Eating Like a Local

We’ve always recommended that you eat local cuisine when traveling. It is another way of experiencing a culture and understanding the way that they live. In order to do so, we’ve always gotten recommendations from locals and not just people at the hotel. We have tried such a wide variety of foods over the years, some of them pretty normal, and a few that have stretched our gastronomic limits. Here are a few of our more memorable eating experiences.

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Quarter Cuy
  1. Cuy in Ecuador – We had read about this local dish before we went to Ecuador, but we were apprehensive about actually trying it. Cuy is actually a Guinea Pig, so it is hard to wrap our heads around trying it, but when we finally decided to give it a try, we actually liked it.

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    Pork Stomach in Germany
  2. Cow Stomach in Germany – That is what it said on the menu, but it was really a cow’s intestine stuffed with pork, vegetables, and potatoes to create a kind of large sausage. If it wasn’t for the translation on the menu, we wouldn’t have thought twice about it, but it was definitely delicious.

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    Tilapia and Plantains
  3.  Eating Fish in Banana Leaves in Panama – When we visited the Embera village in Panama, we were treated with a local meal of fish and plantains cooked and served in a banana leaf. We also had something similar during our trip to Ecuador when visiting an indigenous village in the Amazon. That is definitely eating like a local.

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    Crawfish Etouffee
  4.  Crawfish Etouffee in New Orleans – We had so many amazing meals in New Orleans from turtle soup, jambalaya, fried oyster po’boys, etc., but one of our favorite was the crawfish etouffee.

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    Pique Macho
  5.  Pique Macho in Bolivia – Considered a local favorite in Bolivia, it is a mix of rice, fried potatoes, hot dogs, tomatoes, beef, onion, and peppers (and sometimes egg). It is a LOT of food. We shared a half-order and still couldn’t come close to finishing it.

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    Delicious Squid in Estepona
  6.  Whole Squid in Southern Spain – We’ve had squid plenty of times, usually fried as calimari and on occasion grilled, but we’d never had it served whole. We went to a local restaurant where they didn’t speak English and the owner just pointed us to the meal of the day, which turned out to be grilled squid. It was amazing.

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    Seafood Tower
  7.  Interesting Shellfish in Amsterdam – We ordered a tower of seafood when we were in Amsterdam and we were served a variety of shellfish. Some of the them were pretty normal, but there were a few things on there that we had no idea what they were. We gave them all a try, but we didn’t care for everything.

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    Cabbage and Grape Leaf Rolls in Romania
  8.  Stuffed Cabbage and Grape Leaves in Romania – It was definitely a little different than any stuffed cabbage that we’ve eaten at home. Served with polenta and a spicy pepper, it was very much a local experience.

Needless to say, these are just a few of the things that we have tried during our travels, but they definitely stand out in our memories. The only thing that we have refused to eat was puffin in Iceland. It wasn’t because we were afraid that it wouldn’t taste good, we just believed that serving puffin was depleting the species and we didn’t want to contribute to that. We will continue to try different dishes and look forward to finding that surprising meal that we never expected to eat.

The Food of Panama

During our time in Panama, we had the opportunity to visit several restaurants that purported to have authentic Panamanian food. Much of it was seafood that is caught locally, but there were other choices as well. If you want something cold to wash down your food, there are several national beers to choose from that are very good. With all of the influences from various cultures, the cuisine of Panama City has become a melting pot of ethnic varieties. Although Spanish cooking dominates much of the food, French and American traditions can be found as well. We even ate fish prepared by a local indigenous family that was served to us in a banana leaf.

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Lobster Thermador
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National Beer
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Mixed Seafood in a Curry Sauce
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Ceviche with Plantains and Pineapple

One of first meals that we ate was at restaurant called Diablicos in Casco Viejo, which was recommended to us by our hotel. We went there for lunch, but at night there is a traditional dance show which gives the restaurant its name. If you decide to go for the show, there is a 2 drink minimum, but we decided that it was a little more touristy than what we would like. The food, however, was excellent and we had traditional ceviche as well as sausage empanadas. In addition to ceviche, another popular dish throughout the region is Corvina, a tropical saltwater fish, prepared several ways. We ate it at a couple of restaurants, one of them with a form of salsa on top. Another item on pretty much every menu were plantains, both sweet and savory, all of which were some of the best that we had eaten. To beat the heat, be sure to get yourself a scoop of cocoanut ice-cream.

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Empanadas at Diablicos

 

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Tamale Casserole
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Inside of the Restaurant
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Crab Linguini Served in a Crab Shell

Octopus or calamari can be found on almost every menu as well, whether you want it fried, grilled, or cooked in its own sauce. We also at a fried ceviche, which as a little unique as well. If you have the budget, lobster and crab can be found on some menus as well and it is quite delicious. At a restaurant called Casablanca, we ate a wonderful paella as well as steamed clams that were simply delicious. On our last day, we went out to the Causeway Islands and ate at The Buccaneer where we had a crab linguini and sea bass topped with more seafood and a cream sauce (basically like an Oscar).

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Sea Bass with Seafood
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Paella San Felipe

 

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Fried Calamari
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Panama Lager

In addition to all of the wonderful restaurants, we also enjoyed craft beer at La Rana Dorada, which means the golden frog. We tried each of the beers that they offered and they were all delicious. We also tried most of the national beers including Balboa, Soberana, Panama Lager, and San Felipe. In addition to the beer, we also had local red and white wine that were quite good as well. We wanted to try some local rum, but we were so busy that we just never got around to ordering it.

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Pilsner at La Rana Dorada
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Soberana
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Fish and Plantains at the Embera Village
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Outdoor Cooking at the Village

For a true local experience, going to El Trapiche where you can get simple food cooked right. We had heard about the pork, beans, and rice dish that is a favorite of people who live in Panama City and we decided that we had to give it a try. It is actually made with pig tail, which is in the dish, but you don’t eat it as it is just there for flavoring. This restaurant was recommended to us by one of our guides and we certainly weren’t disappointed. Not only was the food very good, but the prices were about half of almost every other place that we went to during our stay.

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Traditional Bean, Rice, and Pork Stew
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Cocoanut Ice-Cream
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Steamed Clams
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Fried Ceviche

If you travel to Panama City, you certainly won’t go hungry. Most of the restaurants in Casco Viejo, or the old town area, tend to be a little more trendy and cater to tourists, but the food is excellent. If you want to get away from the tourists, then take time to go to some places downtown where you can eat like a local. We even went to an Irish pub called the Blarney Stone as we are always interested in how the Irish pub traditions carry through to all cultures.

Take Time to Visit Small Towns

Obviously the major cities are on everyone’s list when deciding where to go when visiting a country that they haven’t visited before. Part of that is because they are often the main transportation hubs and they also usually have a large number of things to see such as churches, palaces, castles, and museums. However, if you really want to get a true sense of the culture of a country, get out of the large cities and go to some of the small towns. The people are authentic, the restaurants providing local favorites, and the sights, although sometimes simpler, are often truly unique. Don’t expect people in these smaller towns to speak anything other than their native tongue, though, hand gestures and translation apps are an absolute must.

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Walking the Side Streets of Spain
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Brasov, Romania
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Getting Out of Quito in Ecuador

Regardless of where we have traveled, we have found the smaller towns to be some of our favorite memories. Especially if you are fortunate to visit during a time when there are holidays or festivals. There is something truly special about enjoying events such as these where you are the only foreigner in the crowd and you know that what you are enjoying isn’t done for tourism, but simply for the enjoyment of the locals who live in the town and its surrounding farms. We also find these to be great places to look for local artists who might have something that can’t be found anyplace else.

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Festival in Hochheim, Germany
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Waiting for Santa Claus in Stratford Upon Avon
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Kassel, Germany
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Lucca, Italy

Although it is often pleasant to stay in one of these smaller towns, they can also be visited as part of a day trip to get out of the city. Clearly, if you can spend at least a night in one of these towns, you will get an even better sense of the culture. If you spend a few days or even a week there, you might be treated like a local by the time that you leave. Always be sure to ask other locals where to get a good meal as they will be sure to point you in the proper direction. Be sure to slow down while you are visiting these smaller towns, they typically live life at a more leisurely pace, they work hard, but are not in a hurry to rush around and neither should you.

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Riquewihr, France
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Seaside Village in Ireland
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Edfu, Egypt

The same is true of your own country. We have enjoyed going to many small towns across the United States and it really is a different view of the area that you are visiting. The people are friendly and, in many ways, it is often like stepping back in time. If you have the opportunity to talk to a local, ask about the history of the area, you will often get a very unique view that you could never get from any sort of guide book. You will definitely be a better traveler if you are willing to get out and explore as many local towns as you possibly can.

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Cripple Creek
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Steamboat Springs
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Alamosa