Exploring countries through their food and drink
Eating and drinking local fare is one of the best ways to get an insight into a country’s culture. Our specialists have distilled some of the best food experiences from their recent travels, from cooking courses and street food tours to al fresco fine dining, here are their highlights.
A street food tour of Calcutta, India by Graham
Plated dishes, roadside eatery, Calcutta
Graham eating a kati roll
Chinese, Armenian, Jewish, Muslim and Bengali cultures have influenced Calcutta’s wildly varying selection of street snacks.
We began our tour in the late afternoon, cooling off with a glass of falooda. This is a rose-syrup drink mixed with milk, first brought to India by Muslim traders. Moving into the markets, I tried some delicious chhaana (soft, Portuguese-style cheese), and freshly baked biscuits. Locals are known for having a sweet tooth so a lot of the street food on offer is generously coated with sugary syrup.
Nipping across to India’s only Chinatown, I tried a crispy fried dumpling before we tackled the most popular food in Calcutta, the kati roll. A rolled chapatti smothered with egg and spices, it’s unique to the city. As the sun began to set, we joined locals perched on pavements enjoying a cup of chai: spiced Indian tea served in a small clay cup.
Exploring Saigon’s local food by night, Vietnam, by Eleanor
Vespas in Saigon
Eleanor on a vespa, Saigon
Although Vietnam’s cuisine is widely celebrated, Saigon in particular is not well known for its food – unless you know where to go. One night during my stay there, I hopped on the back of a Vespa and joined a ‘Saigon After Dark’ tour. It’s a great way of getting out of the busy, commercial areas and meeting and eating with local people.
Over the course of the evening, I rode pillion through Saigon’s winding streets, taking pit stops at my guide’s recommended eateries and tiny, unassuming restaurants.
Out of everything I ate that evening, Banh bo (neat steamed pork buns) dipped in an orange sauce were particularly delicious. A more unusual highlight were crispy frogs’ legs, nicknamed ‘Vietnamese KFC’. Surprisingly, they tasted just like chicken wings.
Ingenious gelato in Sydney, Australia, by Ross
Ice cream selection
Ross next to a giant termite mound
The Australian food scene is vibrant and experimental, blissfully free of the culinary conventions that hold sway in some other countries. When I lived in Sydney, I discovered how the country is reinventing Italy’s version of ice cream – gelato.
Walking through Chinatown one day, I noticed a large crowd staring into a shop. Inside, people in lab coats were pouring what looked like clouds into silver bowls with mixers spinning in them.
But it wasn't just for show. One of the ‘lab assistants’ explained that this was liquid nitrogen, which, at minus 196C (320.8F), freezes the crème anglaise mixture instantly, avoiding micro ice crystals. It makes for the smoothest gelato I’ve ever tried. My top pick? Crème brûlée: the sugar topping is browned with a blow torch, just like the French dessert.
Cooking Sancocho in Colombia, by Kate
Kate with the chef at Boutique Hotel Sazagua
Latin American dish of Sancocho
Boutique Hotel Sazagua, located in the jungle-clad cordillera of Colombia’s secluded coffee region, runs a great traditional cooking class.
The lesson takes place under a covered gazebo in the hotel’s garden. Here, I learned we’d be making the Latin American dish of Sancocho – rustic chicken stew using plantains, corn, coriander (cilantro) and cumin.
A charismatic professional cook led the class – she was refreshingly hands-on, and I found out that she was once a celebrity chef on Colombian TV.
The whole process took about 30 minutes, then we sat down to eat our creations with a glass of chilled wine. I’ve since recreated the recipe many times at home.
Georgian food and vodka tasting in St Petersburg, Russia, by Nick
Nick vodka tasting in Russia
Nick getting ready for his cookery class
When I visited, I especially enjoyed learning about the Soviet-era prohibition of vodka. I was also offered three shots of the spirit, each one varying in strength, accompanied by some classic Russian snacks such as pickled herring, cucumbers and dill.
No tasting should be done on an empty stomach – a good excuse to treat yourself to a hearty lunch beforehand. There’s borscht (beetroot soup), but as an alternative, try one of St Petersburg’s many Georgian restaurants. Meals typically consist of spinach and nut-based starters, followed by meat or beans. Khachapuri would be my top recommendation – a tasty cheese-filled bread, served with an egg cracked on top.
Chocolate making in Cuzco, Peru, by Ella
Coca Museum, Cuzco
Pods on a cacao tree
On arrival in Cuzco, most people will need to spend a day or two slowly exploring the city in order to get accustomed to the altitude. It’s a great opportunity to visit the Museo del Chocolate. Peru may not be a country you’d associate with chocolate, but this South American nation has been cultivating cocoa for years.
At this quirky, light-hearted museum, you can sample the many types of cacao grown locally. You can even take part in a workshop that takes you through the chocolate-making process, starting with the raw material: cacao beans.
With guidance, I made my own chocolate from scratch, using extra ingredients such as coca leaves and flecks of gold leaf. It was the darkest, richest chocolate I’ve ever tasted.
A cooking course in Yunnan, China, by Sophie
Sophie doing a cooking class
Chinese vegetables for sale
China’s huge size gives it an advantage when it comes to food. Each region has developed its distinct specialities, from Beijing’s Peking duck and spicy Sichuan hotpot, to the Burmese and Tibetan-influenced cuisine of Yunnan Province.
Yunnan’s food reflects the ethnic minorities living in the area. Visiting local markets, you’ll shop alongside traditionally dressed hill tribe people at stalls selling edible flowers, baba (pancake-like bread) and pu’er tea.
In Dali, a lakeside city in the province, I joined a cooking class run by local resident Luxi Yuan. After she’d talked us through the use of spices in Chinese cuisine, we made classic Chinese dishes such as spicy kung pao chicken and tofu.
Winelands Classic Cape Cuisine Walk, South Africa, by Kristin
Kristin wine tasting in Stellenbosch
The oldest butchery in South Africa
We stopped at a local tea shop, where I tried varieties of rooibos tea. This berry-red beverage was introduced to colonial settlers by local people, who’d scale mountains in order to bring back rooibos leaves. Believed to help cure headaches, insomnia and asthma, the refreshing taste has led to it becoming my tea of choice.
Next, we visited the oldest butchery in South Africa, where I tried the popular snack of biltong (jerky). Other standout delicacies included bobotie (minced meat casserole), chakalaka (spicy vegetable relish), and koesister (syrup-infused pastry).
Discover Dublin’s artisanal food scene, Ireland, by Max
Grafton Street, Dublin
Ireland has embraced the farm-to-table movement with enthusiasm, and over the past few decades a wide variety of artisanal producers have sprung up to take advantage of the island’s abundance. Much of this burgeoning culinary scene is based in the streets and shops of Dublin. From crumbling farmhouse cheeses to chocolatey stouts, the city boasts a plethora of artisanal treats if you know where to look.
On a recent visit, I took a guided tour of the city’s many independent shops that are selling hand-crafted foods. My knowledgeable guide, Eveleen, led me on an ambling three-hour tour of Dublin’s backstreets, pausing at a handful of purveyors for tastings. Along the way, I also gained a brief history of the city as Eveleen pointed out important sites and architectural details.
The best thing I ate was a warm blueberry scone from a tiny bakery. The tender and buttery treat was just the thing on a blustery spring day.