Can Food Tours Stray From the Beaten Path Without Ruining the Experience?

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, the 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 the TV series “A Cook’s Tour,” “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown” until his death last June.

Attempts to follow in Mr. 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.

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.”

Already the influx of gastro-pilgrims has upset some natural algorithms. Last year in Bangkok, after the 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 that she wishes she could give the star back.

There is little chance the crowds will let up. A 2016 report by the World Food Travel Association classified 93 percent of vacationers worldwide as “food travelers,” who seek out food beyond the demands of sustenance — attending a class on cooking mole in Oaxaca, say, or riding a boat at dawn through a floating market in Kashmir.

The 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, the 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.

On her website, Ms. 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.”

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.

Ms. 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 preview trip in Southeast Asia this month.

“Ideally, you come away with a better understanding of why people eat in a certain way,” Mr. Sachs said. “Not just, ‘I tried everything.’”

On board, one of the ship’s eight restaurants, which have traditionally focused on Western food, will shift cuisine depending on its place of berth, so more cautious passengers — those along for the ride just to see the region — can still get a taste.

But the cautious may be dwindling in number. As Ms. Muckermann recalls, on Silversea’s voyages to the Russian Far East, guests are gently warned that if they visit the Chukchi village, they may be presented with boiled walrus. If they feel unready for such an honor, they can forgo the expedition.

“Most people come,” she said. They make the leap — from the security of the ship to the uncertainty onshore, from one culture to another. They eat the walrus.

Sahred From Source link Travel

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