Exploring Cultures Through Food Tours

My newest addiction is food tours. Each time I head to a new country, I search out a food tour to take on my first day in the city. It is a great way to get a sense of the place and an understanding of the cuisine, which I feel enhances the rest of my trip. I shared some of the great food tours I have found in a recent story in the Napa Valley Register which you can read here.

The late Anthony Bourdain once said that “Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.”

On his show, “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” he filmed 96 episodes over 11 seasons in which he shared his passion for culture, food, travel and adventure. His enthusiasm was contagious, and we were all inspired explore the world through food.

Or, at least, I was.

After all, what better way to explore a different culture than through its food? Of course, there is architecture, art, religion and nature, but food has so many meanings and incorporates everything. Food is a cultural identifier. Food is shaped by location and by history. Food can represent status and pleasure or can be for survival. Food is also about community and is a unifier across cultures.

As I traveled to countries for my first time, I have found myself in search of food. Yes, I like to eat. And, I can think of no better way to learn about a city and a culture than through its food. But, how does one decide where to go?

There are guidebooks, online reviews and suggestions from friends. So many of the best places are down small alleys, off the main streets or just hidden in plain sight. If it is the first time visiting a place, how can we stay away from the tourist spots and learn where the locals go and what they eat?

The answer is food tours. Simply type into the search browser on your computer the city you are going to with the words “food tour” and you will be amazed at the number of small businesses offering half-day, or sometimes longer, food tours of their cities. Across the world, these small, local businesses have been started by chefs, journalists, historians and passionate foodies who want to share their stories, the history of their cities and some of their favorite food spots.

Here are my suggested food tour companies:

— Culinary Backstreets [Turkey, Spain, Brazil, Mexico, China, Georgia, Japan, Portugal]

Culinary Backstreets was started in Istanbul, Turkey, by two food writers, Ansel Mullins and Yigal Schleifer. They were writing about the food scene in Istanbul when they planned their first walking tour. Culinary Backstreets takes guests to family-run restaurants and showcases the traditional side of urban culinary life. It currently offers culinary walking tours in Istanbul, Athens, Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Shanghai, Tbilisi, Tokyo and Lisbon.

— Dubrovnik Food Story [Croatia]

Sisters Marija Turkalj Matičević and Ana Turkalj started Dubrovnik Food Story as a way to share their love for their hometown of Dubrovnik. Marija, who studied management in tourism, worked in travel agencies and hotels and started offering food tours on the side. Her sister Ana, who studied aquaculture, got her tour guide license and joined her sister. Their personalized tours include a personal history of the war and life post-war, as well as the influence of difference cultures on Dubrovnik cuisine.

— FoodyChile [Chile]

American Colin Bennett moved to Chile to teach English and never left. After working with the fresh fruit and vegetables produced in Chile, Bennett began writing about food. At FoodyChile, he offers walking food tours in the center of Santiago, visiting the immense fresh produce market and trying local specialties.

— Eating Europe Tours [Italy, London, Amsterdam, Prague]

American native Kenny Dunn moved to Rome in 2008 and started informal culinary strolls, showing off his neighborhood and favorite restaurants to visiting friends. With the idea of promoting real food and real people, Eating Italy Food Tours was born. From Rome and Florence, Eating Italy expanded to other European cities and today is also in London, Amsterdam and Prague.

All of these food tours are personalized and small. On average, the group size is 8-12 people and the guides are English-speakers. These are tours that will take you off the main streets, down the small alleys, into the marketplaces and anywhere else to provide tastes of local specialties.

Along the way, you’ll hear stories about history and see significant sights. At the end of a half-day tour, satiated and informed, you’ll be ready to continue your journey of exploration of a new country on your own.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.