During my time living in Taiwan, feta cheese, chickpeas and couscous were luxuries that couldn’t be picked up from just any local supermarket. There were far fewer imported goods than what you would see on the shelves of your average UK supermarket, and you couldn’t get fruits or vegetables when they weren’t in season.
At first, I thought this was awful. I wanted to eat dragon fruit all year round! Then, one of our Taiwanese friends said to me: “The earth provides what the body needs at the time it needs it. In the winter, when you need warmth, ginger grows. In the summer, when the weather is hot, watermelons are everywhere.”
I came to realise that eating and buying seasonal, locally grown food was much better. Not only when living at home, but also when travelling.
Local Food is Part of the Culture
Experiencing the local culture is a huge part of travelling and trying traditional food is largely connected with that cultural experience. Visitors to the UK always want to eat fish and chips, Vietnamese pho is the big pull for travellers in Vietnam, and here in Costa Rica it’s all about gallo pinto.
Traditional foods are part of a country’s heritage and are strongly rooted within the memories of the local people. One of my childhood fondest childhood memories of growing up in the UK is eating piping hot fish and chips wet with vinegar on the stormy seafront, while flecks of cold rain hit against my cheeks. Here in Costa Rica, you won’t meet a tico who doesn’t know how to cook gallo pinto, a dish that has passed through generations. It’s the same all over the world and trying traditional foods is a good way to taste a small part of that culture.
Local Food Supports the Community
Supporting the local community is a really important aspect of travel. You can go anywhere in the world and walk into a McDonalds, but instead of benefiting the local community, a large chunk of what you’ve just spent is leaving the local economy. In places where tourism is booming and the demand for Western and fast food is high, local food will become less and less prevalent. These kinds of issues mean that local people in countries across the world are rightfully dubious about tourists and how much good they really do for their home country.
Opting to drink coffee in a local café, snack on street food or have lunch in a local eatery is a simple way to be a socially responsible tourist. Eating in local places supports local businesses and the local economy, and it also builds connections between the local people and travellers. Travellers only staying in one place for a couple of days might think that it’s too short a time to build any relationships, but where you eat will constitute part of the local community’s perception of tourists and sometimes even nationalities as a whole.
Local Food is Better for the Environment
Flying food across the world means a bigger carbon footprint. The average distance our food travels is 1500 miles, and when you start adding that up it’s a lot of energy. Locally grown food doesn’t have half as far to travel and you can usually find local farmers who use sustainable farming methods. Buying locally also means supporting the farmland and green spaces in that area, whether you’re at home or travelling. While we’ve been house sitting in Costa Rica, Luke and I have been buying as much of our food as possible from local farmer’s markets, the local baker and even the neighbours of our house sitters – it definitely doesn’t travel half as far as we do.
Local Food is Fresher & Tastes Better
There is no denying that when your food hasn’t had to travel half way around the world, it’s much fresher. Fruit and vegetables that have been for days in the back of a truck aren’t going to taste like the ones dug up from the allotment down the road. When you travel, you won’t always know which foods are locally grown, but buying from local businesses and markets instead of the chain supermarkets is a good place to start.
Local food is also seasonal, and seasonal food tastes better too. Think about eating a ripe tomato in the summer, bursting with flavour. Compare that to a tomato eaten in the winter, which sometimes just tastes weak and watery. Eating seasonal food is also great because it supports our body’s natural balance. In summer, watermelon, cucumber and courgettes help to cool the body. In colder months, antioxidant-rich root vegetables are harvested; these keep us warm and protect us from illness.
Eating local when you travel…
Before this year, I’d never eaten a rambutan, a chayote or a yuca. If I hadn’t been eating local food, I never would have either. Local foods are different everywhere you travel, they grow depending on the climate and seasonal changes of that country, and there is always something new waiting to be discovered.
Do you eat local when you travel? What are the most awesome foods you’ve discovered?