Almost all of them have the foodie formula down pat. I mean those mouth-watering reports we read in travelogue-type sections and columns in newspapers and magazines, in coffee-table books, and let’s not forget TV documentaries. It’s just a matter of choosing what to eat, and where to eat it.
The formula works this way. Let’s say you’re an editor, writer or videographer on a food assignment. Select an exotic place from among the many possible tourist itineraries. Then research, or ask around, for the best foodie places to visit in the locality, and what local delights and delicacies to look for. Finally, plunk yourself down in some tourist place or some chef’s kitchen, and partake of its sumptuous offerings. Accompany your dining with much swooning, in typical gourmet fashion. Then hurry home to finish your report about your life-changing experience.
This approach is all good, if you’re the type who is strapped to a daily grind working in media, have deadlines to catch, and only a couple of days to spare. But it’s too inadequate for acquiring a first approximation of a local culture – which any travelogue is all about – if only from the point of view of food.
I might be the odd one here, but based on my own experience – both as a travel addict who will jump off the bus and explore strange new places at the drop of a hat, and as an activist who has travelled to quite a number of places to attend meetings and events – there are a few other and more effective ways to get a foretaste of a locality’s people and culture through its food.
Let me thus offer my Top Three Techniques for knowing a community through its food.
1. Explore the local market’s food stalls.
One of the quickest yet most effective ways to appreciate a locality – whether it’s a new city you have to get used to, or an off-the-highway town you just happen to pass by – is to spend a few hours exploring its public market, especially its carinderias or food stalls, and have lunch in one.
This has always been my favorite technique in my many years of travelling. One of my first stops, as far as possible, would typically include the local public market. There’s nothing like seeing, touching, and smelling up close the fresh vegetables, fruits, fish, shellfish, dressed poultry, and meat being sold by market vendors – and eventually eating them, of course, preferably in a choice food stall inside the market itself.
There’s a special reason for preferring public market carinderias: It’s because more often than not, vendors in the same market know each other and buy from each other’s wares. It has been my experience that in a market that’s truly alive, the carinderias are frequented by market vendors and regular buyers, and don’t lack for customers. Since there is quick food turnover, so you have better chances of being sure that the food comes from fresh market items. You can even chat with the food vendors and ask them for tips on where and how to buy fresh produce, and how to best cook it.
I realize that some upland towns have not yet been so thoroughly dominated by the cash economy. Here, the market day would be once a week and could not serve as your reliable window into local cooking. In that case, you can skip straight to my Tips #2 and #3.
In any case, do not, repeat, do not buy food from stopover dining places where passenger buses and motorists stop for meals. These establishments cater to tourists who are in a rush, who are looking for familiar menus, and who will willingly (or unsuspectingly) buy low-quality roadside food at outrageous prices because they have no choice.
The only exception would be if your travelling companions are locals, who know where to get the food they like on the road. Get some friends who are natives of Benguet to accompany you on a bus trip via the Halsema, and you’ll appreciate this mini-tip about food on the road.
2. Stay for a while with a local family.
If you have some business that requires you to stay in another town or city, whether for a few days or for a couple of weeks or longer, it’s still best to stay with a local family and arrange to dine with them instead of staying in hotels and eating in restaurants.
In the past years, alternative, community-driven tourism networks and services have rapidly grown in many countries. You can contact NGOs working in an area you plan to visit and explore such an arrangement that includes home stays, village tours, and local guides.
Apart from the more obvious advantages in such an arrangement – lower costs, access to local people you can trust, and reliable sources of local information – there are other advantages for one who is obsessed with local food.
For one, you can see for yourself how this or that delicacy is prepared. (Our office’s two foreign interns had a great time learning how to prepare rice cakes wrapped in leaves in a Bukidnon indigenous community, something they would have missed had they limited themselves to city hotels and restaurants.)
Another is that the food is placed in an immediate community and domestic cultural context. You consume it in its authentic settings, instead of eating the same food—often “nativized” in a superficial way—in a commercial restaurant, disembodied from its origins.
These two reasons alone make dining with local folks a truly educational experience.
3. Learn from people who know local cooking.
Is your ambition to be the next Anthony Bourdain or Julia Child? Or you just want to be a culturally-sensitive and moderately successful cook who collects native recipes? Whichever the case, one very effective way is to learn from natives of the community who know local cooking.
Befriend them. Take time to listen to their stories and cooking tips. Visit their kitchen and watch them at work. Tag along when they go to the market to buy stuff. Take notes. If they are truly old souls – one book I read tells me that old souls are strongly attached to cooking – they will welcome your interest and share their kitchen secrets with you.
If you don’t have a chance to know them and interact with them personally, there are other ways to communicate with them, especially in this age of the Internet and digital information. Run a quick Google search with a few well-chosen key words. Even just a couple of minutes will most probably lead you to rich troves of online information about regional or provincial cooking in dozens of Philippine culture areas, or at least point your nose in the right direction. Food blogging is one of the fastest growing online genre among Filipinos.
Finally, while on this subject, kindly consider visiting the Nordis blog regularly – if you haven’t yet picked up this very useful habit – and take a peek at Brenda Dacpano’s eminently mouth-watering “Makan a la Pinoy.” You can’t lose, I promise.
Note: This article was first published on 21 August 2011 as a piece for my occasional column, Pathless Travels, in Northern Dispatch (Nordis) Weekly, at www.nordis.net. For this blog, I made slight revisions here and there to improve readability.