Learn local culinary expressions as you travel

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Welcome to The Upgrade, By The Way’s new series on travel hacks and hot plugs. See how to submit here.

In my day-to-day life, I’m a fan of checklists and routines. I want structure. But when I travel, something inside me goes wild and throws caution to the wind.

I particularly like the pleasure of discovering unknown cuisines. I do some research before the trip (old habits die hard), but once on the road I try to let my senses guide me – the smell of baking bread, a spice that seems somewhat familiar but unexpected, or a fish I know from home pretending to be another name. I find that one of the best ways to follow this curiosity is to learn some key food expressions in the local language.

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Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m going to slaughter them. Even as an English teacher helping others with pronunciation, I’m desperate when it comes to accurately mimicking the sounds of other languages. But as I remind my students, sometimes it helps to swallow your pride and try. Immediately going to Google Translate robs you of a chance to log in.

You may have different interests, so consider using them as a starting point for your own do-it-yourself phrase book. Personally, I’m trying to learn to say “It’s delicious!” for it almost always elicits a smile from even the most austere trader. “What do you recommend?” also comes in handy for someone who seems a little shy about taking my order. “Can I have the recipe? once sent me home with a jar of homemade tomato sauce.

Stumbling in pronunciation also reminds me to let go of the need to do things perfectly. No one is going to quiz me on grammar, after all. It takes humility, a bit of confidence, and a genuine interest in learning something new. Of course, the word “please” never hurts, and a genuine smile stands where all else fails.

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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 seemed friendly and the fish looked fresh. I pointed to the menu and asked, “What do you recommend?” He smiled broadly and answered in a rapid flurry of Portuguese that I didn’t understand. I shrugged and sat down in anticipation of my upcoming seafood feast.

When he arrived the plate was a hearty stew filled with meat and potatoes. Although I was really craving fish, this large plate of anything but seafood gave me something else – a chance to laugh at myself. My interest in his recommendation brought out a real friendliness in the waiter, although my focus was lost in translation.

It’s natural to be afraid to step out of our comfort zone, and that goes for what we eat while traveling too. Sharing food is truly a universal language, and making an effort with food expressions gives us the opportunity to connect with others, whether it’s in a restaurant, a market, or in someone’s home.

So these days, I do my best to leave 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 to plan.


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