Thursday, July 26, 2012

How to Get the Best Food in a Foreign Town (with Photos from Vietnam)

A Vietnamese rice paper roll-up with fresh greens,  zucchini,  cabbage,  carrot,  herbs,  grilled marinated chicken and fried "Vietnamese taquito devices" aka chả giò.

Ingredients for Bun Thit Nuong
Chả Giò - Vietnamese Spring Rolls
I asked our tour guide, the 80+ year old Retired Army Colonel, to take us to his favorite lunch spot in Hoi An, Vietnam. He stopped dead in his tracks, looked at me, and said "You must have a good life if you know to follow your stomach." I think that is one of the biggest compliments I have ever received.

When you travel to eat (which is how you should always travel), you should experience what the locals eat. This takes some practice. Sometimes it's not safe to eat what the locals eat. More frequently, locals will not want to share their haunts with tourists. Sometimes the locals only eat at chain restaurants. But if you follow some guidelines you'll be fairly likely to find yourself a good meal in a foreign place, be it Vietnam or Virginia Beach. 

This is how I go about it:

Ask questions.  This is probably the most important guideline. The concierge at your hotel will point you to "safe" options. Safe doesn't always equal tasty. Often it equals most expensive. In some countries the concierge get tips from restaurants when their guests book. Stop someone on the street, or at a hair salon, or the person turning down your sheets (they know the most affordable places). (US or Abroad)

If you are not in an English speaking country the menu CANNOT be in english.

NO MENU at all is a good sign.

If there is a menu displayed out front WALK the OTHER way. It will be pricier and the food will be worse.

Learn to say "house specialty" or "please choose for me" in the native tongue. If you have allergies or dietary restrictions learn to communicate those as well.

When I travel I always try to learn a few words in the native tongue. Simply saying hello, how are you, and your name will get you an in with most locals. Then you can ask if he/she speaks English. They will be more open to helping you if you can attempt to communicate in their language.

Learning how to order food is another advantage when traveling to eat. I try to say simple things like water, wine, and spicy. Podcasts are a great free way to learn a little bit of a language on the go.

More locals eating or waiting = better meal (US or Abroad)

If it's not busy, it's PROBABLY not good. This rule bends for lunch time and if you are not eating on the local schedule. (US or Abroad)

Trust your gut and your nose. If it smells funny, it probably is. (US or Abroad)

Be friendly and patient. (US or Abroad)

Show enthusiasm! If you're excited to listen and follow you'll get responsive guides. (US or Abroad)

Ok this is really the most important step... BE ADVENTUROUS. (US or Abroad)

Do these things and you are almost guaranteed to have a delicious and exciting meal.

The same roll ups with banh xeo (thin egg crepes) and mung bean sprouts. 

The Grandmother making the banh xeo. You can tell by all of the burners that they get VERY busy. I bet she can man all of them at the same time. 

Grandma and a daughter cleaning the greens.

One of the daughters showing us how to put lunch together. Dad on the right is enthusiastically stuffing his face.

My whole family being shown how to eat lunch. 

Banh Xeo - Vietnamese Egg Crepes with Mung Bean Sprouts

Grandmother and Daughter. The third generation was too fast for the camera.

Biere LaRue, the PBR of Vietnam. 
Check out The Ravenous Couple Blog for some recipes and information about the food we ate in Vietnam: bun thit nuong, chả giò and banh xeo.

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