Food Tours ... Taste, Learn and See
Updated: Jun 5
Despite traveling for many, many years, it is only in the recent two years that I began exploring destinations via my palate through Food Tours. An organized tour featuring food stops is not something I was ever exposed to or particularly familiar with.
Why should one consider a food tour?
Identify hidden gems frequented by the locals
Taste an abundant array of dishes specific to the region
Learn culinary history and some cooking methods specific to the area
Efficient way to also learn about History, Culture, and Architecture of the locale
Burn a few calories, while sampling ... LOL!
Food tours are led by locals who have abundant knowledge of the food scene in their cities. The groups, while typically small, can vary from about 2-12 people. My personal preference is to seek out groups less than 6 people, such that all can congregate around one table and the guide can more intimately address the questions of the participants. The food guides strategically stay away from the tourist "hot spots", commonly listed in the travel guidebooks, and lead the group to the lesser known establishments visited by the locals. They also offer travelers with recommendations of unique dishes to try, or charming dining establishments to visit, later, on one's own time. As such, I find it very helpful to partake in a food tour EARLY upon my arrival to a locale (usually with in the first couple days) and to extract a list of dining recommendations that I can easily refer to during the duration of my stay.
While in Rome on my recent visit, for example, I participated in a food tour that took us through the Trastevere neighborhood. There we visited a delightful little restaurant named Ristorante Spirito Di Vino. This was formerly a bustling tavern during the ancient Roman times and the original Roman brick and architecture are still present and incorporated into their wine cellar, where we did our sampling! Later in about 1000 AD, this building served as a Jewish synagogue for several centuries. Now as a beautiful restaurant, it retains many of those historical and architectural elements. We sampled just few bites of 'Lean Pork Mazio-style with Apple Puree', paired with Sangiovese wine, which was so delicious that we returned there a couple days later, on our own, to order an entire meal of it. We were the only non-locals dining there that evening.
Abundant Array of Regional Specialties
An organized food tour is a fantastic and very efficient way to sample MANY foods noted for that area. Often they include wine tastings, port tastings, craft beer tastings, or whichever beverage is special to them. Especially if your time is brief in the visited city, such a tour exposes your palate to an abundant array of their specialties and delicacies. Given the small size of the tasting samples, food tours may embolden you to try dishes that you are unfamiliar with or which you may be reluctant to order as a full meal. Although the sample sizes are small, most tours stop at about 8-10 locations throughout a neighborhood(s), so additively the volume of food is generous and all are satiated by the end of the tour.
I participated in a food tour in Israel, named 'Delicious Israel', which began at the Jaffa port and ended at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv. The Israeli food scene is particularly diverse, for the area is an amalgam of many ethnicities. We walked along the back roads connecting those points and sampled, what many feel is "the best hummus" in the area at Abu Hassan in Jaffa, largely consisting of an Arab population. Then we tasted a Persian dessert called malabi which is a milk pudding made of dried and ground orchid roots and coconut milk, along with Turkish coffee. We tried a Jewish bagel and pita with zatar at Abu Lafia, an active bakery since 1879. We sampled Arabic shawarmas at Dr. Shakshuka, then babka yeast cake and a poppy tart with apples (a European Ashkenazi contribution) from Dallal Bakery in Neve Tzedek, hit the Yemenite quarter for shakshuka, Italian gelato at Artz and finally, Middle-Eastern falafels and fresh local cherries at the Carmel Market. As you can see I was exposed to a plethora of flavors from multiple ethnicities now inhabiting that area.
Culinary Tips and Etiquette
Food tours can open your eyes to learn details about how to make particular dishes that are offered in the area. Discussions with the guide or interaction with the venue host (sometimes even the chef) can teach you culinary "secrets" or tips that you can take home and incorporate into your cooking. I find that both the guides and the hosts are always proud of their foods and eager to share helpful information with the participants. They also cover cultural etiquette; such as, never order a cappuccino in Italy after 11 am, and cultural habits; such as, don't make a dinner reservation in Greece until at least 9 pm ... or 10 pm, even better.
In Milan, for example, while on the food tour they told us in a detailed step-by-step fashion how to make Milanese Saffron Risotto, which is a specialty of that area. Although we are not physically cooking in a kitchen during the tour, many tricks and tips are shared that can enhance your cooking upon your return home. During that visit to Milan we, of course, tried some alongside osso buco.
Also in Milan, our food guide was from the Piedmont area of Italy, about 2 hours north of Milan, which is famous for their truffles. We learned such fascinating information about how truffles are grown, how they are found, why they are so expensive, when is their peak season...
...also, learn History, Culture and Architecture
Food tours not only cover the topic of food, but also orient you to the history, architecture and culture of the city as told by a local. As the group walks from one food venue to another, we commonly pop into notable sites, ruins, churches or other historic buildings, even if only for a quick visit. We can always go back and spend more time at those sites on our own. We walk through winding streets and eclectic neighborhoods, observe architectural features of the buildings and get a general flavor of the area.
In Lisbon, for example, I participated in a Taste of Lisboa food tour (I actually met the owner of that tour while on the Israel food tour which I noted above). During this tour we explored the Mouraria neighborhood which is the Moorish Quarter of Lisbon. This is a very trendy area, authentically Portuguese, and one of the least gentrified parts of Lisbon. We saw many buildings with gorgeous, ceramic-tiled facades, which is a style reflecting the Moorish influence on the region, as well as amazing street art. Many penniless artists and new immigrants settled here because it was more affordable. Fado music became established along the streets and alleys of this diverse neighborhood. One of the restaurants which we visited on our food tour in Mouraria was a Mozambique establishment owned and run by Goan Indians. You may wonder, why Mozambique food on a food tour in Portugal and what do Indians have to do with it? Well, I'll tell you. Goa, a state in India, was a Portuguese colony for over 4 centuries prior to 1961. Thereafter, when Goa was annexed by the Republic of India, Goans who wanted to maintain their Portuguese connections or roots traversed the Indian Ocean and established themselves in Mozambique which was also a Portuguese colony, and remained so until 1975. At that time when Mozambique gained its independence from Portugal, families were allowed to immigrate to Portugal from Mozambique and obtain/maintain Portuguese citizenship. Most of these immigrants from Africa and India settled in the Mouraria neighborhood because it was affordable. At the Mozambique restaurant run by Goan Indians we sampled beef samosas ... and, yes, beef, because they were Muslim Indians.
Lastly, burn those calories!
No doubt when we travel, we consume a lot of extra calories in both food and drink. While I certainly wouldn't consider a food tour on par with a workout, some exercise and movement is interspersed between samplings. Food tours typically last about 3 hours and on average cover from 1-2 miles of distance, as the group walks through neighborhoods from one venue to the next. The specifics are typically described on the websites of the food tour companies. It is important to be familiar with the exercise level needed to participate in the tour prior to registering. Many European cities, for example, are built on hilly terrains. As such, steps and inclines are commonly traversed during the tour. If one has difficulty with such terrain, due to health or mobility issues, then that certainly needs to be considered.
I hope that you can now appreciate the many benefits of embarking on a food tour during your travels. So you may be wondering, how does one go about finding a good food tour? Well, I have a few suggestions. Certainly, TripAdvisor is always a good place to start. When searching for a food tour in the city, TripAdvisor will list tours and feedback from other travelers who have actually participated in them. By reading the various reviews you can usually gain a good sense of which ones are most recommended and why. Another tactic to rely on is 'word of mouth'. While on a food tour, talking with and asking the other participants usually generates high yield. Most people on food tours are, as I shall call them ... "repeat offenders". They very often have participated in food tours in other cities and countries which they have visited. Pick their brains. They will tell you the good, the bad and the ugly. I have learned of many such tours this way.
Good luck, start looking and try them! You will be happy that you did.