Making the Most of Food Markets while Traveling Abroad
I personally love food and eating local delicacies is one of my favorite things to do while abroad. However, I often travel on a budget and eating every meal out just isn’t plausible for me. One of my favorite tricks for making sure I get to try everything I want without breaking the bank is shopping at markets. In fact, some of my favorite travel memories are picking out a picnic for myself (and others if we are in a group) and finding a park to eat in. Now, I have already covered the subject of Spanish markets a little over on Amanda’s blog, the Health Nut Nomad (check it out—and watch for more in the future as we are working on some really cool collaborations) but I want to dive a bit deeper into the subject today.
These tips are great if you if you are travelling or living in a place where you want to explore the local cuisine, but you don’t necessarily know how much you want to invest in certain things before you try them, if you're only staying for a short time and have no where to store snacks, or if you are just looking to try as many smalls nibbles as possible.
What to expect
First of all, it is important to consider the different types of markets you will find on your journeys. I have mostly come across three types of markets:
The city market: Is the one that is set up, usually in the city center, in a building with specific hours. The vendors at this type of market are generally there every day.
Local markets: In smaller cities and towns you can find rotating local markets that often appear once of twice a week, usually in a set location but with tents or stalls instead of inside buildings.
Speciality markets: Such as organic markets, these markets are like local markets— usually appearing around a set schedule—however, they tend to have a specific focus such as produce or organic fare.
As the foodie freak that I am, I am happy to wander around any of these three markets, usually looking for some or all of the following:
Produce: Fresh fruits and veggies cannot be beat a markets around the city—you will most likely get an excellent price for delicious goods.
Fish and meat: As they are items that go bad, stall owners will be very specific about what they carry (for example, in Spain you won’t find fresh fish on Mondays because fishermen don’t go out on Sunday nights).
Artisan treats: Freshly baked breads and other bakery, homemade cheese, olives, etc. are usually available in at least one stand of every market. Don’t be afraid to ask for prices—they are probably more reasonable than you imagine.
Pro-tip: Be sure to interact with your vendors and you will ensure getting the best quality for price!
My top reasons for shopping at markets
Using markets to buy fresh goods: Even if I am in my current hometown (Granada, Spain) I still love to shop at markets because you are most likely to get freshest stuff. I know that Dani and I have talked about it before, but while Mercadona may be great for your staples, it’s not the best place to buy your fresh food. Why is a market advantageous to a fruit store*? Mostly because you can compare offers from different vendors and talk to them about a range of products.
I know it goes against most people’s desire to cook along with a recipe, but one of my favorite ways to spend a Saturday morning is going to the market (after a proper Spanish breakfast and coffee) and then thinking about what to cook for the week with all the great stuff I bought. For me, whatever looks best at the market is what usually makes it into my meals.
Pro-tip: If you go first thing in the morning you will most likely have access to the best quality goods as you will beat the majority of customers for the day.
Using markets to stay on a budget: I will also admit that I use markets to stay within my budget. Because they are less formal and give you a way to shop around before making your final choice, you are more likely to pay what you want to for a certain item (instead of just accepting the pricetag). In fact, it is common while market shopping to pick things up at different stalls because you think their value for money is better in different places.
That is not to say that you will always get the cheapest version of an item, after all who can compete with giant supermarkets who can buy a whole farm’s worth of eggplants, but you can be sure that you are comparing market prices for certain things the day of. Add in the fact that you are probably going to get fresher stuff than you probably will at the chain store and that’s sounds like a win to me!
Pro-tip: If you are not looking for the best of the best, you can usually find things discounted (especially produce and fish/meat) during the last hour of the morning. Vendors want to sell what they have!
Using markets to try local specialties: Maybe you want to try a small slice of aged cheese (see our beginner's guide to Spanish cheese here) or a locally made sausage. Or maybe you only want 100 grams of your favorite olives—something I often do when I want to indulge but am only in town for a few days. Markets are great for taste-testing and buying small quantities because you are usually talking directly to the producer! When people are sharing their livelihood they are often thrilled to walk you through any questions you may have, while you are quietly snacking.
In addition, this is a great way to understand what the food traditions are in a place or ask about ingredients. Especially if you have serious allergies or are a vegetarian or a vegan, shopping at markets can help you connect to the product and the vendor will be able to walk you through exactly what is (or isn’t) in their product.
Pro-tip: Don’t be afraid to ask for samples, but try not to take advantage of anyone either.
What do you think? Will you try market eating on your next outing? Keep us updated on your adventures!
*No matter how much I like markets, I still shop at fruit stores, known as fruterías here in Spain, and choose them over big supermarkets whenever I can for quality, freshness, and price.