A huge part of travel is, undoubtedly, trying local cuisine. Food and the ways in which people cook it, consume it, share it, and enjoy it all play an integral role in shaping the culture of a community. And while there may be variations in habit and behavior from place to place, one thing is universal: all humans need to eat. There are no language barriers when it comes to this basic need. Food is, perhaps, the greatest unifier across cultures.
Which is exactly why eating a local meal in a foreign place can be just as amazing of an experience as checking out an iconic monument or popular attraction. Food on the road nourishes us both physically and mentally. It can be a means of survival, a way to celebrate, or a doorway into the heart of a new place. It can also be the result of an unfortunate, yet funny, mishap. Like the time I excitedly dove straight into Asian street food and mistook chunks of blood for pieces of red tofu. (FYI – there is no such thing as red tofu.) The good, the bad, the funny – a huge portion of my most memorable travel escapades involve food.
I’m almost certain that when I was in China for Chinese New Year, I ate three week’s worth of food in the span of five days. Literally, I’ve never been so full for so long. But those five days have gone down as one of my favorite travel experiences to date. Just days before the New Year festivities began, I became friends with a young girl staying at my hostel in Shanghai. She was going to school in the city, but grew up in the Cantonese region. We bonded over roasted duck, drunken chicken, stinky tofu (this time it really was tofu), xiao long bao (famous soup dumplings), and late night street noodles. She told me all about her life in China, and I told her all about mine in America.
Long story short, she invited me to spend the New Year with her and her family in their hometown of Shaoguan. I happily accepted.
I feel so incredibly lucky to have met her. I strategically planned my trip to coincide with the New Year, and while I knew the traditions were very much family-oriented, I figured I’d still be able to soak up the holiday spirit from the outside. As it turned out, I couldn’t have felt more included than if I were with my own family. Chinese New Year celebrations last about 15 days, with the first week being the most important. I spent the festival’s first five days with my friend and her family. Her parents carefully explained the major traditions associated with each day, and my friend graciously translated their beautiful mandarin. From taking me to buy red socks and red underwear, to making sure I learned how to properly perform a tea ceremony, I was a part of their New Year and they, a part of mine.
In between family hot pot meals and games of mahjong (a Chinese game played with domino-like tiles that I never really quite understood), my friend and I would head out into town and she’d take me to all the best places to eat. From restaurants to street stalls we ate everything. We had roasted pork from one of the finest establishments, ate dim sum off revolving tables, and warmed up with the most delicious dessert dumplings. Just when I thought I literally couldn’t fit a single morsel of anything else in my body, we’d arrive back at her house and the smell of oolong leaves boiling would make it’s way over to me. You can never be too full for tea and candied ginger. I had no idea that’s how I’d get to spend Chinese New Year. But one lunch with a stranger from my hostel had evolved into a friendship, lifelong memories, and many, many more incredible meals.
In the last few years, a number of businesses have popped up to help connect travelers with local hosts. Turns out, a meal with new people and great conversation isn’t just an enjoyable experience for the visitor. It’s just as much of an amazing opportunity for the host. A lot of people express themselves through the art of cooking. Being able to share a bit of your cultural while learning about someone else’s is a chance you don’t get everyday. And there’s more to this experience than good food. It’s also a great way to score insider tips for exploring the town, or in the case that your host invites other travelers, it can be an incredible way to meet like-minded people who share your love for food and travel.
Food has a way of bringing people together. You might take a seat next to stranger, but, by the end of a meal, they can end up feeling more like family. So open yourself up to these occasions; they’ll satisfy you in ways you least expected.
You can check out some incredible food experiences here. Bon appetit!