Not Just Noodles

I remember the sizzle. Oil on a hot wok. Shallot. Preserved turnip. Garlic. The finesse, the technique of a master and the clang of her tool; metal on metal as she pushes the noodles around, mixing everything to tangy, salty perfection. I am on the street in Bangkok and this delicacy costs the equivalent of $1. This is Pad Thai, as authentic as Pad Thai gets, and I am in heaven. I came here for food experiences like this.

Food tourism is defined as “the pursuit and enjoyment of unique and memorable food and drink experiences, both near and far,” according to the World Food Travel Association. The final few words of the definition clarify that it does not matter the proximity these food experiences are to your home. If you have travelled across town for the purpose of going to a specific artisanal market or a restaurant you read about, you are engaging in food tourism.

A massive slice of the tourism pie as a whole, it is estimated that food tourism accounts for one third of total tourist spending worldwide, bringing in $201 billion in the United States alone in 2012. Over three quarters of leisure travellers are deemed food tourists, meaning most of us are driven by what we sink our teeth into when we travel. But, while we may have an out-of-body experience while eating mole enchiladas in a tiny roadside restaurant in Mexico, there is more to food tourism than solely meets the palate.

Food tourism helps communities. A culinary tour company called Global Flavours is helping Puerto Rico’s economy bounce back after its hurricane disasters last fall. Since the business’ inception, the tour’s purpose has been to connect travellers to local food haunts that showcase the area’s culture and history. Following the hurricanes that left most of the company’s restaurant partners requiring extensive repair, Global Flavours has worked tirelessly to help get Puerto Rico’s food tourism industry back on its feet. The company has restarted their tours and is subsequently aiding the local economy. Similarly, food tourism carries travellers to towns and cities where there aren’t other predominant industries to employ their inhabitants. It also plays an important role in helping to celebrate and sustain a region’s cultural identity. Without food tourism, the specialties that make an area unique could be traded in for more globalized offerings.

Another advantage of food tourism is that it provides inspiration. When we step outside of our usual habits, whether that means flying to Vietnam or choosing to shop at a different grocery store, we open ourselves to opportunities to be inspired. New culinary experiences, no matter how small, are an education and expand our minds and taste buds to things we didn’t know existed before. Food tourism is rejuvenating and with the knowledge we learn, we go home to try to recreate the experiences we had. Or better yet, we take aspects of them and create something entirely our own. Most of what I cook at home now has a Southeast Asian influence.

The food tourism industry rebuilds communities, preserves cultures, educates travellers and inspires creativity. Will we ever tire of what food tourism can offer? We’ll always be hungry for more.