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One of the best ways to experience a destination, we believe, is through authentic food.
To open up to new flavors and tastes and experience the local culture in deeper and more profound ways.
So, how do you find authentic food on your travels?
This is exactly what we do at Authentic Food Quest.
Our culinary travels around the world are aimed at finding the best local food to help inspire you to eat local and connect to the culture through food.
In this article, we share the best tips we’ve used to find authentic food in 45 countries and 250+ food cities.
What Is Authentic Food?
The definition of “authentic food” is a loaded term. Its definition is not simple, as dishes travel and evolve over time.
As the culinary explorers behind Authentic Food Quest, we keep our definition of “authentic food” very simple.
For us, authentic food is rooted in a place and culture. It needs to meet the following criteria:
- Real ingredients: This is food made with “real” ingredients. These ingredients are endemic to the place or are a part of the culinary culture through trade or historic occupation. Nothing manufactured, nothing fake, just traditional ingredients.
- Simple: For us, authenticity in food means simple food. These are dishes that are not overly complicated with cooking techniques or an abundance of condiments. These are simple dishes with recipes born out of the resources available.
- Rooted in place: The authenticity of food, we believe, is directly tied to a geographic place. The ingredients, recipes, and cooking techniques are directly linked to how the traditional food is expressed. Fundamental aspects like soil, weather, climate, and culinary history play a key role in the authenticity of food.
10 Tips on How To Find Authentic Local Food on Your Travels
1. Research Ahead But Leave Room For Surprises
Before you leave on your trip, do some research. Read up on the local and authentic dishes in the area. Ask for recommendations from people who have been there. And, better yet, if they can introduce you to someone local.
While planning our culinary travels, we make it a point to ask. We reach out to friends, friends of friends, and connections on social media to get a sense of the flavors of the place ahead of time.
One thing that consistently surprises us is how willing people are to help. We’ve found people to be proud of their countries and willing to share their favorite foods, memories, and experiences.
Hidden Bars & Ice Cream Parlors
While exploring Buenos Aires’ local foods, we connected with a local recommended by a former colleague.
She graciously showed us around the city and introduced us to popular specialties such as alfajores and her favorite ice cream spot.
Were it not for her, we would never have discovered “hidden bars.” Argentina is famous for closed-door restaurants called Puerta Cerradas, where you can enjoy meals from some of the city’s best chefs.
They are hidden, which implies that they are not easy to find. Knowing a local gave us access.
Similarly, while in Athens, a local surprised us by introducing us to a longstanding traditional dairy bar, with outstanding sheep milk products.
We hadn’t found these experiences in our research and were deliciously surprised. As you research ahead of time, leave room for surprises and new culinary gems on your travels.
2. Visit The Local Farmers Markets
Farmers markets are a vibrant mixture of sights, colors, sounds, and intoxicating aromas. No matter what’s for sale – fresh produce, meats, seafood, or prepared foods, you get a sense of the local culture.
If you want to see how locals shop and eat, get off the tourist path and get to know the more authentic side of a destination.
Two important questions we ask whenever we arrive at a new destination are; “is there a local farmers market?” and “what day is the farmer’s market?”
This information helps anchor our local culinary experiences as well as fill up our refrigerator wherever we’re staying.
At the local markets, you immediately see what is fresh and in season. If something catches your eye, don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Smile and use body language if the language is foreign.
RELATED: Your Guide To Athens Food Markets
Order Sustainably and In Season
When you know what is in season, this will help you avoid making mistakes at restaurants.
For example, while in Chile, one of the local seafood specialties we wanted to try was Locos or Chilean Abalone.
We learned it is strictly controlled and available only in the summer months. Fortunately, we were there in the summer and got a chance to taste fresh locos.
However, in our discussion with the fishmongers, it was disturbing to learn that many restaurants keep locos on their menus all year round for tourists.
We’ve heard this “all-year-round availability for tourists” in many countries, we’ve visited.
Rather than encourage the year-round availability of certain specialties, which often has a negative environmental impact, eat what’s in season.
By visiting the markets and seeing what’s in season, you can choose restaurant meals wisely.
You’ll enjoy better-tasting dishes, and protect the natural species while supporting local producers.
3. Discover Gems At The Local Food Stores
Chances are you will probably be visiting museums or major attractions on your next trip.
Consider adding local food stores as part of the attractions to visit.
Local food stores and local supermarkets are like “food museums.” They give you a look into the culinary heritage of a place.
Make a point to visit the local food stores with the same curiosity as you do a museum. Instead of seeing art or sculptures, you will be seeing the authentic foods of the region.
Get lost in the aisles of the local food store or local supermarket.
What kind of coffee, bread, or soap is available? How many types of bottled water are featured? Do you recognize the snacks?
Italian Snacks and Treasures
Local food stores are an important source of discoveries on our culinary travels.
We can spend hours at a local food store comparing and contrasting the products to the ones we use regularly.
Italy, a country we’ve visited multiple times for extended periods, continually fascinates us.
The sheer number of different pasta types filling the aisles is mind-boggling. Aisles filled from top to bottom with hundreds of different pasta types.
Fusilli, penne, fettuccine, different types of spaghetti based on thickness, pasta with egg, colorful pasta, and more.
Not to be forgotten is the equally impressive variety of pasta sauces, from tomato-based to pesto sauces.
Our favorite section in a local Italian food store is the biscuit aisle. The selection and diversity of Italian cookies that come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors are irresistible.
Local food stores are treasure troves for unique culinary finds and should be approached like a museum visit.
4. Take A Food Tour
Depending on how much time you have, you may want to consider taking a food tour with a local guide.
The best food tour guides take you to the backstreets to discover the hidden gems and meet the people behind the food.
You quickly get to know the “culinary soul” of a place in a local and intimate food tour experience.
We take food tours whenever we travel to gain local insights about the dishes and culinary history of the region.
In Asia, A Chef’s Tour is our favorite food tour company, as the tours are led by local chefs and food experts.
Add a food tour to your travel itinerary and discover the local foods and authentic cuisine.
Get Insider Tips
One of the best parts about taking food tours is getting tips from a local. Food tour guides are generally very happy to share their favorite restaurants, dishes, wine bars, and more.
While we were in Florence, Italy exploring the local food specialties. We loved the local tips our food tour guide, Lorenzo, shared.
One of the best tips he gave us was to buy sandwiches at the local food markets instead of at the overpriced tourist sandwich shops.
At the local food stores, you choose your bread, the slices of Italian prosciutto you want, and your preferred Italian cheese.
Not only are the sandwiches cheaper, but they are also freshly made to order.
Local guides offer the best food tips making your visit even more delicious.
5. Attend Local Food Festivals
Attending local food festivals is a great way to learn about the people and culture of the place you are traveling to.
If there happens to be a local food festival in the area you are visiting, make a point to stop by.
That way, you’ll see the regional cuisines and culinary traditions.
Finding the local food festivals is not always easy. The best ways we have found to learn about local festivals is by reading signs or flyers on the streets and asking locals.
The country’s cuisine and culture are celebrated at local festivals giving you a window into discovering what’s local and authentic.
La Gouline From Loire Valley in France
We never miss an opportunity to attend local food and wine festivals on our travels. Not only do we discover local specialties, but we also meet the chefs and learn more.
At a wine festival in the Loire Valley, France, we had a remarkable and rare opportunity to meet the creator of a local food specialty.
Chef Pascal Favre-d’Anne, a Michelin-starred chef, was at the festival with an emblematic plate for the city of Angers he helped create.
Known as “La Gouline,” it’s a type of pie or “tourte” filled with regional ingredients.
We didn’t know about La Gouline before visiting the Loire Valley. And we could not have been more thrilled to meet the creator of the dish.
Local food and wine festivals are full of surprises and are great places to understand what’s considered authentic in that region.
6. Take A Cooking Class
One simple way to find authentic food is to sign up for a local cooking class.
Working alongside local chefs, you’ll learn about the local ingredients and emblematic recipes while picking up new cooking techniques.
Some cooking classes also offer local market visits where you pick up fresh ingredients and meet the local producers.
Cooking classes play a central role in our exploration of local and traditional food specialties.
We’ve found the cooking instructors to be passionate about the recipes and local food culture in general.
The conversations and cultural exchange that happen while making recipes are key to understanding what authenticity means in that culture and cuisine.
In addition to enjoying the great food you make, you’ll have priceless memories.
Spaghetti Bolognese Doesn’t Exist
When we arrived in Bologna, Italy, we wanted to learn how to make the famous pasta dishes from the region.
Spaghetti bolognese, we quickly learned does not exist. Instead, what you’ll find is Tagliatelle al ragu.
In a Bologna cooking class with a “sfogline” or traditional fresh pasta maker, we learned about the real “tagliatelle al ragu.”
We debunked the myths of Spaghetti Bolognese while learning to make fresh egg pasta and the rich and creamy ragù sauce.
In cooking classes, you get a deeper understanding of local dishes and traditions beyond hyped-up recipes and interpretations.
7. Eat Off The Beaten Path
You probably know that restaurants in tourist areas should be avoided when seeking authentic food experiences.
Resist the temptation to grab a seat and eat in a popular square with restaurants all around.
Walk as far as you can from the main tourist attraction sites. The further you go, you will find better and cheaper food.
Restaurants around popular tourist spots cater to “tourists.” As a result, the dishes offered tend to be Westernized versions of traditional foods.
To taste the authentic flavors of a place, don’t be afraid to go out and explore.
Flavors of the Desert
The Atacama Desert in Chile is the oldest and driest desert in the world.
While in the country, we went to the Atacama Desert to discover desert flavors and regional cuisine.
San Pedro de Atacama, the main city, is a slow-paced charming touristy town. Leading up to the main plaza are dusty streets lined with adobe brown-colored buildings.
This area is full of restaurants with servers standing outside trying to lure you in.
Claire’s birthday was approaching, and we wanted to celebrate at an authentic restaurant.
We decided to get off the main plaza and explore the outskirts. No map and no guidebook. Just curiosity and a sense of discovery.
It was by taking the road less traveled that we stumbled onto Baltinache restaurant.
The restaurant’s specialty was indigenous cuisine, a mix of Mapuche (indigenous Chileans) with local desert ingredients.
We ended up having one of the most delicious and creative Chilean cuisines. We also met the chef and learned about her Mapuche upbringing.
No matter how tempting nearby restaurants may seem, keep walking. You’ll be rewarded with amazing meals and cherished moments.
8. Eat at Speciality Restaurants for Local Foods
Most places you’ll visit on your culinary travels will have a local food specialty. There is going to be at least one celebrated dish or dessert.
For instance, in Portugal, pastel de nata or Portuguese egg tart is the most iconic dessert you don’t want to miss.
If you are in Valencia, Spain, you don’t want to miss Paella. And, the same is true for Moussaka in Greece.
With the popularity of these national dishes, you’ll find them served everywhere. With that comes a varying degree of quality and authenticity to the recipe.
In these cases, we go to and recommend eating at places that are dedicated to respecting the traditions of making that specialty.
Skip the restaurants with menus that have multiple pages of dishes and try the local specialty at an artisanal producer.
Cuy in Peru
In Cusco, Peru, Cuy or guinea pig is one of the local specialties. While exploring the local food specialties, neither one of us was particularly excited about trying this furry animal.
Given that it was part of our quest for authentic and local specialties, we knew we needed to try it.
We told ourselves that we would only have it one time in our lives, so why not have it in a place that specializes in only cuy?
Our local hosts recommended an off-the-beaten-path Cuyeria, which is a restaurant that specializes in cuy.
When we got there, we were surprised to discover that there were only two ways of eating cuy the traditional way – fried or baked.
We ordered the fried cuy (cuy chactado) and looked to the locals for tips on how to eat it.
Bony and without a lot of meat, we didn’t find the taste particularly distinctive. However, we were glad to have had this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Choose specialty places for local foods for an authentic experience.
9. Stay Where The Locals Stay
Where you make your hotel or lodging accommodations, make a big difference in the authenticity of the food you’ll find.
Choose to stay outside the popular tourist areas and make your reservations in residential areas where the locals stay.
In these neighborhoods, you’ll get a sense of the local rhythm and see how locals live.
You can visit neighborhood markets and pop into corner stores and local restaurants and ask about the traditional foods.
On our culinary travels, we choose local neighborhoods for an immersive experience.
If possible, we also choose to stay with locals to better understand what and how locals eat at home.
Staying local brings you closer to the people and food while supporting the neighborhood economy.
Christmas in Sicily and Cusco
Some of our most memorable food experiences have been with locals in their homes.
In Sicily, we shared a home with a local who was also a cooking class instructor.
We happened to be there for Christmas, and she invited us to celebrate with her family. It was great to share Italian traditional food and drinks and spend time with her parents and children.
One of the traditional foods we had was scacciata (also spelled schiacciata) from Catania. It’s a delicious double-crusted stuffed pizza.
An array of Italian cheeses and a variety of little bites made for a treasured experience.
Similarly, in Cusco, Peru, we shared a fascinating Andean Christmas with a local family. We started by attending Christmas Eve mass in the Quechua language.
And, at home ate a traditional meal of stuffed turkey and a special Christmas rice.
For an authentic food experience, stay with locals or in a local neighborhood and eat what and where the locals eat.
10. Learn The Language Of The Table
Knowing a few words in the local language can go a long way to helping you have a more local experience.
When you speak a few words, no matter the pronunciation, you are received warmly and the effort to speak the language is appreciated.
We always try to learn a few words in the local language before traveling. We use language learning tools like Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, and YouTube videos.
While in the country, we make it a point to use the local names for the food rather than translating to English.
For example, in Italy, we would say “melanzane” instead of eggplants. Or in Montenegro, we would say “priganice” instead of donuts.
Using words in the local language, even between ourselves, connects us deeper to the region’s food.
Know Your Coffee – Bica, Noisette, Cortado or Frappe
If you love coffee, it helps to know in advance what it goes by in the local language.
What you might think is a simple cup of coffee can mean different things in different countries.
In Portugal, if you just ask for coffee, you’ll likely be given a short, strong black coffee known as Bica.
In France, I like a café Noisette which is a shot of expresso with a dash of milk, especially after a meal.
In Spain, the Cortado is a quintessential coffee made with expresso and a small amount of steamed milk. In Greece, you’ll want to know Frappé and Freddo, two iconic coffee drinks.
As you learn a few words in the local language, make sure to also learn how to say “thank you,” “please,” and “how much.”
Knowing a few words about your favorite drinks or how you like your food cooked will help make your experience richer.
How do you find authentic food on your travels? Please let us know your tips in the comments below.
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Rosemary is the editor-in-chief and strategist at Authentic Food Quest.
Traveling slow since 2015 with her partner, Claire, she has explored the cuisine in 45 countries and more than 240+ culinary cities.
Her writing about local food specialties has been featured in Lonely Planet, Business Insider, Honest Cooking, Food Insider, and Huffington Post.
As a food and travel writer, Rosemary has co-authored three books, including one in collaboration with Costa Brava Tourism.
Rosemary is an avid runner when she’s not eating and exploring new destinations. She has run ten marathons and counting.
Before Authentic Food Quest, Rosemary held senior-level strategy positions in advertising.
Find out more about Authentic Food Quest