Personally, I don’t think there’s anything better than food to give you a sense of place. The food you eat when you’re on your travels may very well provide you with the essence of the place you’re in. Let’s face it, there’s nothing better than eating sushi IN Japan or Tacos while IN Mexico.
But is there a way to eat food while abroad that makes a positive impact? Absolutely! Eating local is always the best choice. In doing so you’re cutting down on food miles and puts money into the pockets of locals. It’s also more enjoyable! You may also be supporting local farmers in the process depending on where you’re dining out. The benefits are easily contrasted when you compare eating at a local establishment to an international brand, say McDonald’s. Now if you really need that Big Mac fix, then that’s your choice. But when you dine out at international brands or chains, most of your money will be going to that international company. However, local establishments are always going to the better option as far as contributing to the local economy.
The idea of eating local can be taken too far however. Depending on the country, there could be local delicacies that have serious negative environmental and ethical impacts. An example of this Shark fin soup, commonly served in Hong Kong and many parts of China. Although a local delicacy and status symbol to many in China, Shark fin soup comes with the stigma of the cruel act of shark finning where sharks have their fins sliced off at sea, and the rest of their bodies dumped into the oceans for a slow and painful death. Other delicacies containing endangered animals or plants should also be avoided.
It’s also worth mentioning that seafood stocks around the world are declining at an alarming rate. In the last 50 years we’ve lost 90% of large predatory fish in our oceans, and scientists have argued that if we continue to fish at the rate that we are today, we will have exhausted our seafood stocks in another 50 years. Overfishing continues to be a problem worldwide. However, as consumers, we can make an informed and sustainable choice. It’s not necessarily about avoiding seafood but instead taking the time to find out where your seafood comes from and how it was fished. Sustainable seafood is recommended based on the philosophy of ensuring the piece of seafood was caught in such a way that does not damage sensitive ecosystems, that the species is resilient to fishing pressures, and mitigates by-catch (catching another species by accident). In Canada we have several programs to help consumers make informed choices such as Ocean Wise, SeaChoice and MSC. In the United States there’s Seafood Watch. There may not be an international organization that helps consumers choose sustainable seafood options though. So while travelling abroad, simply asking where and how that piece of seafood was caught is recommended wherever possible.