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I especially love the thrill of experiencing unfamiliar cuisines. I do some pre-trip research (old habits die hard), but once I’m on the road, I try to let my senses guide me — the scent of baking bread, a spice that seems somehow familiar yet unexpected, or a fish I know from home masquerading under a different name. I find that one of the best ways to follow this curiosity is to learn a few key food phrases in the local language.
Don’t get me wrong — I know that I’ll butcher them. Even as an English teacher who helps others with pronunciation, I’m hopeless when it comes to accurately imitating the sounds of other languages. But as I remind my students, sometimes it helps to swallow your pride and just give it a try. Going immediately to Google Translate robs you of a chance to connect.
You may have different interests, so consider using these as a starting point for your own DIY phrase book. Personally, I try to learn how to say “It’s delicious!” since that almost always gets a smile, even from the most dour-faced shopkeeper. “What do you recommend?” comes in handy too, for someone who looks a bit shy about taking my order. “Can I get the recipe?” once got me sent home with a jar of homemade tomato sauce.
Stumbling my way through pronunciation also reminds me to drop the need to do things perfectly. No one’s going to give me a pop quiz on grammar, after all. It requires humility, a bit of confidence and an honest interest in learning something new. Of course, the word “please” never hurts, and a genuine smile stands in where all else fails.
On a trip to Lisbon, I took a ferry to Cacilhas, an area known for its seafood. It was lunchtime, so I picked a place where the waiter looked friendly and the fish looked fresh. I pointed at the menu and asked, “What do you recommend?” He smiled broadly and answered in a rapid string of Portuguese that I didn’t understand. I shrugged and sat down in anticipation of my seafood feast to come.
When it arrived, the plate was a hearty stew piled high with meat and potatoes. Although I had really been craving fish, this big plate of everything-but-seafood delivered me something else — a chance to laugh at myself. My interest in his recommendation brought out a genuine friendliness in the waiter, even if my goal was lost in translation.
It is natural to feel afraid to step out of our comfort zone, and this is true of what we eat when traveling, too. Sharing food is truly a universal language and making an effort with food phrases gives us opportunities to connect with others, whether in a restaurant, market or someone’s home.
So these days I try my best to leave some room for serendipity. Step away from maps and translation apps, and let your inner GPS guide you to your next great meal — even if it doesn’t always go exactly as planned.
Malia Yoshioka is a freelance writer and ESL tutor from Hawaii, slowly eating her way around the world and currently based in Istanbul.