5 Culinary Experiences for the Well-Travelled Food Lover
One thing we’ve learnt over the years is that if you’re looking for great food, the locals know best. We’ve found some of the tastiest Thai street food on a tour with a Bangkok resident and a particularly fragrant tagine when invited into a family home in Fez. Our specialists have put their heads together to suggest some of the best ways to experience local delicacies and home cooking.
Cape Town Eats private walking tour
By South Africa specialist Sophie
Once ruled by both Dutch and British colonists, Cape Town has a rich food culture that marries the city’s European influences with its African roots. During the colonial era, slaves were brought over from Indonesia, India, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Over the centuries, their culinary influences have been passed down through generations of the Cape Malay community.
On this five-and-a-half-hour tour, I sampled dishes that have been prepared and eaten by locals of different ethnicities for centuries. With my private guide, I visited family-run eateries, sizzling street stalls and artisan coffee roasters, while learning about the history and culture of each area and getting to know the people who cook this food every day.
Exploring the city’s African food traditions, I tried a portion of pap — a plain, very thick, porridge-like dish made from maize that’s a staple across Southern Africa. My guide explained that the thickness is so that it can be eaten by hand.
In the vividly painted Bo Kaap district, you can sample Cape Malay specialties such as samosas freshly prepared that morning, babotie (spiced mince baked with a golden egg-based topping), and koesisters (spiced doughnuts).
Visiting an Indian eatery, I ate my first bunny chow (a rich curry served in a hollowed out loaf of bread). We then compared this to the Afrikaans-influenced vetkoek (fried dough bread filled with well-seasoned ground beef).
Finally, we called into an independent micro coffee roaster. The owner talked us through the coffee-making process, before I sat down for a mug of some of the best coffee I’ve ever had.
Street-food tour of Calcutta
By India specialist Andy
Ifte, a Calcutta local, and his tiny team don’t run guided tours. Instead, they offer a chance to roam the city with a trained explorer, visiting less-frequented districts.
Take a street-food walk and you’ll find yourself wandering down dusty streets, past a rickshaw-wallah taking a nap, to find a tiny, steaming room where puri (crispy bread) is being fried. You’ll be led to an open shopfront where a man sits, patiently tending to a vat of brewing chai. When it’s ready, the sweet, spiced tea is served in little clay cups, thousands of which are made and recycled by potters across the city each day.
As capital of British India, Calcutta became a global city, a history that you can taste in the chow mein served in Tiretta Bazar and Armenian dolma (stuffed vegetables) in the flower market. Ifte was eager for me to try a kathi roll, Calcutta’s most popular snack. Scrambled egg is spread across a paratha (fried unleavened bread) and topped with chutney, paneer and vegetables before being expertly rolled together.
Bengalis are known for their collective sweet tooth, and, after trying some of Calcutta’s sweets and puddings, I understand why. We walked past a number of glass-fronted sweet stalls where dairy, nuts and sugar (the key ingredients in most Indian sweets) have been assembled into a variety of balls and squares.
Rasgulla are white dumpling-shaped balls of cottage cheese that have been soaked in a very sweet syrup so that they dissolve in your mouth. If that’s a little too much sugar, I suggest finishing with mishti doi, a sweetened yoghurt (served in another clay pot). Here, the sugar is curbed by the tang of the yoghurt — it’s a refreshing break from the Calcutta heat.
Thai food tour of Bangkok
By Thailand specialist Sophie
Much has been written about Bangkok’s street food. There may be sky bars with panoramic views and fine-dining restaurants with innovative tasting menus, but in Bangkok, it’s the street stalls that steal the limelight.
The city’s street food has, with good reason, become legendary but frankly, I find this can make it all a little overwhelming. There are so many regions to explore and specialities to taste that it can be hard to know where to start. For me, the best way to make the most of your time in the city is to take a guided tour with a local resident.
With my guide, I explored Bang Rak, a commercial district where hundreds of food stalls are tucked into side streets and back alleys to feed the office workers in the skyscrapers that tower above. Many workers have moved here from across Thailand, and are always eager to find dishes from their home town or province. It’s an ideal way to dip your toe into regional specialities that you might see elsewhere in your trip.
My guide and I perched in tiny plastic chairs to sample gaeng massaman, a thick curry from southern Thailand. Served with a rich coconut-milk-based sauce, I’m glad we opted for a small portion. As I tried tom yum goong, a fragrant, sweet-and-sour soup, my guide explained the importance of balance in Thai cuisine between sweet, salty, sour and spice.
You’ll also get a feel for the heat of Thai food, and can learn key Thai words including mai phet (no spice) or phet nit noi (a little spice). If you do like fiery dishes, try laab, a minced pork dish from northeast Thailand that’s served with plenty of fresh chillis, coriander and fish sauce.
Cooking class in Fez
By Morocco specialist Ninwa
There’s a saying in my native Syria that’s common across the Middle East: ‘beinanaa khobz wa milah’ or ‘there is bread and salt between us’. It means that once you’ve shared a meal with someone, there’s a strong bond of friendship between you. It’s indicative of the welcome you’re likely to find across the region. Perhaps the most delicious way I’ve ever experienced that hospitality was a cooking class with Ouliya at her family’s riad in Fez.
Ouliya is a perpetually smiling woman with dark hair that she wore back in a knot on the day we met. She began by taking me through the fragrant food souqs to get provisions for that day’s menu: chicken tagine and a hearty soup called harira. She introduced me to the vendors and explained where the different ingredients came from before we headed back to her home.
Though most riads in the medina have been converted to hotels, hers is still a traditional family home, with most rooms, including the small kitchen, facing onto the sunny courtyard. We began by mixing up the bread dough, and once it was risen, we took it to the communal ovens to be baked. Then I helped her make the main meal, following her casual instructions for a pinch of this and a sprinkle of that.
As the dishes cooked in the funnel-shaped terracotta tagine, we sipped tiny glasses of sweet mint tea off an engraved tray. We ate the meal in the family courtyard, near the white fountain. Enjoying our stew and tagine with her family, I felt like there was bread and salt between us.
Cartagena market visit and private cooking class, Colombia
By Colombia specialist Tomas
Cartagena, Colombia’s quaint walled city on the Caribbean Sea, is brimming with good places to eat. Not surprisingly, seafood (and the signature local tipple, rum) features highly on menus. But so do some of the zany-looking, neon-bright tropical fruits so beloved to everyday cooking in this country.
In this cooking class held at Carmen, one of the city’s most celebrated fine dining restaurants, you’ll learn how to work with this produce and make artful yet satisfying dishes using it.
We started off not in a kitchen, but in one of the city’s strictly-locals-only markets, Bazurto, where I was accompanied by Jaime, Carmen’s head chef.
Bazurto is located outside Cartagena’s city ramparts in an area where few foreign visitors venture. It’s a messy jumble of stallholders preparing freshly caught fish, splitting coconuts, hanging pig carcasses and arranging vast heaps of fruit and vegetables in baskets. It’s real-life, unpretentious, no-frills Cartagena (expect to see people wandering around barefoot), but it’s here many chefs come to glean prime ingredients.
Jaime chatted to me about Colombian cuisine while picking out some of the choicest fruit specimens for me to try: scaly-skinned but sweet-fleshed cherimoya (‘custard apples’) and the piercingly citrusy, tangerine-like lulo.
Back in Carmen’s kitchens, Jaime coaxed me into preparing a three-course lunch using some of the fruits and fresh fish we’d just bought, as well as some more classic Caribbean ingredients: green plantains, coconut rice, and fresh palm hearts.
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