That doesn’t necessarily mean a splurge meal at a flashy fine dining restaurant. Often the best food travel is about nosing out those immersive experiences that help you get into the spirit of a place. If that sounds like your approach to travel – and eating – make sure these trips are already on your bucket list.
On Spain’s northern Basque coast, tiny San Sebastián has carved out a huge place in the imagination of world foodies. That’s partly due to its heavyweight fine-dining options, with an overabundance of Michelin-starred restaurants (more per capita than anywhere in the world). But San Sebastián’s greatest gourmet pleasures are more accessible.
The town’s parte vieja (old quarter), overlooking its crescent-shaped beach, is crammed with tiny bars showcasing the most inventive tapas in Spain. Stand at a counter piled high with pintxos – bite-sized taste sensations of innumerable variation – choose the ones that appeal most and wash them down with txakoli, the Basque region’s sharp white wine. Move on to the next bar and repeat, again and again, with a happy crowd of locals and tourists doing exactly the same thing.
Some would say that you can’t really understand a cuisine until you’ve taken a peek under the hood. Spending some time in a Vietnamese kitchen is the best way to get an insight into one of Asia’s great underrated cuisines – plus you’ll gain some impressive additions to your take-home cooking repertoire. Fresh and delicious signature dishes – salads of banana flower and watercress, betel-leaf wrapped morsels, hearty clay-pot dishes – the food is varied, simple and surprising, a world of kitchen discovery.
At Red Bridge Cooking School in Hoi An, the experience begins with a trip to the local market to discover the ingredients, followed by a hands-on class where you’ll learn to cook a number of dishes. Then it’s time to eat, in the company of your new sous-chef friends.
Argentina’s reputation for producing the world’s best beef, free range and grass fed on the country’s vast pampas, is on your plate to be judged at one of the capital’s many parrilla, or steakhouses. Parilla refers to the enormous open grill that takes pride of place, where flames lick steaks, ribs, chorizo and even – vegetarians beware – whole identifiable chunks of animal.
And don’t think the offering stops there: sweetbreads, chitterlings (small intestines) and testicles are all on the menu. Brush up on your restaurant Spanish and jump in. Liberal application of chimichurri, the tasty local garlic-and-chilli condiment, and malbec, the country’s signature wine, are heartily recommended.
Merely inhaling the sublime wafts floating from ordinary patisseries and fromageries as you walk by is worthy of inclusion on this list: visiting the place where the very concept ‘restaurant’ originated is a necessary food pilgrimage. But here are three specifics. One, eat at a bouillon, one of the few remaining working-man’s cantines serving up hearty portions of French classics – think pot-au-feu and boeuf bourguignon – in an old-world elegant setting at a ridiculously reasonable price. We recommend Bouillon Chartier for the most authentic step back in time.
Next, dine at a neo-bistro, one of the youthful and unfussy restaurants reinventing French cuisine for modern foodies. And third, visit a boulangerie early in the morning or late in the afternoon when they have just pulled fresh baguettes from the oven, buy one still warm, and nibble off the end as you walk home. It’s France in a mouthful.
You might find classic street dishes like deep-fried chicken with Thai spices, green papaya salad or grilled pork skewers, but you’ll also come across many delicious-looking items you’ve never seen before. Order them. Thai street food is affordable enough that it’s not a problem if you need to discard and try again. The biggest thrill: banana-leaf wrapped mysteries. It may be sticky rice, it may be a piece of fish, it may be dessert. You won’t know until you bite in!
Only decades ago it would have been almost unthinkable for Britain to feature on a foodie bucket list. But Borough Market reflects the best of modern London: proudly multicultural, open and curious about other cuisines, and furiously gourmet. It’s a high-end produce market where you can pick up rare-breed pig products, the best of British cheese, Jamaican condiments, spirits handcrafted in east London, and an awe-inspiring range of other unique treats.
And it’s also the food court of your dreams, with stalls serving up hot roast hog-in-a-roll, Cypriot street food, trad meat pies with mushy peas, Bermondsey cheese raclette… If you’ve ever dreamed of eating it, they’re serving it for lunch at Borough Market, alongside a host of undreamed-of delights. It’s worth staying close enough to revisit – one is nowhere near enough.
The whirl of colours, people and products at a Moroccan market are mesmerising, but we’re here for the food. Brightly hued spices piled high, a riot of seasonal produce, mountains of olives and forests of herbs, stacks of freshly baked flatbreads and a menagerie of live beasts and birds… Look out for some signature products: the essential spice mix ras el-hanout made from up to 40 ingredients, honey scented with thyme or lavender from the Atlas mountains, tagine (the cooking vessel, not the dish) made from terracotta and glazed with multicoloured designs.
Follow the locals to find where’s good to eat: if crumbed calves’ liver or steamed sheep’s head are not for you, at least try Café Clock’s famous camel burger, comfortingly served with fries and salad.
Epicentre of what is arguably the world’s greatest cuisine, Tokyo presents an overwhelming checklist of unique dining experiences. Start with its fast-food poster child: ramen. With over 10,000 ramen joints (including two Michelin-starred) in the city, the choice is hard; we recommend Menya Itto. Next, discover the ethereal, stripped-back tradition of soba – for the most authentic experience, try Sarashina Horii.
For sushi, it’s still the Tsukiji neighbourhood – even though the famous fish auction recently moved to the suburbs, the vibrant market, crammed with sublime hole-in-the-wall places, is the world capital of adventures in raw fish. Round off your Tokyo food tour at an izakaya, a Japanese pub, where drink-friendly snacks like gyoza and yakitori accompany copious rounds of sake or Asahi. Kanpai!
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