Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to travel the world.
I remember reading Harry Potter and dreaming of flying to England to try his favorite treacle tart or pretending with my sister to eat buttered baguette in Paris with Madeline and her friends.
My travel bug got even stronger after spending my final semester of college studying abroad in the Netherlands. I got a taste of what it could be like to travel the world, and I felt more certain than ever that there was nothing I wanted to do more than keep exploring.
But just as my interest peaked, I graduated and was hit with substantial student loan payments that I’ll be dealing with until I’m in my mid-30s. I haven’t left the country since.
Luckily there is one way I’ve been able to keep immersing myself in bits and pieces of other cultures — namely, through their foods.
I live in Los Angeles, and I’ve made a point to try to experience the cuisines of as many countries as possible while I’m here. I’m super lucky, because people from all over the world have moved here and brought their food culture with them. There are restaurants and markets galore where I can explore new flavors and ingredients, and trying these new foods has been a real joy.
If you don’t live in a major metropolitan area like I do, there are still a few different ways you can explore international cuisines even if you can’t actually afford that plane ticket to your dream destination just yet.
1. Search the grocery store
Sometimes trying a new international flavor is as easy as visiting the grocery store. Most major grocery stores have an international section or aisle — look there for new ingredients. Start small by getting a hot sauce or spice blend you haven’t tried before and subbing it in for your usual when cooking (think: Chinese five-spice chicken instead of your usual lemon pepper). You should also check near the pasta and tomato sauce for imported Italian ingredients, and if your store has a kosher section, that can be a good place to look for Middle Eastern ingredients.
2. Switch grocery stores
Better yet, skip the standard grocery store, and go to a market that specializes in the cuisine of a specific region. A quick Google search should lead you in the right direction. And don’t worry if you can’t find a superstore catering to an international cuisine you’re interested in trying. Sometimes even small corner markets and convenience stores will pack essentials for a specific cuisine if many people from that area live in the neighborhood. Grocery stores don’t have to be brick-and-mortar either. Amazon and other online stores can be great resources for finding new ingredients you want to try.
3. Use old ingredients in new ways
Even if you can’t find new ingredients, you can repurpose your pantry staples by using them in different ways. Cinnamon is used mostly in baked goods in the U.S., but in Morocco and much of the Middle East, it’s used in spice rubs and stews. Yogurt might be your breakfast of choice, but you can also use it as a marinade to make super-moist and tender chicken as they do in India. And multitaskers like cilantro can help bring the flavors of Mexico, Thailand, India or the Mediterranean to your table with just a quick chop.
4. Do your research
Knowledge, as they say, is power. Buy cookbooks focused on cuisines that interest you, or take them out of the library. If you see an ingredient or dish mentioned on TV or in a movie and you’re curious, look it up on the Internet. Learn about the different flavor profiles that belong to certain regions, then try to pick out where they overlap with other cuisines. Even if you can’t taste the food itself, reading about it — where the ingredients come from, how a dish is prepared — can be just as satisfying. This is coming from someone who just bought Magnus Nilsson’s 768-page The Nordic Cookbook. Sure, I can’t find colostrum or puffin at the local supermarket (and even if I could, I eat a plant-based diet), but reading about them in this cookbook totally transports me to the great northern lands where they’re traditional staples.
5. Go out to eat
This one’s easy. If you want to get a taste of another country, find a restaurant near you that serves up that cuisine. You won’t have to worry about making a traditional dish at home or sourcing hard-to-find ingredients, and often you can ask about different items on the menu to learn about which dishes are most popular or traditional. At some places you can even see if they have any specialties that might not be listed on the menu, and the restaurant will be happy to share a new dish with you. Just ask!
6. Take a day trip
If you live in a very small town or rural area, going to a restaurant specializing in a new cuisine might not be all that easy. Enter the day trip! Search for a restaurant in a few hours’ driving distance from you, and hit the road. Day trips are great because you get the feeling of adventure you would with a longer vacation without blowing your savings or having to take any time off work. Sure, heading to a spot 100 miles away wouldn’t work for dinner on a weeknight, but on a Saturday when you have nothing planned, it can be the perfect way to experience a new cuisine while also getting a little taste of travel — until you can finally buy those plane tickets you’ve been dreaming about.