Forget ‘curry’. Indian cuisine is full of subtlety, diverse ingredients, and regional variation rarely represented in 'Indian menus' in the West. Discover first hand a vast vegetarian tradition, novel Eastern ways with dairy, or the multitude of ways spices and oils create subtle flavours in one of the world's most striking culinary destinations.
The world's great food destinations offer diverse regional cuisines rather than simple national blueprints. In India, Keralan food reflects Muslim and Syrian Christians influences very different to Goa’s Portuguese and Hindu nuances. China's Sichuan dishes have a fiery DNA very much their own, and local menus in Sicily will be very different to Tuscany.
Italian cuisine is so much more than soggy pasta in gloopy tomato sauce. The Silver Spoon – an Italian cooking bible compiled 50 years ago – features over 2,000 traditional recipes. No wonder a proper Italian meal runs to maybe six courses: distinctive antipasti appetisers, risotto or pasta, then both fish and meat courses, plus sweet stuff and cheeses. Bravo!
So amazing are sub-Saharan Africa's wildlife, culture and vistas its distinctive food gets overlooked. Enjoy spicing quite unlike India or Asia; unique local fruit and veg; novel meats like oryx and zebu; flavourings like peanut and vanilla; superb Kenyan and Tanzanian coffee. Diverse colonial influences shine too, from Polynesian and French in Madagascar to German in Namibia.
Born in 1980s Italy, the Slow Food movement counters fast food and package meals by encouraging small regional producers and traditional cuisine as a vital part of eco-aware sustainability. From a handful of good folk in Italy, the organisation now boasts over 100,000 participants in 150 countries celebrating the joys of true local sustenance.
Complementing the Slow Food movement, Fair Trade tackles economic exploitation of producers in developing countries by giving consumers a chance to buy food certified as produced in a sustainable manner by growers paid a decent price for crops picked by workers paid a living wage. For you to eat, they need to have enough too.
Learning to cook local dishes from hosts adds wonderful extra understanding and enjoyment of a destination. It broadens the experience from the word go – hunting for ingredients makes you engage with food sellers like a local not a visitor. And knowing how to cook a dish makes it part of the rest of your life not just your vacation.
Foods taste better in season – fresher plus more nutritious for not being warehoused for ages or transported long, planet-harming food miles. Harvests are also a cue for special menus and celebrations: wine tastings globally; autumn truffles in France and Italy; October saffron festivals in Spain; mid-autumn Chinese shindigs; or ancient Sri Lankan New Year feasts – held in April!
Enjoying food is a universal pleasure not sign of cultured sophistication. “Foodie” should be a good tag, based on open-minded interest in all foods, producers and places to eat – as intrigued by foraged food in an Asian market as at Noma. Humbleness and curiosity are the watchwords - beware food snobs obsessed with trappings not the essence.
Whale meat is still on menus in Iceland, Norway and Japan, though tourists drive most of this tragic trade based in the mistaken belief that whale is a key traditional meat. But only a few percent of locals eat whale. For better local treats, try Iceland's Arctic lobster, tuck into plentiful Norwegian elk in Norway or Japan's dazzling seafood alternatives.
Fine dining has its place – mainly in the dreams of poncey food pages. Too often it focuses on glitzy surroundings and needless tizzying with ingredients – or pandering to 'international' tastes - rather than just celebrating fantastic local flavours. Get a real taste of your destination by finding the diners or food stalls where locals flock.
Too many vineyard visits involve standing in front of vats getting stats and/or visiting a bland tasting room to sip reds needing more breathing or whites needing more chilling. Instead, ask to venture into the fields for a real sense of terroir, or try the wine paired with local nosh in a village brasserie.