Whenever we visit a new place, one of the aspects that interests us the most is the local food culture. You can learn a lot about an area and its people by what (and where) they eat. We've written in this column about visiting supermarkets to see what local ingredients are used. But to get an insider's perspective, one of the best ways to learn about local food culture is a food tour.
On a recent cross-country drive in Canada, we found ourselves in Winnipeg, Manitoba, for a few nights. We didn't know much about the city and didn't really associate any particular foods with the region. But after a three-hour Made in Canada tour with Culinary Adventure Co., we had an entirely different perspective.
Kevin Durkee, whose company offers food tours in several Canadian cities, made Winnipeg's history come alive with tales (and tastes) of indigenous foods such as fried pickerel — the freshwater fish known in the United States as walleye — and wild rice bannocks with Saskatoon berry jam. It made us view this city on the Canadian prairie in a whole new way.
When we visited Taipei, trying Taiwanese street food at one of the many markets was an intimidating prospect until we signed up for a food tour given by With Locals. Our guide, June, spoke fluent English and navigated us through the nooks and crannies of the Dongmen market and adjacent neighborhood, introducing us to the delights of passion fruit juice and wild lily soup and a chat with two sprightly octogenarian sisters who made the best mochi desserts in town. In addition to providing a tasty education, the experience emboldened us to venture beyond restaurants in the touristy areas for the rest of our stay.
A food tour can also open your eyes to familiar place. Several times, we have visited Wilmington, N.C. (a city in the news a lot lately because of Hurricane Florence), yet it wasn't until we took a tour of that city with Taste Carolina that we ventured into a funky Latin fusion cafe that worked wonders with the area's local seafood and a bake shop that literally frosts cupcakes to order. Bree, our chef/guide, regaled us with historic and foodie tales as we strolled the colonial-era streets in search of our next treat. (After a brief hiatus because of the storm, Taste Carolina is open for business again.)
Finding tours is easy online; we use a combination of Trip Advisor (great for reading reviews) and Viator.com, which is essentially a booking agent for local tour companies around the globe. Airbnb has recently started offering "Experiences" in destinations, which also provide reviews and are easy to book on the site.
Before taking any tour, be sure to ask what's covered — some tours include samples; others are more like a progressive dinner where you have tapas-style small plates at several locations. Certain food tours include alcoholic beverages; if you're not drinking, or bringing underage guests, be sure that alternatives are available. Some less-expensive tours will guide you to spots and allow you to buy what you choose. If you have food allergies, let the tour operator know as soon as possible so alternatives can be arranged.