The Importance of Eating Local When You Travel

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.

8 Rambutans at the farmers market in Quepos Costa Rica - Charlie on Travel
Rambutans at the farmers market in Quepos, Costa Rica.

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.

Eating local Breakfast traditional costa rican
Traditional Costa Rican breakfast of gallo pinto at the local farmer’s market in Puriscal.

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.

Me eating local delicious pupusa in Nicaragua
Me eating a delicious pupusa, a local Nicaraguan street food.

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.

eating local Costa Rican cheese from farmers market
Local Costa Rican cheese from the farmer’s market in Puriscal.

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.

Charlie at Quepos farmers market - Charlie on Travel
Fresh fruit and vegetables at the local farmer’s market in Quepos, Costa Rica.

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?

Charlie Marchant

Charlie is a long-term traveller from the UK who writes about simple ways to travel sustainably, including how to become a house sitter and slow traveller, eating local and vegetarian, and making responsible travel choices.

19 thoughts to “The Importance of Eating Local When You Travel”

    1. That’s super awesome, Franca. Yes, the same with vegetarianism too, though definitely easier than veganism. From what I’ve read about your vegan eating though, it looks like you’ve been doing an awesome job of finding vegan places!

  1. I recognize Granada!

    I totally agree that it’s important for a number of reasons to eat local while traveling. While it’s usually quite easy to hole yourself up in a comfortable chain restaurant, where’s the fun in that?!
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  2. Fantastic message Charlie! I agree with everything you have written, where possible I try to eat and spend money locally too. Apart from the fact that it usually tastes better and of course is more authentic, it’s also about what your Taiwanese friend said:

    “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.”

    Eating seasonal food is more economical, efficient and eco-friendly, and above all, it’s a nice way to feel more connected with nature. Who doesn’t love going to farmer’s markets? Or picking fruit off the bramble!

    “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.”

    Amen. I’m sick of hearing how tourism is good for a country’s economy. Done rightly, yes I agree it is, but most of the time there is no emphasis on sustainable travel. Most of the time tourism – mass tourism – is only good for the rich people on top who own the big hotels and the big restaurants but what about local life? It’s no where to be seen! The consequence of mass tourism is the death of local life. It can wipe away small businesses, families, nature and then what’s left? The vision of greed.
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    1. Hey Shing! That’s awesome, and yes you’re right, everyone loves picking fruits from the bushes and farmer’s markets, well I hope they do anyway! I completely agree with you when it comes to the tourism/local economy argument. I think that a lot of people just don’t really think about it and just think, ‘well, sure, I’m in the country, spending my money there,’ but it’s almost certainly not the case in areas where foreign owned chain restaurants and hotels have been able to butt in. It’s also not a unique experience to stay in the nearest Hilton and eat your McDonalds…

      1. My fiancé and I were just talking about this recently. He’s moved to an out island in The Bahamas, where tourism is the main industry and even the much-less-touristy southern parts of the island (where he lives) have given up on farming- most of their food is imported now. The only real “local” food you can get is pineapples, or fish, although activists are asking people to stop eating anything made with conch because of the over “fishing” of that animal. It’s sad, but there are still some local people who harvest indigenous plants for food or medicine. And there are a couple of organic farms on the island, thank goodness!

        My fiancé is also employed by The Island School, which is a fully sustainable research center and semester school here on the southern end at Cape Eleuthera. They grow a lot of their own food, including using hydroponics for some produce. Even though it’s not really local, per se, at least it’s supporting a good operation, which also employs many Bahamians. So we feel pretty good about it. Not a McDonald’s anywhere on the island! =)
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        1. Hey Sarah – that’s awesome! Sounds like a real adventure and a great place to be working. How did he get involved with it? I think that I would consider growing your own local too – the boundaries of definition are often lose and very dependent on personal opinion with that kind of thing though.

          Such a shame about the food importing and the farming/overfishing situation. I worry a lot about that kind of thing happening, even in the UK where we import tonnes of our fruits and veggies and have stopped growing loads of things that our land is capable of providing just because importing is cheaper.

    1. That’s awesome. Yes, I heard that from a lot of the Taiwanese too, but equally I did know a lot of foreigners who ate in McDonalds a couple of times a week.. So they’re not completely off. But yes, I don’t think I’ve eaten in a McDonalds in about 8 years if not longer!

  3. YES! I love love love eating local. I laughed out loud at the first sentence since I could totally understand about specialty grocery shopping in Taiwan. Once I tried to make a four-cheese pizza and I think it cost us around $50 just to buy ingredients haha! But it definitely taught me to appreciate all the reasons you noted above why eating local is amazing. For me I associate food so much with the places we travel to, so I can’t imagine now not eating arepas in Colombia and beef noodle soup in Taiwan and fish tacos in Mexico :)

    1. I know right! Oh my gosh, I can just imagine how expensive and what an effort it would be to try and make a four cheese pizza – I would never have even bothered thinking about it out in LuoDong haha! Yes, I also have strong associations of food and places, even for a vegetarian there are plenty of foods – gallo pinto in Costa Rica, daylily soup in Taiwan… omnom.

    1. Thanks, Silvia! Yes, the same with my budget too, which is one of the great things about being a budget traveller actually as it forces you to look harder for local food rather than take the easy options.

      Ohh, me too. Just like Casey also said, I really attach foods to places and can’t think about many countries without also thinking about a food I ate there. What was the bread like in Kygryzstan? I have no clue!

  4. I love trying new street food! Best chapati, roti and masala chai I tried in India was from street vendors. Besides, it’s often safer to eat local food when you travel. It’s fresher and cooked properly, whereas chances of getting food poison if you order something “foreign” (like a steak in India ) rise to 99%.

    And I’m absolutely into your point that eating local food makes you discover more about the country. French food differs so significantly from region to region! There’s no such thing as French national dish, but a number of regional delicacies that make French cuisine :)

    P.S. Your new design looks so lovely!
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    1. Hey Elena! Oh chapati, roti, masala chai in India sounds amazing. I never even really considered that – and just this week I’ve had food poisoning for the first time ever while travelling (it’s pretty rare for vegetarians usually I guess) but that’s definitely something worth thinking about.

      I remember your delicious post about French pastries and desserts, so I know that we’re on the same page about places and food! :)

      Thank you :)

  5. This is a really eloquently written argument for something that should be common sense, but is often forgotten. One of the best things about travelling is that you can try so many different types of local food without it having to be transported. Our fruit is so bad most of the time in England, but elsewhere in the right season, delicious mangoes are practically free there’s so many!
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    1. Thank you, Katie, I really appreciate you saying so :) I completely agree about fruit in England, especially the mangoes and pineapples and any kind of tropical fruit. They just always pale in comparison to when you get to eat them in their native countries, and when we produce such good apples and strawberries there’s really just no need!

  6. Hey this is amazing!
    Love eating local when I travel. Local food takes you really close to local culture and the people. I think being able to taste local food adds to the list of awesome experiences that most travelers are looking for. It just makes travel so wonderful. Although I agree, finding vegan food everywhere is sometimes a challenge but life is better with this challenge! :)

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