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Ordering food when you don’t speak the language

So you’ve packed your bags, headed as far from home as you can, seen the sights you wanted to see, breathed the foreign air and… you’re dining on McDonald’s or instant noodles? Perish the thought! Food is one of the greatest and easiest way to experience the culture of any country you visit, so don’t just stick to what you know, get brave and order something local, even if you have no real idea what it is or how to pronounce it in a foreign tongue.

Here are my tips on ordering food in a foreign land:

Don’t just follow the guidebook

Instead of relying solely on a guidebook for restaurant recommendations, trust the locals who know best. Your hostel clerk or concierge usually can give you great leads on where to go. A tip: ask them to tell you where they would go themselves, as some hostels point their guests to the most tourist friendly place with an English menu, which might mean tourist prices and so-so quality.

If not, online forums or local food blogs will give you more recent peer reviews, which makes the info a little more reliable than an out of date guidebook. Or if you’re feeling adventurous, just pop into any place that catches your eye and point at whatever looks good on the next table.

Kurashiki Oden Restaurant

Kurashiki, Japan – a recommendation from our hostel owner and while they had English menus, my mostly Japanese-speaking grandma companion convinced me to have my own bottle of local sake and helped me to order the oden which was super awesome

Language is not a barrier

Don’t worry if there isn’t an English menu to order from – pick up a few key words of popular local food, or write them down somewhere so you can at least get your basic request across to waiters who don’t speak your language. If your menu has pictures, do some pointing and gesturing. If all that doesn’t work, look at what your table neighbors are eating and ask for the same thing!

I had a situation in Seoul where my waiter was unfailingly polite, but didn’t speak a word of English, and he just kept smiling and bowing at me, hoping I would suddenly develop the ability to speak Korean. It was a little frustrating, but I managed to order a bulgogi set because that’s the extent of my Korean. The choice of sauce was a stab in the dark as I gave up trying to find out what they had and pointed at a random entry on the menu.

The best local food is quite often the least tourist friendly, so here’s your chance to have a truly local experience.

Seoul Bulgogi Mystery

I pointed randomly at an entry on the page knowing it was bulgogi but not what type of bulgogi. It turned out pretty alright

At least one good meal is essential

Even if you’re on a tight budget, try to give yourself at least one good meal. If you’re a hardcore foodie whose trips revolve around food, this shouldn’t be a problem, but if you’re more ‘Eat-to-Live’ like I am, then remember to reward yourself with a great meal from time to time! Often you get what you pay for, though that definitely doesn’t ring true for street food, which is cheap, good and tastes best straight from the cart.

Penang Food - Lorong Selamat

Mh Penang street food is cheap and good. I prefer the Hong Kong style chee cheong fun though

Remember, you don’t always have to eat local if it’s not to your taste – while eating is a great way to experience a foreign place, familiar food is also a great way to get over homesickness.  That said, what is the point of going all the way some place new just to eat what you can get back home? My ultimate tip I can give is to just be brave and just go with it. I’m a pretty picky eater, and I believe in only eating what I like, but I also believe that you should try everything… just once!

How good are you at digging out the local spots in places that you visit?

A version of this article was crossposted from Go! Girl Guides, where I was a contributing blogger.