Eating Traditionally, or Eating Touristy?

Candice Gaukel Andrews November 22, 2011 19

Tasting local fare is part of the adventure of traveling. ©Patrick J. Endres

Part of the pleasure of visiting new places is learning about local customs and tasting homegrown foods. Who hasn’t at least wanted to try haggis in Scotland, say, or “cod cheeks” in Newfoundland? It’s a way of immersing yourself in all that an adventure in a new land has to offer.

But as visitors, how can we truly know if the foods that we’re told are being enjoyed by locals really are?

Recently, the Keflavik airport in Iceland had whale meat for sale. While ads portrayed the meat as local fare, it turns out that 35 to 40 percent of whale meat harvested by Icelandic whalers is eaten by tourists visiting the country—not Icelanders themselves.

While the whale meat is now being withdrawn from the airport store’s shelves, it makes us wonder: How can we be sure we’re “eating locally” while traveling? 

Meet-and-eat tours

Some tours on whaling vessels include a meal of whale meat. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Iceland and Norway are two countries that still authorize commercial whaling today, while Japan hunts whales for “scientific purposes”—although whale meat is sold for consumption. Iceland resumed commercial whaling in 2006 and now exports most of its whale meat to Japan, where, annually, almost 6,000 tons of minke, fin, sperm and other whale meat is consumed.

Historically, hundreds of Icelanders hunted and processed whales for their meat, bones and blubber. As recently as the 1970s, Icelandic children ate pan-fried whale steak as a regular staple. Whale flesh was soaked overnight in milk to mask the liver-like taste, it’s said, that results from exposing the meat to the air.

Whalers in Iceland are now attempting to build a tourism business that includes eating whale meat. Some whalers are offering tours, where participants can go out to sea on a whaling vessel, learn about harpooning and then enjoy a meal of whale meat and blubber back in port (a whale is not killed in front of tourists on such trips). This new type of tourism combines two trends noticed by some in Iceland: that travelers flock to take whale-watching excursions and then follow up such outings by going into local restaurants and ordering whale-meat meals.

Tasteful travel

Others in the Iceland tourism industry, however, worry that such excursions that mix the popularity of whale watching with the desire to eat locally could be hurting their businesses. Those who run ecotours and strive to provide current, authentic experiences for travelers say that such excursions don’t represent the truth about Icelanders today, as only a very small percentage of the nation’s people actually eat whale meat.

Of course, as outsiders and guests of the countries we visit, true explorers do not judge whether or not local customs, such as what people eat, are “acceptable” or not. Tasting local fare that you might not ever consider eating at home is part of the adventure of traveling.

It might be best, though, to make sure that the culinary adventures we do partake of are truly local customs rather than merely “tourist traditions.”

Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,



  1. Mariana December 5, 2011 at 11:28 am - Reply

    I feel that eating the traditional food of a country or region that you visit, is very much part of the cultural experience, and a “must do” when travelling. I always point out traditional food on the menu when eating out with clients. Most of the time the clients try the local cuisine and usually love it.

  2. John December 1, 2011 at 2:44 pm - Reply

    The easy answer to this question is to eat at a local’s home. If you stay in hotels and dine in restaurants you may never know. Make friends with people all around the world and stay with them. That is how I know what is authentic food.
    But personally I am more concerned about the ecological footprint of my food than chasing some mythical authentic experience.
    PS So many folks seem to think that they are a cut above tourists. Personally, I am happy to be a tourist, as long as I can tread lightly.

  3. Christine Negroni November 29, 2011 at 7:43 am - Reply

    Before I visited Iceland last year, I read that locals eat horse meat, but don’t make a big show of it at restaurants due to the squeamishness of other nationalities about eating it. I would have tried it, but alas did not find myself at any restaurants that offered horse meat. (At least that I could tell.) While I did not see whale meat at the airport, I was struck by the inventiveness of Icelanders in all things tourist-related.

  4. ishak November 28, 2011 at 2:55 am - Reply

    I like it,
    good information

  5. Dan November 27, 2011 at 10:33 am - Reply

    Whether home or away, I like to be respectful and experimental, but I never compromise my principles. For me, that means always being green by eating veg.

  6. Art Hardy November 27, 2011 at 9:46 am - Reply

    While traveling we should immerse ourselves in the culture as much as possible, while making the same ethical food choices that we make at home.

  7. Nancy November 25, 2011 at 7:34 am - Reply

    Without at least trying “local food” you are missing part of the travel experience. I have eaten curried goat in Bonaire, turtle meat in Grand Cayman, kangaroo in Australia, and more. I always eat the local food.

  8. Heather November 25, 2011 at 7:33 am - Reply

    Yes, I eat local food when travelling .. but would draw the line at anything endangered – such as whales. It may be traditional for them, but not for me: that’s alarming that tourists are eating do much while there. We can do so much damage as travellers can’t we?

  9. Tiffany November 24, 2011 at 11:02 am - Reply

    An interesting article, and a bit disturbing.I think promoting whale meat consumption for tourism counteracts the ecotourism of whalewatching (promoting natural wonders). Tourists need to be more responsible in selecting their “travel experiences”, so as not to promote the wrong thing.

  10. Mauverneen November 24, 2011 at 10:42 am - Reply

    I agree that eating the local cuisine is part of the experience. On a recent trip to Wales I managed to try several local dishes – including rarebit and black pudding. The ‘pudding’ grossed me out the more I thought about it, but I’m glad I tried it! It’s actually not bad tasting.

  11. Jean November 23, 2011 at 5:42 pm - Reply

    How about a little of both? Try the local fare, be brave, and if that fails search for a MacDonald’s. (I have friends who did just that.) Go figure. A fun question. Thank you.

  12. Ron November 23, 2011 at 3:01 pm - Reply

    Over the past 30 years I have had the opportunity to travel to many parts of the globe and I have always found that trying the local and traditional fare is an exciting and interesting part of the journey. While many meals wouldn’t rank up there with what I’d call my favorite food experience it was an important part of my travel experiences and often opened lines of communication with the local people that otherwise would have been closed.

  13. Marc November 23, 2011 at 1:35 pm - Reply

    I always told my Culinary Arts students, and my own children, “You don’t have to like it, but you should try it.” (dietary restrictions being the exception) The thrill of travel is experiencing a new place fully which, naturally, includes the food.

  14. Forbes November 23, 2011 at 1:34 pm - Reply

    Generally, haggis is eaten at Burns’ suppers, events held to celebrate the birth of the poet Robert Burns. It is available at other times but perhaps not as widely as tourists are led to believe.

  15. Rashaad November 23, 2011 at 7:15 am - Reply

    Well, I am a vegetarian, so I’m traditionally. Traditionally for me. But I have visited Thailand several times, and Thai cuisine is great for vegetarians. I’m not sure, though, if I’m eating touristy in Thailand.

  16. Sinan November 23, 2011 at 4:58 am - Reply

    Personally, I like to taste local food unless it is too contradictory to my palate or my ethics. Apparently, whale or dolphin meat, shark fins etc. have become parts of a touristy cuisine than a traditional taste which every conscious traveler should stay away. As you mentioned, eating whale meat after whale-watching is a total contrast and unconsciousness.

  17. Laura November 22, 2011 at 12:50 pm - Reply

    Oh, and don’t be stupid. If we know that shark fin soup is causing a major and troubling decline in shark populations, why order it? Read up on local culinary treats in the country you’re visiting. It takes only seconds to google.

    Another tip? If you aren’t sure if you’ll like it, ask for a smaller portion, share it with your entire table or both.

  18. Laura November 22, 2011 at 12:49 pm - Reply

    Working for a cruise line, I have been all over this planet.
    I have tried haggis in Scotland, camel in Morocco, Seiberian reindeer dumplings in Russia, bear in Estonia, kabobs in Turkey, calamari in Mykonos, gyros in Athens, escargo in France, kudu and impala Biltong in South Africa, fish & chips in Dublin, conch fritters in Belize, lamb in southern Pategonia, bife de chorizo in Buenos Aires, to Spam burgers in Hawaii.
    Most have been great experiences (well, other than a personal preference of thinking the Spam burger was too salty for me!). I have never gotten sick from anything I’ve eaten (knock on wood) but have learned along the way how to find the best places to go. When abroad, look for where locals go (you know, the ones devoid for the most part of white tennis shoes, camera around the neck, fanny pack carrying crowd). Go at least a block away from the major tourist attraction (anything that has views will typically cost more, i.e. a 12-14 euros for an espresso in Piazza San Marco in Venice). And don’t forget, you can always ask in a shop for recommendations for great local food.
    Because why would you order pizza for lunch daily when there are so many other possibilities? (the only exception to this rule might be Chicago deep dish or while in Italy). I have never understood why the tourists line up at McDonalds when you can get that back home.
    Safe travels and Bon Appetit to all!

  19. Jack November 22, 2011 at 10:24 am - Reply

    Even though I wouldn’t want to eat Whale meat, I’d google it like crazy to see if the custom was truly a custom.

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