I am beyond stoked to share a Q & A session with Nomadic Matt! He dishes on his favorite foodie moments while traveling, tips for finding the best food and more.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Matt Kepnes, he’s best known his travel website Nomadic Matt, where he teaches people to travel better, cheaper, and smarter. He also has a New York Times best-selling book How to Travel the World on $50 a Day, runs a fabulous travel blogging and media school (which I highly recommend if you want to get into blogging—I can attest as a student!), owns a hostel, runs a travel conference, and still finds time to travel the world! I had the honor of being able to pick his brain on his favorite foodie adventures and tips for finding stellar eats while traveling. Let’s dig in!
(Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.)
What is the most memorable meal you’ve ever had?
I’m not sure I can pinpoint a specific meal, as I’ve had some amazing food over throughout my travels. But an experience that stands out is the first time I traveled to Thailand. Going to food stalls for the first time, eating delicious, cheap meals with the locals…that was something I’ll never forget. It was a world away from my life back in Boston, and really opened my eyes to what long-term travel could offer.
Another foodie highlight was when I went to Tokyo. I went to some of the best places to eat in Tokyo. I essentially went there on a food trip, intent on eating my way around the city. Sushi, tempura, Kobe beef, noodles…I ate it all, struggling to fit in extra meals each day so I wouldn’t have to pass anything up. Tokyo is definitely a foodie paradise, and it just such a fun city brimming with life that I’d definitely encourage anyone to go. Even if you’re not a big city fan, Tokyo is unlike anything you’ll see elsewhere. You almost have to see it to believe it! Just be prepared to put on a couple pounds because there is tons of amazing food there!
Do you have any tips for finding the best food in a new city?
I usually start my search by asking friends who have been there and then by checking for advice from other travel blogs. Travel guidebooks are good, but they usually aren’t up to date. After that, I’ll ask travel forums or travel Facebook groups for any other tips or input. I’ll compare all of that to reviews on Google and Yelp and see what comes out on top.
Another great tool to use is Couchsurfing. This is especially good if you have dietary concerns, such as being celiac or vegan. You can use the app to find locals with similar diets and then you can message them directly and ask for their favorite places to eat and other tips. This is a great resource, as you not only get the information you’re looking for but you also get to interact with a local and potentially pick up more tips and suggestions.
What country do you think has the best food and why? Favorite dish?
Tough question! Food is what I love to blow my budget on and one of the biggest reasons why I love to travel. If I had to pick a single dish, it would probably be sushi. That’s something I could eat anytime. The best part is you’ve got a lot of variety when it comes to rolls and flavors and types of fish, so I think that would be my choice.
Beyond a single favorite dish, if I had to pick a top country for food I would likely pick Thailand. Thai food is definitely one of my favorites cuisines, and I ate my fair share of it when I lived there. Street food in Thailand is cheap, it’s filling, and it’s delicious. What’s not to like?
What’s one cuisine you’ve been dying to try?
I’m not a fan of spicy food, but I imagine Indian food in India to be even more amazing and flavorful than it is back home. The smells and colors and the atmosphere alone would be a feast for the senses. So whenever I make it to India that will be something I make sure to splurge on!
A lot of travelers worry about eating street food or getting sick eating local food. Do you have any advice on things to look for or avoid?
When I’m looking for somewhere to eat while I’m traveling, there are always two things that I do:
- Walk at least 5 blocks from any tourist areas. This makes sure that the places I’m eating at are for locals and not tourists. Not only will they be cheaper but you’ll also be less likely to get ill. Why? Tourist places will only see their customers once, whereas the local places will cater to the same customers over and over again. That means they need to make sure their customers don’t get sick!
- I’ll make sure I go to places that have several customers already eating there. This is a quick way to determine if the place is good. If the locals keep returning and eat there, chances are it’s fine for you too!
What’s one dish you miss the most that you can’t get in the states?
One of the best things about America is that you can pretty much get anything. We’re a country of immigrants, which means that any cuisine you want you can probably find somewhere! From the amazing BBQs of Texas to the incredible sushi restaurants in NYC and LA, America really does have it all. Unfortunately, it rarely has it all in one place! New York City is one of the few cities in the country, if not the world, where you can find amazing versions of pretty much any cuisine. That’s one of the main reasons I lived there for so long!
That being said, I’m a sucker for eating Thai food in Thailand. Not only is the Thai food there better than almost anything you’ll find in America, but the atmosphere is different. Eating at a tiny street stall is such a unique experience and a far cry from eating in a busy, expensive restaurant in Manhattan.
What are your top recommendations for countries or cities foodies have to visit?
While I think that all depends on what you’re into, but for your average traveler I think some suggestions would be:
- Thailand (the best Thai food!)
- Tokyo (sushi)
- Singapore (amazing food stalls)
- Hong Kong (dumplings)
- Austin (BBQ and tacos)
I think each of these places has amazing food but also amazing atmosphere and culture. Not only will you get to treat your taste buds but you’ll get to travel somewhere unique and memorable, which is just as important.
What’s the most unique food that you’ve tried?
You don’t travel around the world for a decade without eating a few…unique items. I think the two that top the list are when I ate fried maggots in Thailand. That was pretty different (you won’t find that one the menu at your local Thai place!). They were a lot better than I thought, if I’m being honest. They kind of tasted like salty French fries. Much better than expected.
I also had some fried caterpillars in Zambia too. Those were also surprisingly delicious. I doubt I’ll be cooking them up at home anytime soon, but it just goes to show you that you shouldn’t knock something before you try it (plus, anything fried is likely going to be pretty tasty!).
What is one thing you know now that you wish you would have learned sooner when it comes to food and travel?
I wish I had taken advantage of more apps and websites when I first started traveling (though, not many existed back then!). Using websites like happycow.net (for finding vegetarian food and reviews) as well as websites like Yelp and Foursquare have been super helpful. Also, sharing economy apps like EatWith for local, intimate dining experiences and going on food tours were all things I didn’t start doing until I had been traveling for a while so I probably missed out on some experiences here and there. But I also randomly ended up at tons of great restaurants and food stalls over the years, so I can’t complain!
Additionally, I wish I would have budgeted more on some of my trips. Too often, when trying to be frugal we just end up being cheap, which means we miss out on some experiences. These days, I always make sure to budget extra for food because that’s where I want to get my enjoyment. So, when you’re budgeting and planning your next trip, make sure you include a little extra for what you love. Maybe that’s food, but it could also be museums and galleries, accommodation, or activities. No matter what it is that you love the most, just make sure to put away some extra money so that when you encounter once in a lifetime experiences you can embrace them without worrying about pinching pennies.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to incorporate more local dining experiences but is a little apprehensive?
Start small. You don’t need to go out there and start feasting on all the weird and wonderful local dishes you encounter. Fried scorpions and goat brains don’t need to be your first experience. Take baby steps. Try going out to a local place with another traveler who has been there, so they can show you the ropes. If you have any dietary concerns, make sure you can express them in the local languages by using an app like Google Translate or by getting your hostel staff to write the words down on paper.
Also, try using an app like EatWith, that pairs you with locals who cook meals for visitors. It’s a great way to get a unique, local dining experience in a more familiar environment. You can also go on a food tour as that way you can try a handful of local places with a group and with someone to show you how it’s done. That’s a simple and laidback way to ease into a new culture and new food experiences, allowing you to build up your confidence so you can head out there on your own and dive into your next local dining experience!
A huge thank you to Nomadic Matt for his great insights!
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