The world's best local food: How to avoid tourist food and eat what the locals eat

It seems so obvious. You go to Thailand, you eat pad Thai. You go to Japan, you eat sushi. You go to Spain, you eat paella. These dishes are world famous, and so emblematic of their country of origin. What could be better than tasting them on home soil?

And yet, when you arrive in these places an interesting discovery awaits: worldwide fame doesn't necessarily equate to countrywide passion. Quite often the dishes we associate with a certain destination represent only the tip of the culinary iceberg, a small taste of what's really on offer, and what locals truly love to eat.

Sometimes the idea we have of local favourites is completely wrong. Sometimes we've missed the way tastes have evolved since a national dish attained worldwide fame. Other times we just don't realise how much more there is to a cuisine.

If you're travelling to any of the following destinations, you're in for a surprise. The dish you think you're going to eat there, well, It's not necessarily the done thing. It might be popular with tourists. It might even be eaten occasionally by the locals. But if you want to eat the same thing that everyone around you is obsessed with, it's time to try something different.

BANGKOK, THAILAND

This is a photograph of a bowl of pad Thai with broccoli, chicken and carrots sprinkled with peanuts on top. There are chopsticks on the side. sunnov24cover
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Tourist favourite: Pad Thai. Photo: iStock

TOURISTS EAT Pad Thai. This famous noodle stir-fry could almost be Australia's national dish, so popular is it on our shores, and so of course you want to try pad Thai when you get to Bangkok. It does exist here – though it's nowhere near as ubiquitous as you might think.

LOCALS EAT Pad kra pao. Ask any Bangkok resident about their comfort food of choice, the first dish they like to have when they return home, and it will invariably be pad kra pao: pork mince stir-fried with holy basil, garlic and chilli, served with rice and a fried egg, seasoned with fish sauce, soy, sugar and more chilli.

WHERE TO GET IT This is street food at its finest. Grab one of the city's best pad kra pao at Ung Jia Huad (23 Khlong Toei Nuea, Watthana), an old-school stall in Sukhumvit.

SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN

TOURISTS EAT Cold pintxos. It's hard to resist the cold pintxos (Basque-style tapas) laid atop a San Sebastian bar, and prepared earlier by the kitchen staff. These beautiful and bountiful displays are an easy way to dine, because you just point and eat.

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LOCALS EAT Hot pintxos. The best pintxos in San Sebastian, however, are not laid out on the bar. Look for a menu posted on a wall nearby: these dishes are the hot pintxos, made to order, and that's where, by far, the best food is.

WHERE TO GET IT Pretty much every bar in San Sebastian does hot pintxos and the low-temperature egg with truffles and parmesan at Mendaur Berria is one of the city's best. See mendaurberria.negocio.site

TOKYO, JAPAN

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Locals eat: Ramen Photo: iStock

TOURISTS EAT Sushi. First-time visitors to Japan tend to expect that locals will share the rest of the world's fascination with fish on rice, and go out of their way to find a place that serves it.

LOCALS EAT Ramen. Though the residents of Tokyo do enjoy sushi on occasion, the dish they eat far more often – in fact some would say are obsessed with – is ramen. This is an adaptation of Chinese noodle soup that has taken on a life of its own.

WHERE TO GET IT There are almost as many ramen restaurants in Tokyo as there are restaurants of any kind in New York City, which shows the mind-boggling scale we're talking here. For a solid introduction, check out the yuzu-tinged ramen at Afuri. See afuri.com

MUMBAI, INDIA

TOURISTS EAT Curry. Lamb jalfrezi? Prawn vindaloo? Korma? Rogan josh? All of these are wonderful, regional Indian dishes that don't come from Mumbai, and you won't find many people eating them.

LOCALS EAT Vada pav. There's a whole world of delicious local food out there in Mumbai, but the snack that brings everyone together is vada pav, a spiced, deep-fried potato cake that's wedged into a soft roll and topped with chilli and chutney.

WHERE TO GET IT On the street. You'll find someone selling vada pav on pretty much every corner of the city. Try as many as you can.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO

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Locals eat: Tacos. Photo: iStock

TOURISTS EAT Burritos. These large, tortilla-wrapped treats are often thought of as the classic Mexican meal, however, burritos are from the far north of Mexico, and are rarely eaten by locals in the capital city.

LOCALS EAT Tacos. This is another dish synonymous with Mexican cuisine (smaller than a burrito, with a corn tortilla instead of flour, and different fillings), and in Mexico City it's a true passion. The best local taco is "al pastor", a spicy-sour combination of pork, pineapple and chilli.

WHERE TO GET IT Every hole-in-the-wall taqueria in Mexico City will serve al pastor, however, check out El Vilsito (Av. Universidad, Narvarte Poniente), just south of trendy La Condesa, for a great version.

SHANGHAI, CHINA

Shengjian bao or shengjian mantou, baozi  pan-fried stramed bun, served in a Shanghainese, Chinese restaurant sunnov24cover
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Shengjian bao, xiao long bao's bigger cousing. Photo: iStock

TOURISTS EAT Xiao long bao. Many Australians have become familiar with Shanghai's signature dumpling, the soupy, delicious xiao long bao, and some visit the city purely to eat it. That's fine. There are, however, other dishes to discover.

LOCALS EAT Shengjian. Think of this as xiao long bao's bigger, bulkier cousin. A shengjian is a light bun that's filled with a soupy pork mixture, steamed and then pan-fried. It's umami-rich and filling, and a definite local favourite.

WHERE TO GET IT Everywhere, though mostly cheap and cheerful diners. The chain restaurant Yang's Fry-Dumpling does excellent shengjian.

LIMA, PERU

TOURISTS EAT Ceviche. Quick, name one dish from Peru: it's ceviche, isn't it? This is the one everyone knows, the Peruvian dish that has achieved worldwide fame, and this citrus-cured seafood is, understandably, in high demand from foreign visitors.

LOCALS EAT Chaufa. Ceviche is great, but it's not what locals are eating several times a week. That honour goes to chaufa, a hearty, Peruvian-style fried rice that takes its cues from China and adds a Latin American twist.

WHERE TO GET IT You'll find chaufa served at any "chifa", or Chinese-Peruvian fusion restaurant, and there's no shortage of them in Lima. Try Wa Lok in Miraflores. See walok.com.pe

HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM

Freshly served Bun Rieu Cua, a traditional tomato broth crab noodle soup in Hanoi, with woman eating the noodles with chopsticks. sunnov24cover
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Locals eat: Bun rieu cua. Photo: iStock

TOURISTS EAT Pho. Everyone knows about pho now, and everyone wants to eat it. This is Vietnamese comfort food at its finest – rich, beefy broth, slippery rice noodles, crunchy bean sprouts – and Ho Chi Minh City is known for it.

LOCALS EAT Bun rieu cua. Locals eat pho, don't get us wrong. But they also eat a whole host of different noodle soups you've probably never even heard of, including bun rieu cua, a delicious crab and tomato soup with vermicelli noodles.

WHERE TO GET IT No-frills neighbourhood restaurants are best. Head directly to Bun Rieu Nguyen Canh Chan (5 Nguyen Canh Chan, District 1.

LOS ANGELES, US

TOURISTS EAT Burgers and fries. When you visit the US, you want the classics. You want a cheeseburger with fries. You want it simple and dirty. From a fast food joint or a bar. Nothing wrong with that.

LOCALS EAT Mexican food. Have a look around though: burgers and fries might be popular in LA, but they've got nothing on the food from down south, Mexico way. You get extremely good Mexican food in California, and it's worth taking advantage of.

WHERE TO GET IT Mexican cuisine makes for great street food, but it's also served in upmarket eateries in LA. For the latter, try Madre which serves authentic Oaxacan food. See madrerestaurants.com

SINGAPORE

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Locals eat: Hainanese chicken rice. Photo: iStock

TOURISTS EAT Chilli crab. Of all the great food available in Singapore, for some reason chilli crab (shellfish stir-fried in spicy sauce) has become the city-state's best-known dish, despite not being widely consumed there.

LOCALS EAT Hainanese chicken rice. This is one deceptively brilliant dish, poached chicken served with rice cooked in chicken fat, garnished with chilli sambal and soy. It's a quintessential Singaporean plate, and wildly popular.

WHERE TO GET IT Go for a hawker centre. If you ask 10 locals for their favourite you'll probably get 10 different answers; however, Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice at the Maxwell Centre is reliably great.

BARCELONA, SPAIN

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Locals eat: Calcots. Photo: iStock

TOURISTS EAT Paella. This famous rice dish is excellent, but friends, it's not "Spanish", per se. It's native to the city of Valencia, and if you're not eating it there, or in the city's immediate surrounds, you probably won't be getting a good one.

LOCALS EAT Calcots. In Barcelona, locals are far more likely to be eating a variety of Catalan specialties, including – in winter – calcots. These long, sweet onions are roasted over fire and then dipped in rich romesco sauce, and they're extraordinarily good.

WHERE TO GET IT You'll need to find a restaurant that specialises in "calcotadas". Grab a seat at the cosy Taverna El Glop and dig into a truly memorable, traditional meal. See elglop.com

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA

TOURISTS EAT Nasi goreng. Everyone knows this famous fried-rice dish: it's tasty and approachable, with nothing overly spicy. Nasi goreng is a favourite among tourists across Malaysia and Indonesia.

LOCALS EAT Nasi lemak. The dish that's closest to the hearts of those who live in KL, however, is rice cooked in coconut milk, served with sambal, dried anchovies, peanuts, boiled egg, and usually chicken or beef rendang. It's the breakfast of champions.

WHERE TO GET IT Go for a no-frills neighbourhood eatery. Outside the city limits in Petaling Jaya, Village Park Restaurant (Jalan SS 21, Damansara Utama) is famous for nasi lemak.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL

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Locals eat: Feijoada. Photo: iStock

TOURISTS EAT Churrasco. There are plenty of restaurants in Rio serving Brazilian-style all-you-can-eat barbecue. This is food of celebration for many locals, something that's cherished, and not eaten that often.

LOCALS EAT Feijoada. If you want to eat the real local favourite, go for this hearty stew of black beans and various pork parts, served with rice and cassava flour. This is family-style comfort food at its finest and you won't need to eat again for a week.

WHERE TO GET IT Ideally, you'll eat this on a Sunday with a local family. Failing that, head to Casa da Feijoada in Ipanema. See cozinhatipica.com.br

LONDON, UK

TOURISTS EAT Fish and chips. British food doesn't come much more authentic than the wondrous combination of battered fish and fried potatoes, available in every pub and greasy spoon.

LOCALS EAT Curry. Exception being that fish and chips isn't the most popular food in its homeland. That honour would surely go to the humble Indian curry – tikka masala, korma, vindaloo or whatever – served to the masses in "curry houses" across the UK.

WHERE TO GET IT London's Whitechapel is curry house central and Lahore Kebab House is one of its finest. See lahore-kebabhouse.com

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA

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Asado: Argentinian food is more than just steak. Photo: iStock

TOURISTS EAT Steak. What do you order when you come to Argentina? Steak. Definitely. This is a nation that's known for its beef, cooked over hot coals, served with red wine. You'd be crazy not to.

LOCALS EAT Asado. Portenos like a steak, no doubt. But a full Argentinian asado, or barbecue, is a thing to behold, with several cuts of meat – ribs, flank, sirloin – added to chorizo, morcilla, charred vegetables and even fruit.

WHERE TO GET IT This is traditional family dining, so ideally you would want to be eating with a local family. Otherwise, head to neighbourhood favourite Las Talas del Entrerriano (Av Juan Manuel de Rosas 1391, Jose Leon Suarez) and order everything.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA

TOURISTS EAT Barbecue. Again, this is the style of eating most people know from Korea: flash-grilling pieces of meat on a small barbecue at your table, then wrapping it in lettuce with various fillings. Very tasty.

LOCALS EAT Chimaek. Barbecue is popular among locals in South Korea, but the combination that really gets people excited is chimaek, a portmanteau of "chikin" and "maekju" (chicken and beer). The chicken is fried, American-style, and the beer is cold. Can't lose.

WHERE TO GET IT A chimaek is a restaurant style all of its own. Duck into an outlet of Kyochon Chicken, a respected local chain.

ROME, ITALY

TOURISTS EAT Pizza. Call into any pizza place in Rome and you'll be taught a hard lesson about how hyper-regional Italian food is, and that pizza is not a classically Roman dish.

LOCALS EAT Trippa. There are plenty of amazingly good Roman dishes out there, from pasta carbonara to oxtail stew (coda alla vaccinara). However, one of the most traditional is trippa alla romana, a rich, slow-cooked stew of tomatoes and tripe.

WHERE TO GET IT For a whole host of Roman favourites, including all of the dishes mentioned above, trattoria dining is the way to go. Call into Flavio al Velavevodetto in the Testaccio neighbourhood. See ristorantevelavevodetto.it

CHIANG MAI, THAILAND

Khao Soi Recipe, Curried Noodle Soup with Chicken is one of the traditional food of northern Thailand. sunnov24cover
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Underrated: Khao soi. Photo: iStock

TOURISTS EAT Curry. Plenty of travellers head to Thailand looking forward to a good red or green curry, even in Chiang Mai, where these traditionally southern dishes are only really served at tourist-focused restaurants.

LOCALS EAT Khao soi. The curry flavour you're craving exists in northern Thailand, it's just that it will come in the form of khao soi, a much-loved and vastly underrated noodle soup of the Lanna region. Egg noodles are drenched in a curry-flavoured broth and topped with pickled mustard greens, shallots, lime and fresh chilli.

WHERE TO GET IT Chiang Mai's best khao soi is a hotly contested title, but Huen Phen Restaurant is up there. See baanhuenphen.com

LISBON, PORTUGAL

TOURISTS EAT Pastries. It's easy to become addicted to Portuguese pastries, because they're just so good. The king, obviously, is the Portuguese tart, but spend a little time in a Lisbon bakery and you soon start to consider wearing looser trousers.

LOCALS EAT Bacalhau. Lisbon residents love pastries, but the dish that's closest to their hearts is bacalhau, or salt cod. It's said that there are at least 365 different recipes for bacalhau, which means a (slightly) different dish every day of the year.

WHERE TO GET IT Bacalhau is home-style comfort food, and the family-run Esquina da Fe (Rua da Fe 60, Lisbon) is the perfect spot to sample it.

DUBAI, UAE

TOURISTS EAT Friday brunch. This is a hugely popular tradition among tourists and resident expats, who head to Dubai's fancy hotels for a smorgasbord feast, complete with champagne.

LOCALS EAT Shawarma. The true classic Dubai dish is a little humbler. Shawarma in Dubai is usually made using chicken cooked on a vertical rotisserie, which is carved and stuffed into a flatbread with garlic sauce and various other fillings. It's cheap, ubiquitous and delicious.

WHERE TO GET IT Cheap and cheerful is best. Join the queue of locals at Al Mallah which has three outlets. See almallahuae.com

FIVE FOODS TOURISTS AND LOCALS LOVE

PIZZA, NEW YORK CITY

Want to eat pizza in NYC? Of course you do. Fortunately, so does everyone else. New York-style pizza is a thing of its own, sold by the slice, slathered with sweet tomato sauce and stringy mozzarella, and there's nothing wrong with giving it a try in its homeland.

HAGGIS, EDINBURGH

You may think this is one of those legendary dishes everyone knows about, but no one actually eats, until you get to Scotland and realise just how proud the locals are of haggis. Best way to eat it (or worst – your call) is deep fried, with chips, at your local takeaway.

BRATWURST, MUNICH

Bratwurst is such a cliche. It's all anyone really knows about German cuisine. And yet you get to Munich and discover that it really is popular, and it really is delicious. A bratwurst mit brot – a sausage in a roll with mustard – is a thing of beauty.

BRAAI, CAPE TOWN

People tend not to know a lot about South African food before they arrive – that is, except that barbecues are popular. And indeed they are. Every South African loves a braaI, and if you can get yourself invited to one (and you aren't vegetarian), you'll be very happy.

TAKOYAKI, OSAKA

Osaka is considered the gastronomic capital of Japan, and there are plenty of great dishes that either originate or are done best there. One of the most famous is takoyaki – fried balls of dough with octopus, sold on the street. They're popular with tourists and locals alike.

HOW TO FIND LOCAL FAVOURITES IN ANY CITY

RESEARCH

As soon as you've booked your trip, get researching. Read up on local bloggers. Check guidebooks. Read travel stories. Read review sites. The more you research, the more you'll learn, and the more likely you will be to find the best iterations of local favourites.

TALK TO PEOPLE

This is so crucial. If you want to know what and where local people eat, ask them. Talk to as many people as you can. Talk to your cab driver, talk to the hotel staff, chat to people in pubs and bars. If you're in a city where people love to eat, they'll be only too happy to share a few secrets with you.

CHEAP AND CHEERFUL

As you'll see from many of the entries in this story, local favourites tend to be affordable comfort foods – not, in other words, the sort of thing you'll be served at upmarket, tourist-friendly restaurants. If you're chasing local flavours, you often have to go cheap.

WATCH AND LEARN

Another great way to learn about the favourite dishes of your destination is to simply observe. Go to a street food market and have a look at what everyone is eating. Check out the stalls with the longest queues. See which dishes tend to be served most often. Even if you're in a restaurant, watch the plates go by.

TAKE CHANCES

Maybe none of the above strategies have worked. That's unlikely, but possible. If you're really struggling, it's time to take chances. Go to a restaurant that looks intimidatingly local. Order something you've never tried before, or something you've never even heard of. It's probably a regional specialty. And it might even be good.

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