Food for thought
The Lonely Planet has put out some great books for those of you who plan a trip based as much on what there is to eat in a particular country as what there is to see. The Lonely Planet World Food series, 'For people who live to eat, drink and travel' are compact little books, packed with information, and a nice size for tucking into your backpack or suitcase.
They give a short history on the background of each country and how the locals eat, then continue with chapters on staples and specialities, drinks, home cooking and traditions, celebrating with foods, regional specialties, shopping at the markets, and suggestions on etiquette, how to order a meal, and other recommended reading. The pictures are attractive and colourful.
As with all the other Lonely Planet guidebooks, there's a language section (including pronunciation), but of course these have a strong focus on culinary terms, as well as a list of 'useful phrases' (samples: 'Which wine would you recommend with this dish?', 'I think I'm feeling drunk', 'Can I see the menu please?', 'Please pass our compliments to the chef'). Scattered throughout are restaurants the writer has been to, along with the address and other important information, including profiles on the people behind the scenes. But these books shouldn't be mistaken for restaurant guides in the manner of Michelin or Zagats. The World Food books encourage the reader to be adventurous and seek out their own culinary discoveries.
The guidebooks are available for a diverse range of countries, including Spain, Morocco, Vietnam, Mexico and Thailand (one on Hong Kong is in the works now). I took the one on Italy with me on a recent trip, and found it incredibly useful. It was great for helping me pick edible gifts to bring back for friends and choose what to eat in the different regions we visited, deciphered the multitude of choices for pasta, wine and coffee, and led us to some fantastic food and wine shops. It also gave concise but interesting descriptions about the process behind making parmesan, mozzarella, olive oil and 'real' balsamic vinegar, aceto balsamico. A few recipes are also included (pasta dough, herb risotto, Bolognese-style meat ragu).
These books are good for the adventurous and curious traveller. But they're not recommended if you're the type who seeks out the safe and familiar by dining at McDonald's, KFCs and Hard Rock Cafes throughout the world. As for me, if there's a World Food Guide to whatever country I'm travelling to, I'll pack it along with my passport, plane tickets, and other essential gear.