Your guide to not eating in a tourist trap when you're traveling.
Safe is the usual choice for global travelers when faced with a menu of unknown dishes. Paani-puri? Anago-meshi? Uova con tartufi? "Um, I'll take a burger."
But a great meal transcends all cultural boundaries, and sharing the food of your host country is the best way to connect with its people, culture and the land. Still, short of a personal chaperone, what to order? Even if you don't speak the language, take a cue from the locals when looking for the perfect dish to try. Look around. Smile. Point. To get the best quality, especially if you're indulging in a local delicacy, always head to the same restaurants or street vendors as the locals.
Here, a prejudicial list of the wonderful and curious dishes, with a bias toward uncovering hidden regional or national food gems. Bold and brave taste buds are essential; in some cases, an iron stomach is encouraged. One thing's for certain--take our advice and you'll come home with a whole new palate.
This South American nation is best known for beef and empanadas, but there's so much more to explore. Believe it or not, the ice cream here is among the best in the world, and dulce de leche and malbec flavors are absolute must-haves, according to luxury travel expert Leah Reilley of Artisans of Leisure. If you're in the mood for cheese, don't leave without sampling provoleta--a smoky provolone sprinkled with oregano. As far as simple dishes go, it is one of the best. As for native Andean cuisine, locro, a hearty stew of corn, beans, squash and meat, is delicious.
No culinary trip here is complete without a visit to the state of Bahia. First thing to order: Moqueca de peixe, a fish (and sometimes shrimp) stew made with tomatoes and coconut milk, says Reilley. For a satisfying weekend lunch--not unlike American brunch--feijoada,a heavy stew of beans, meat and sausage, served with rice, can be found all over Brazil. If you're looking for something lighter, fresh grilled fish with tomato-and-onion salad coupled with a couple of Brahma beers is a perfect beach meal.
In Beijing the restaurants in the alleyways of Qian Men are renowned for hot pot, or huo guo, says Anita Lo, executive chef at Annisa in New York. Here you'll find the streets are lined with boiling pots filled with soup ingredients. Its excellent selections range from Mongolian specialties--best known for lamb and mutton dishes--and spicy Szechuan.
Some 600-plus miles away, Shanghai is best known for its street food, especially soup dumplings. But don't stop there, advises Lo. Shen jian bao, fried pork bun, makes for a perfect for snack, while jian bing, egg-based crepes with a bean sauce or chili smear, is a local power breakfast.
Word of advice: Avoid street food. Try to score an invite to a local dinner table rather than settle for street vendors. Many locals are vegetarian, but Indian cuisine includes a variety of delicious meat and seafood. Grilled minced lamb, seekh kebabs, are the staple of Tandoori cooking, while the nation's coastal regions are renowned for masala (spiced) fish or prawns. Natives advise caution when eating seafood during the monsoon months of June to August due to the increase in water-borne diseases.
While India conjures up images of curries, local specialties are worth digging around for. In North India, never say no to chaat or paani-puri. These delicious crispy crackers are dressed up with condiments of the sweet and spicy variety. If you're in the south, say Kerala, don't leave without trying fresh coconut. Traveling tappers climb coconut trees, tap the fruit's blossom and decant the sap into a bottle. As the day progresses, the liquid becomes increasingly intoxicating, transforming from a light, fizzy drink mid-morning and fermenting into a seriously strong alcoholic drink by evening, says Thy Trang, founder of the Asian Culinary Forum.
Eat lampredotto, a special street-cart sandwich, when you're in Florence, says David Rocco, producer and host of David Rocco's La Dolce Vita, launching on the Cooking Channel this month. When friends visit, he reveals the secret ingredients only after they've savored it: chili sauce, salsa verde and cow's stomach. "Don't look at it before it's cooked--it looks like a brain. But one bite and you're hooked."
Pizza not exotic enough for you? The pizza in Naples has a "DOP" stamp of approval from the Italian government to authenticate it. The ingredients are simply dough and a rich marinara sauce with oregano. In this case, native is best. "Locals say there's something in the water density in Naples that guarantees you will never have a pizza like it anywhere else in the world," says Rocco.
If you're lucky enough to be around during the autumn truffle season, try uova con tartufi--fried eggs with truffle oil. It can't be found on restaurant menus, but chefs from Tuscany and Umbria will know exactly what you mean if you ask for it.
You can get great sushi almost everywhere, so when you're in Japan it's worth trying other delicacies. Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto recommends trying okonomiyaki, a savory pancake (or Japanese pizza) from his hometown of Hiroshima. This dish is made with batter, vegetables, seaweed, meat, a sweet sauce resembling Worcestershire, and Japanese mayonnaise. Other Morimoto regional favorites include anago-meshi, or sea eel rice, and tonkatsu ramen from Hakata, a pork-bone white soup with ramen noodles.
Many dishes, such as hummus, a delicious chickpea spread, are pervasive throughout the Middle East. But when you're in Beirut, don't leave without trying mezze, a selection of starters with dips like hummus and the smoky eggplant baba ganoush, fresh vegetables, olives and leavened bread that could be a meal in itself.
Lebanese cuisine relies heavily on poultry and meat, especially lamb, grilled or served in a stew. Lebanon also has a growing wine industry, but only order if you're handed a wine menu; traditional Islamic law generally prohibits drinking alcohol.
"The best meals are worth the money in Russia," says Reilley. If you see solyanka on the menu, don't hesitate to order. This salty, sour and often spicy soup combined with meat or fish and topped with smetana, Russian sour cream, is delicious.
Borscht and pelmeni (dumplings) are ubiquitously Russian, but experiment with different varieties; salmon and wild mushroom pelmeni are Reilley's recommendations. Borscht can be spiced up with roasted apples and smoked goose breast. If you find the time, a culinary side trip to Georgia or Armenia in search of Azerbaijaini plov, a spiced rice dish cooked with meat and dried fruit, is worth the journey.
If you're anywhere in Spain, you must try Manchego, an aged sheep's milk cheese named for the La Mancha region, also home of Don Quixote. Manchego has an intense flavor, so enjoy it solo with bread, served with olives and meat or accompanied by a full-bodied red wine--a Rioja makes sense.
Barcelona is part of Catalunya, a region in Spain that has a very distinct culture and cuisine. Must-haves include patatas bravas, crisp-fried potatoes with a secret sauce, and mel i mato, a curd cheese and honey dessert cooked in an earthenware pot. Even if you're rushing on an overnight trip through Barcelona, don't leave without sampling these two dishes!
(Ruchika Tulshyan, Forbes.com)