From wild boar to mung bean jelly – the best local foodie experiences

31 March 2016

From wild boar to mung bean jelly – the best local foodie experiences

When you think about it, there are maybe four classic types of foodie experience when you travel. Starting from raw produce and heading up to the most elaborate cuisine, we have:

  • Local markets
  • Street food
  • Local dishes
  • Fine dining

Leaving aside fine dining (as that's rather restaurant dependant) let's check out some local foodie experiences on the gourmet trips from our Top 100 Tours this April.

The trip: Real Food Adventure - China

Strap in your tastebuds and pour yourself a glass of milk, because we're focusing in on the city of Chengdu, in the heart of the Sichuan region, where hot is the flavour king. (Chengdu is also where you go to see giant pandas. Pandas and spicy food. What a combination!)

The local market:

Chengdu has some great art and antique markets, but we're here for the food, so we'll head to the Yulin produce market. You'll find all sorts of pickled and dried things that you can't identify here, as well as things you can identify quite readily, like pig snouts. There's home-made noodles, fresh bean curd, hanging meats, piles of fresh vegies and plenty of spices. As well as chillis. Short chillis, long chillis, dried chillis, fresh chillis, fat chillis, chilli paste and chilli oil.

The street food:

Chunxi Road is Chengdu's biggest pedestrian shopping street, where Chinese culture casually mingles with western shops and big name brands. If you're after a snack to go, you can choose KFC or spicy duck tongue; McDonalds or pork lung in chilli sauce; Starbucks or five-spiced oil tea. Spoilt for choice.

The local dish:

Smoky, fiery chillis and Sichuan peppers are at the heart of most local dishes. We're going to bypass the famous local hotpot to take you direct to one of the most chilli-based dishes going – Chuanbei Liangfen. It's a cool slippery mung bean jelly soaking in a pool of mouth-numbingly hot chilli oil sauce. The almost-flavourless cold jelly provides a palate-cooling backdrop to the intensity of the sauce – Sichuan flavours with no distractions.

The Trip:  Real Food Adventure - Italy

This trip takes you from Rome to Venice and along the way you'll stay in a traditional Tuscan farmhouse nestled in the hills between Siena and San Gimignano.

The local market:

Twice a week the farmers and producers of the region bring their wares to the beautiful piazza of San Gimignano. You'll find fresh local tomatoes, oranges, pears – whatever is in season – as well as snack food, leather goods and trinkets. The town and its piazza are so damn Tuscan-ish and beautiful that just being there is a seriously fine experience.

The street food:

We're side-stepping cured pig varieties and heading straight for the gelato, which was born in nearby Florence. The town of San Gimignano is well known for its high-quality gelato, which is always house-made from local, seasonal products and no preservatives. Try the famous Crema di Santa Fina (cream with saffron and pinenuts) or Champelmo (pink grapefruit and sparkling wine) from Gelateria Dondoli. Swoon.

The local dish:

Wander the medieval town streets and seek out an enoteca that serves “Pici al ragu di cinghiale”. This dish combines two Tuscan favourites: 'pici' which is a thick, short, hand-rolled pasta traditional to Siena, and 'cinghiale' or wild boar. The cinghiale is a local emblem, but it's also a problem pig for Tuscany's farmers, as it loves munching on the ripe grapes of the local vineyards. (So as you tuck in, you'll be helping the local farmers save their grapes.)

The trip: Real Food Adventure - Mexico

On this Mexican food journey you'll travel from Mexico City to the beautiful Pacific coast, stopping along the way at the city of Oaxaca. The staples here are cheese, corn, beans, chilli, chocolate, avocado and grasshoppers. What's not to love? (OK, maybe the grasshoppers.)

The local market:

Weave your way through the dark labyrinth of Benito Juarez market, past the traditional crafts, shoes, phone covers, pinatas and flowers, and make your way to the food. It will sweep you up with its array of smells – there's herbs, sauces, chillis, grasshoppers, meat on the grill, towering stacks of tortillas, mezcal stalls, and loads of street food like tacos, quesadillas and memelas.

The street food:

For the classic Oaxaca street food, try tlayudas, a local pizza-style snack. It's a big, thin, corn tortilla topped with yummy stuff – like bean paste, quesillo (stringy cheese), pork lard, chopped avocado and tomato. (Who could smash one of those right about now?)

The local dish:

Not so much a dish as an accompaniment, is the local slow-cooked chilli sauce, mole. Oaxaca is famous for its seven types of mole, which are served depending on the dish – a light, herby mole verde might suit a quick take-away enchilada, and a rich, spicy, chocolatey mole negro might be served on a hearty chicken dish. It would be rude not to try all seven.

The trip: Gourmet Explorer Vietnam

Travelling the length of Vietnam, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, this trip stops off in the city of Hue. This former imperial capital has a peaceful serenity and a history of delicate cuisine from the times when the wealthy Nguyen dynasty ruled the land.

The local market:

Head to Dong Ba market in the morning to catch the fruit, veg and meat vendors in full flight. It's a classic market experience, where you can pick yourself up a durian, a gac fruit or no end of leafy greens from the conical-hatted ladies. But if you're buying, get ready to do some hectic type-a-price-in-the-calculator bargaining.

The street food:

For a flavour punch, grab a banh khoai – a crispy fried rice flour pancake stuffed with prawns and pork belly, topped with local hoi sin sauce and fresh herbs. It's considered a winter dish, but it's so popular you'll be able to find it year round.

The local dish:

We can't go past Bun Bo Hue, because it has the name of the town in its title. (But if you'd like to give the impression that you were pretty much born and bred in Hue, just call it 'Bun Bo' while you're in Hue, as the locals do.) It's a beef noodle soup, made with round rice noodles in a beef broth with floating cubes of congealed pigs blood and plenty of chilli and shrimp paste. It's served with a variety of side dishes for plonking in according to taste. There's as many versions as there are vendors, so make sure you try a few.


And some further foodie highlights not to be missed...


The trip: Gourmet Explorer Provence

The beautiful medieval town of Isle Sur la Sorgue is built in and around the Sorgue River. Canals, bridges, stone buildings, water-wheels and plane trees make this a picture-perfect town. But on Sunday the entire town is transformed into a bustling market – it's part antique, part food, part flea market. There are stalls of beautifully-presented fresh produce, big wheels of cheese, little blocks of goats cheese, varieties of olives and locally-made salamis. And the antique market is the best one outside of Paris.

The trip: Real Food Adventure – Japan

In Tokyo, visit the world's largest fish market – the Tsukiji Fish Market – where you can eat what is probably the freshest sushi in the world – straight from boat to plate. The super-keen can queue up from 4.00am to score a place to watch the tuna auctions, where unbelievably large tuna are sold to sushi chefs. It's a real wholesale market moving huge quantities of seafood and there's sawing, chopping, axe wielding and serious knife work a-plenty. Not for the squeamish or the vegans. And don't wear sandals.


The trip: Real Food Adventure - Northern Spain

A visit to the Logrono market will provide you with the perfect, fresh base materials for a regionally-themed picnic – cured meats, salted fish, cheeses, fresh vegetables and summer fruits bursting with sweet flavour. Logrono is the heart of the Rioja wine region, so grab a couple of bottles to add to your basket and head for the hills.


The trip: Real Food Adventure – Vietnam

Visiting a floating market in the Mekong Delta is maybe one of the most iconic market experiences you can have. Vendors bring their boats loaded with fresh produce – clumps of bananas, bunches of herbs, baskets of fruit, colourful piles of vegetables. There's locally-made specialities like fish sauce or rice paper and smaller sampans sell snacks, noodle soups and drinks. The clutter of loaded boats fills the river-scape with colour and noise. It's a must-see Vietnam experience.