Successful expats eat local food

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Put away the burger and fries and listen up: no matter whether you're just travelling through a foreign country or an expat on a legenda...

Put away the burger and fries and listen up: no matter whether you're just travelling through a foreign country or an expat on a legendary 2-year mission, you should eat local food. Here's why.

By Karn G. Bulsuk


When I was travelling through Nice a few years back, I met an Asian gentleman as I checked into a hotel. We spoke and he introduced himself: he used to work for Citibank in New York, but had decided to take a career break to travel around Europe.

Seeing I was Asian too, he decided to launch into a diatribe on a topic that was obviously of much importance to him.

“I haven’t had rice in over a week and I really missed it, so I decided to go to a Chinese place down the road,” he began.

My expat senses picked up. Surely he wasn’t one of those people? The ones who, despite travelling across to the other side of the world, end up at a bar drinking foreign beer, or at a Asian food stall eating food from a pagoda box?

“But it tasted really bad and was really expensive as well! Why is it that they can’t make decent Chinese food here?”

A whole range of thoughts flew through my head. This guy is in France, one of the culinary capitals of the world, where cuisine is practically a religion. People from all over the world come to experience the delights of French food, and all this guy wants is stuff from the Middle Kingdom?

I sighed, and give him a weak, tired smile: “Dude. You’re in France”.

* * *

As an expatriate, it’s important to delve into the culture of where you are. Often overlooked, food plays a major component in understanding their psyche and helps you to open your mind up to a local culture. Food is an integral part of all cultures – after all, everyone has to eat. Even if the traditional meal consists of only meat and potatoes as opposed to the more exotic tastes of spices blended into green curry, by missing out, you’re basically ignoring a major part of what makes those people tick.

It's cheaper

There is also a financial incentive to eat at the food court downstairs. For example, in Asia, a T-bone steak with black pepper sauce will always cost you more than a local dish in a roadside stall, and seldom taste as good “at home”. It’s a great way to economise while having excellent food.

Helps to learn (and eventually lead in) the local culture

Especially in countries where there’s a very strong prevailing food culture, eating locally is also a great way to socialise. When travelling, you’ll get to know the people around the neighbourhood or in your company if in a business setting. If someone organises a social event, they’re not going to invite you if they know you’re going to have a problem eating “foreign” food, and especially if all you’ve done is complain about the cuisine.

To illustrate the point, in Thailand, eating out together as a team for lunch or dinner is an extremely important part of social cohesion. If you don’t, you’ll miss out on team bonding, and will never become “one of them” – effectively rendering yourself an outcast and an ineffective leader.

While I was in Japan, I frequented a ramen bar near to my house and became friends with the master of the house. He effectively became my local mentor, and I learned more from him than I could from books or the internet.

A sign of respect to locals

Eating local also is a sign of respect and an important part of the effort to blend-in, with extra brownie points for being able to order in the local language. Refusing to eat local is a sign of arrogance: no matter which country or culture you’re from, people like foreigners who make an effort to adapt. For example, as a local in your own country, would you look kindly upon people who, no matter how bad, try to speak your language, or those who don’t even try to learn at all?

Personally, I have a rule: unless there is absolutely nothing else, I will always eat local food at a local stall or restaurant. Sometimes I like what’s put in front of me, sometimes I don’t, but that in itself is part of the adventure of travelling or being an expat. Becoming one with the culture is always hard, but the easiest way to start is to literally eat your way into it.

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Karn G. Bulsuk: Full Speed Ahead: Successful expats eat local food
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Karn G. Bulsuk: Full Speed Ahead
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