x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Worldwide tastes

Travel Could gastro travel be the next big thing to hit the travel industry? A new generation of travellers is looking to pair unique foods and locations.

The village of Roquefort in France, famous for the sheep's milk cheese it produces, is a popular destination.
The village of Roquefort in France, famous for the sheep's milk cheese it produces, is a popular destination.

Could gastro travel be the next big thing to hit the travel industry? A recent survey found that a quarter of US travellers believe food choices are an essential factor in a holiday destination, suggesting that the days of tourists guzzling bland "international" cooking on holiday may soon become a thing of the past. It's only natural that today's generation of more experienced travellers should enjoy seeking out novel and authentic edibles in their places of origin, but where exactly are the best places to go?

While many travel hot spots around the world offer interesting, distinctive food, some places offer uniquely local or exceptionally diverse foods that make them stand out. Here's our selection of some of our favourites.

Mexico's deep southern state offers a cuisine bursting with flavour even by the lively standards of Mexico. Sometimes dubbed the "land of the seven moles" after its many versions of Mexico's typical sauce, Oaxaca's many different ecosystems and rugged landscape make it a patchwork of many cooking styles, with local produce differing widely from place to place. While it boasts exotica such as iguana and fried grasshopper among its specialities, you might more readily enjoy browsing its many colourful markets for less challenging foodstuffs, such as bitter Oaxacan chocolate and the wide range of unusual local chillies. Perhaps the best time to experience the full range of Oaxacan food is during July's Guelaguetza festival, when families celebrate an ancient pre-Columbian harvest blessing, an occasion which has been only superficially Christianised by the Catholic church. Those in search of something quirky would do well to investigate December's night of the radishes, where local radish-growers carve their largest specimens into all manner of shapes and exhibit them in Oaxaca City's cathedral square.

Thai food may be deservedly popular the world over, but if you haven't tried it in the country itself, can you be sure you're eating the real thing? Chiang Mai, northern Thailand's pleasant main city, offers visitors plenty of opportunities to experience the genuine article, not just through ordering Thai dishes in its restaurants, but also through preparing Thai food themselves at one of the city's many cookery academies. Take lessons at an establishment such as the Chiang Mai or Baan Thai cookery school, and you'll soon able to discourse fluently on the difference between pad thai and pad prik and learn to create food back home that tastes every bit as good as the average Thai restaurant.

This elegant Basque seaside resort was traditionally where the Spanish upper crust came to escape the summer heat. Nowadays, visitors hit the town in search of its celebrated Pintxos or Basque tapas, with many bars selling little dishes of a range and quality that only Seville can compete with. The Basque country's delicious cuisine is currently very much in vogue - for good reason - and you may have to compete with other gastro-pilgrims by trying to bag a table at one of San Sebastian's excellent neo-Basque restaurants, with those run by the internationally renowned chefs Juan Arzak and Martin Berasategui being the hardest to get into. If, however, you prefer something more rustic and simple, drive out into the surrounding hills for a stop at a sagardotegiak, restaurants set up solely for the summer season, serving popular local dishes such as salt cod omelettes and roast wood pigeon.

Long gone are the days when the windy city's dining tables were celebrated for meat and little else. Now rivalling New York as the food capital of the US, Chicago boasts an impressive bevy of world class cutting-edge restaurants, from the refinement of the master chef and raw food pioneer Charlie Trotter and his eponymous restaurant to the playful molecular gastronomy of Grant Achatz's Alinea. But top-level gastronomy isn't the city's only edible attraction. From the last week of June, it hosts the mammoth fortnight-long Taste of Chicago, the world's largest food festival, with a host of stalls offering treats from around the globe, as well as local favourites such as deep pan pizzas and ketchup-less Chicago-style hotdogs.

Set in a beautiful cliff-fringed valley, the charming French village of Roquefort sur Soulzon is haunted by the inescapable odour of strong cheese. This is hardly surprising, given that the village's Combalou caves are the only officially designated source of Penicillum Roqueforti, the blue veined bacteria that make the region's celebrated ewe's cheese so uniquely delicious. With its caves packed with mouldering cheese tucked away up a winding road among the rocks, the site is surprisingly photogenic, making the village a deservedly popular spot both for dedicated cheese lovers and for casual visitors idling their way through one of France's prettiest corners.

Do you remember when salmon was a luxury? With farmed fish so readily available nowadays lacking in texture and flavour, it can be difficult to recall exactly why salmon was once reserved for special occasions. To refresh your memory as to why the fish once enjoyed such prestige, it's well worth journeying to Canada's rugged Vancouver Island. Many local fishing boats in this deservedly popular holiday spot offer salmon fishing trips to visitors, giving you the chance to bag your own fish, then experience just how much better wild specimens taste when you grill them at a beach barbecue. Though harvesting wild food might seem a potentially intrusive activity, fishing tourism remains a modestly sized, seasonal industry - and the relative ineptitude of the average holiday angler means that overtaxing the region's abundant stocks is hardly a worry.

While it boasts an ample share of fine restaurants, it's arguably the shores of the Golden Horn that make Istanbul one of the world's most enjoyable culinary destinations. Against a backdrop of ancient mosques and twisting alleys is the city's Egyptian Market, a spice emporium housed in an arcaded building dating back to the 17th century. While many visitors browse the stalls, it's less touristy than the grand bazaar and offers many wonderful, hard-to-find ingredients, such as real gum Arabic and dried rosebuds, as well as a huge variety of Turkish delight. Meanwhile, for something rather more filling, hop across the street to the Galata Bridge. Here, you'll find the under-road walkway straddling the bridge packed with fish restaurants, offering excellent chargrilled sea bass sandwiches at as little as three lira. With stunning views of the Bosphorus and Hagia Sophia, these simple grill shops are reassuring proof that the better things in life don't always cost the earth.

This beautiful South Indian state is an oasis for vegetarian travellers who love their food. While in many parts of the world refusing meat is seen as verging on insanity, it's the norm in Karnataka, which has a diverse and delicious cuisine that is largely free of animal products. Neighbouring Goa and Kerala may get the lion's share of the region's tourists, but it's equally picturesque Karnataka that offers the greatest variety of vegetarian dishes, plus an arguably greater diversity of ingredients and flavours in the kitchen.

Specialising in many subtly spiced vegetable and legume curries enriched with coconut, tamarind and coriander leaf, the state is also home of the interesting, highly specialised Udupi cuisine. This cooking style developed around one of the region's monasteries, and involves simple harmonious dishes which avoid any foods excluded by Vedic tradition. While a diet that forbids even onions might not be to everyone's taste, you'll rarely find this delicate, nuanced school of cookery available elsewhere.±

For readers who think of a meatless meal as a living nightmare, there is always Argentina - the undisputed capital of meat. Its citizens consume a tonnage of flesh per head that puts even the Americans in the shade. Still, with beef as fine as theirs, it's no wonder the Argentines are partial to the odd steak or three. The meat from the cattle reared on their vast pampas is especially lean and flavoursome, unsurprising given the livestock's freedom to roam and year-round diet of lush grass and corn. There's no particular town or region which acts as a meat lover's destination - the whole of Argentina is a year-round beef frenzy - but the type of restaurant to look out for is an asado, a barbecue which specialises in long, slow cooking of meat over coals. Often eating beef twice a day, Argentina's diners are extremely discriminating and any asado that doesn't guarantee tender flavourful meat with a good balance between salty crust and rose-pink interior soon goes under. While succulent steaks are the obvious draw, don't miss out on creamy, rich mollejas (sweetbreads) or tender Uruguayan baby goat. While vegetables are also of a good standard, non-meat-eaters may find themselves getting bored of the standard pasta and gnocchi pretty quickly.

The excellence of Tokyo's restaurants has been an open secret among gourmets for years, but the accolades the city won in last year's Michelin Guide have blown the lid off that secret and caused a Japan-ward stampede among food lovers keen to find out what all the fuss is about. In its first look at Japan's capital, the world's restaurant bible awarded at least one Michelin star to a gobsmacking 150 establishments - that's more than in Paris and London combined - making the city's dining scene the world's starriest by a long way. In a city with a staggering 190,000 restaurants (new York has just 23,000 by comparison), there's something for every taste. While it's arguably the best place to experience the exquisite subtleties of kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine), Tokyo also offers superb cooking at izakayas (inns selling tapas-like nibbles), noodle shops and even basic holes in the wall. The extreme specialisation typical of the Japanese dining scene makes the place doubly fascinating: you often find restaurants focusing on one specific dish, such as eel, tempura or even mayonnaise. It may sound a little odd, but you certainly won't find it in Abu Dhabi.