In the remote coastal villages of Russia’s Far East, where the nomadic Chukchi still hunt walrus with handcrafted ivory-headed harpoons, it is ritual to offer visitors freshly caught meat.
“You cannot refuse,” said Barbara Muckermann, chief marketing officer of Silversea Cruises, whose ships dock in the region several times a year. “Sharing food is important in their culture.”
Once, Americans abroad were suspicious of foreign delicacies, scurrying back to the safety of their hotels and ships for a bland simulacrum of dishes they could get back home. But for a growing number of leisure travelers — those privileged enough to cross borders not out of necessity, but for pleasure — food has become essential to an encounter with another culture, from olive oil in Slovenia to poi (pounded taro root) in Hawaii to kokoretsi (lamb-intestine sandwiches) in Turkey.
Today’s wanderers have been called to the gospel of Anthony Bourdain, the irreverent chef and writer whose ecumenical pursuit of food in all its incarnations (blood and guts included) was chronicled in TV series “A Cook’s Tour,” “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown” until his death last year.
Attempts to follow in Bourdain’s footsteps are typically orchestrated by small, independent, sometimes eccentric, tour operators. They have roots in a place, so they can point you toward the tofu counter hidden inside a flower shop, or the neighbor selling bowls of pho in her living room, down a skinny unlit alley and up three flights. You’ll know you’re there by the number of shoes kicked off in the hallway.
Spike in business
But now international giants, historically deft at placating guests with stately buffets and fine, indeterminately European menus, are joining the fray. They, too, want to sate that “special hunger,” as M.F.K. Fisher described it, that pushes explorers “beyond their known horizons, to subsist or not on locusts and baked phoenix-eggs.”
Among the highest-profile contenders is Silversea, headquartered in Monaco and valued at about $2 billion. (It recently forged a partnership with Royal Caribbean, the world’s second-largest cruise line.) A new 596-passenger ship expressly designed for culinary voyages, with a test kitchen that doubles as a clubhouse, is under construction and scheduled to launch in the summer of 2020.
Building a ship is a commitment. A trickier challenge, for companies big and small, is how to design an orderly, comfortable and reasonably hygienic group eating experience that still feels genuine. There’s a risk of turning local foodways into just another commodity, particularly in the developing world, where tourist dollars count for more.
Already the influx of gastro-pilgrims has upset some natural algorithms. Last year in Bangkok, after crab-omelet specialist Raan Jay Fai was anointed with a Michelin star, waits for a table at the tiny shop-house restaurant stretched to three hours.
While the spike in business is a financial boon, the owner — who cooks each omelet herself, wearing ski goggles to protect herself from the spitting oil — has said she wishes she could give the star back.
Opening mouths and minds
There is little chance the crowds will let up. A 2016 report by the World Food Travel Association classified 93% of vacationers worldwide as “food travelers,” who seek out food beyond the demands of sustenance — attending a class on cooking mole in Oaxaca, Mexico, say, or riding a boat at dawn through a floating market in Kashmir.
Philosopher Lisa Heldke has critiqued the colonialist impulse behind what she calls “eating adventures,” which she likens to collecting and uprooting artifacts from their cultural context.
But some tour operators contend that in opening our mouths, we open our minds.
“The polarized view that we get, the xenophobia, comes from the lack of a data set,” said Luis Vargas, chief executive of Modern Adventure, which funnels data in the guise of weeklong eating and drinking itineraries in destinations like the Republic of Georgia and the Basque region of Spain.
In this thinking, a basket of dumplings can teach as much about a culture as its greatest monuments.
When Little Adventures in Hong Kong helps you decode the tome of a menu at a Cantonese restaurant — so “you don’t repeat dishes with the same ingredients or cooking methods,” said Daisann McLane, the company’s founder — you may earn a grudging nod of approval from the waiter and a deeper understanding of the society in which these feasts are central.
More and more, tour operators are trying to give travelers a sense of the substance of those lives. In Mexico City, Rocio Vazquez Landeta of Eat Like a Local is conscious of the income differential between the visitors on her forays through the shambolic La Merced market and the vendors they meet.
“I don’t want it to be pity tourism — ‘Look at the poor people,’” she said.
So, while some guides in the area demand discounts, she makes a point to pay vendors not only full price for their goods, but also for the time they take to explain ingredients and dishes to her customers. And she has hired an English tutor for six of the vendors’ children — who at 8 to 11 years old are already working alongside their parents — and tips them to help lead tours on weekends.
On her website, Vazquez Landeta encourages people to bring photographs of their home countries as gifts for the children. “I’m not Mother Teresa,” she said. “I just want to show them that the world is bigger.”
Mona Boyd, the Arkansas-born founder of Landtours in Accra, Ghana, started highlighting West African fare in her packages five years ago, arranging for small groups of travelers to dine in the homes of local families. But she felt that the experience was too much like going to a restaurant. It wasn’t immersive enough.
Now, instead of just showing up to eat, visitors arrive early to prepare dishes like nkatenkwan (groundnut stew) and red-red (black-eyed pea stew), and to learn something about their hosts along the way.
“These are kind people, not rich, but willing to open up their homes to you,” Boyd said. “When you eat their food and enjoy it, you show you like them, too.”
Such informal settings can foster a more candid cultural exchange. But they must be carefully vetted by tour operators, to make sure that customers don’t get sick from ingredients washed in unpurified water or a chicken dropped on the floor before being thrown into the pot.
Even the gutsiest customers may balk at a street stall’s grimy patina or at the frank scent of a prized local delicacy. Reassurance is part of a guide’s job.
In Vietnam, Van Cong Tu tells guests on his Hanoi Street Food Tours — which go down alleys so tiny, Google Maps can’t find them — that the great fistfuls of raw herbs accompanying almost every dish are safe to eat. (They often wind up submerged in hot soup.) Without the herbs, you’d miss half the flavor.
Joe DiStefano, a New Yorker whose World’s Fare Food Tours take visitors to chaat shops, smoky kebab stands and labyrinthine basement food courts in his home borough, Queens, respects that some of his customers have reservations about what they eat.
At one stop, he said, “we go look at the durian” — a thorny tropical fruit that smells of rotting socks dredged from the bottom of the sea.
Then, if everyone is comfortable, he said, “We eat it.”
The logistics of comfort are of particular concern to higher-end operators who specialize in trips of a week or longer. The kind of traveler they target may not want a luau on a manicured hotel lawn, but still expects a certain degree of ease.
Muckermann, of Silversea, didn’t want to structure the company’s new Sea and Land Taste program around celebrity chefs and hermetic fine-dining rooms. A younger generation of travelers is braver than that, she said: “They’ve seen more walls going down than going up.”
Instead, she tapped Adam Sachs, a former editor-in-chief of Saveur, to take a reportorial approach and shape a narrative around the ingredients and cooking techniques found in each region. He has tracked down inside sources like Maya Kerthyasa, a member of the royal family of Ubud in Bali, who shared her 95-year-old grandmother’s spice-paste recipes with passengers on a March preview trip in Southeast Asia.
“Ideally, you come away with a better understanding of why people eat in a certain way,” Sachs said. “Not just, ‘I tried everything.’”