookbook? My top picks: “The Essential Middle Eastern Cookbook and “Tasting Italy: A Culinary Journey.

3. Have a global potluck

This tip comes from personal experience: Last summer, I hosted a travel-themed potluck where friends all brought foods from their favorite destinations. German beer, Greek lemon chicken, and even Spam musubi from Hawaii were all represented. Now that social distancing means indoor parties are on hold, take a global potluck outdoors by meeting friends in a park or your backyard.

RELATED: How to Be a Food Tourist at Home

4. Visit an ethnic market

Depending on where you live, your choices of ethnic markets and grocery stores may vary, but these gems are a super fun resource for touring the world without traveling too far. Try strolling through the aisles of a nearby market to select an ingredient you’ve never cooked with—or maybe one you’ve never heard of! Take it home and find a not-too-complicated recipe that calls for it.

If cooking a whole meal with unfamiliar ingredients seems overwhelming, start small. On a recent shopping trip to a Middle Eastern market near my house, I grabbed a layered chocolate cookie I’d never seen before. It made my Wednesday afternoon feel just a little more novel. Maybe next time I’ll work up the courage to get the gulab jamun (fried dumplings in a sugar syrup).

5. Go bold with restaurant dining

Don’t feel too confident about making your own palak paneer or wiener schnitzel? Even if you can’t visit India or Germany right now, you might be able to get an amazing version of these dishes by dining out. Seek out a locally-owned restaurant with the cuisine of a country you’d like to visit. (My favorites are Ethiopian and Greek food.) Before you order, ask someone at the restaurant to highlight menu selections that particularly represent the region.

6. Take a cooking class

Learning from a trained chef can offer a world of knowledge you won’t get just from cookbook reading. Check your area for cooking classes that’ll teach you how to prepare a specific type of cuisine. 

When in-person slicing and dicing isn’t in the cards, look into the possibility of a virtual cooking class. Mexican Experiences, for example, offers one-on-one Mexican cooking instruction online at affordable prices. Or, if you’re in the market to splurge a bit, check out The Chef and the Dish. This service brings a professional chef to your kitchen (virtually) and allows you to choose the country whose cuisine you want to cook. With a bit of in-home practice, you’ll already know a thing or two about global cuisine on that glorious day when borders reopen.

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