The Keralan city of Thiruvananthapuram is less than 600 miles north of the equator, so the seasons range from hot to rainy-hot to especially hot. April is especially-hot season, 95°F with humidity to match, and as I step into Chef Murtry’s sweltering kitchen to film him making a chickpea curry, I wonder what the hell I’m doing. I’ve traveled to India on vacation to see a friend who’s working there. I have no reporting assignment; I’m just a guy with a camera phone who got his friend to ask a local restaurant if we can hang out with the chef.
I am drenched in sweat. I am not relaxed. The heat from the stew pot is singeing my arm hairs as I attempt to capture overhead footage. But I’m having a hell of a time. Murtry’s not used to anybody caring how he makes his insanely delicious food, and he’s telling us all about it. He shares a technique I’ve never seen before—deep-frying chunks of coconut in their own oil to add a layer of intensity to the stew. And as we talk, the puzzle pieces of a cuisine that’s always fascinated me start to interlock. By the time the dish is ready, I’ve learned more than how to assemble a black-chickpea curry; I’ve begun to understand the fundamental building blocks of Kerala’s local flavor.
Fast-forward a few months, and it turns out I’m testing a home version of Murtry’s chickpea dish for an upcoming newspaper story. But this is just gravy, never part of the plan. Back in Murtry’s restaurant, all I care about is learning something new from a guy I’d otherwise never get a chance to meet.
This is how I vacation. And, while a once-in-a-lifetime experience like a private lesson from a chef may seem like some trick of the journalistic trade, the truth is that if you have the time, money, and privilege to travel, you can probably find something similar. I’m always tickled by articles and tourism ads that promise "off-the-beaten-track," "authentic," "local" experiences...for the low price of whatever package they’re selling. In many cases, all you have to do is think like a reporter.
To be honest, I’m a terrible vacation planner. I’ve never understood how to accrue hotel points or schedule an itinerary. But I have learned to ask why and how, to interrogate the way cities work and how eating works its way into daily life. In Singapore: how a country’s egalitarian ideals square up against its complex ethnic politics, and what that means for its famed hawker centers. In San Francisco: what rising real estate costs are doing to restaurants in the East Bay.
This isn’t how the travel industry wants you to think about your trip, because they can’t sell curiosity the way they can sell hotel rooms. You have to bring your questions with you. And you can’t answer them by following a guidebook.
It’s true that I often get access to special places and experiences that your average tourist likely can’t. I’m friends with writers and businesspeople who can hook me up to locals with juice. I can wave around press credentials to wheedle my way onto farms and into factories. And I mostly travel solo, with no significant other or offspring to appease, and white cis-male foreigners like me don’t have many issues abroad.
But just as many reporting trips require no special access. Consider the jaunt to Boston that Daniel Gritzer and I took three years ago, visiting 45 restaurants over three days in search of the city’s best lobster roll and pho. Sure, our reporting involved asking well-connected locals for recommendations, but once we hit the streets we were nothing more than hungry civilians, hoofing it from lobster shack to pho counter and absorbing the local culture along the way.
Every reporting assignment begins with a question, and to figure out what questions to ask, I like to consult sources beyond travel guides. Don’t get me wrong—service-oriented travel writing is a critical, well, service. But the local newspaper will usually give you a better sense of where you’re going, and obsessive bloggers are easy to reach and often happy to oblige a friendly email with recommendations. And when I’m tired of reading, I cook. One handy way to understand the skill that goes into a local cuisine is by bungling it yourself at home.
Which is how Kerala happened. After reading dozens of recipe blogs and eating my way through New York’s Keralan kitchens, I assigned myself a question: What is it about the state’s famous food—its abundant seafood and coconut, rich use of spice, a knack for fermentation—that makes everything taste so damn good?
By good fortune, an Indian-American friend of mine had landed a Fulbright scholarship to study the communist state’s world-renowned palliative-care practices. Growing up, she had spent summers with family in nearby Tamil Nadu, and since she’s also a good eater, she was happy to volunteer as translator while we spent a week asking home cooks and restaurant chefs for lessons on how to make their favorite dishes.
Local experts like these are called fixers, and everyone from magazine journalists to Andrew Zimmern relies on them to make connections. But you don’t need to work in media to find and hire one. In Mexico City, for instance, my friend Lesley Tellez has a whole company devoted to this sort of thing. In New York, slice obsessive Scott Wiener runs a specialized tour for pizza fanatics.
Even with a fixer, getting into Murtry’s kitchen took persistence: several visits and carefully worded explanations that we were just curious people—one of whom happened to be a reporter—who loved his food and wanted to see how he made it. At one point, we were promised entry at 6 a.m., only to show up and get turned away by another staffer who wasn’t in the mood to humor us. Which led to us visiting another restaurant nearby and getting a lesson on dosa-making instead.
This is how reporting goes. You start with a list of names. You make your approach. You try another tactic when things eventually go wrong. It takes patience and a flexible schedule, a luxury for any traveler, but a luxury well worth striving for. When reporting, I’d rather spend six days in one city than two days each in three. You need to acclimate yourself to local rhythms. Accept a modicum of boredom while the story unfurls.
"At markets, I’d just start asking the ladies questions," travel writer Robyn Eckhardt told me last year in an interview about her fabulous Turkish cookbook. "'What do you do with this?' 'How do you make it?' Silly stuff like that. From there, maybe you see someone who makes bread, and hey, I'm interested in bread. 'Well, if I came to your village, would you show me how to make it?' Sometimes it's yes, sometimes it's no."
Eckhardt and her husband, the photographer Dave Hagerman, have spent over two decades traveling and reporting through Europe and Asia, finding hidden food stalls and tracking down family recipes—sometimes on assignment, sometimes just for kicks. Hagerman’s an early riser, she says, and takes off before dawn to capture the morning light. By mid-morning, the markets are busy enough for Eckhardt to pepper locals with questions. "Everyone wants to talk about food. And it’s non-threatening. I’m not a rabble-rouser or anything. I just want to talk about your cheese. And people trust me, because I really do want to talk about their cheese."
The not-a-rabble-rouser part is important. Every traveler is a guest in someone else’s home. So respect when someone is done talking to you, or if they’re disinclined to start a conversation at all. Remember to compensate the people who do help you, by paying for a fixer’s services or taking a friendly family out to lunch.
A few months ago, I got to observe a travel-reporting master at work when my friend and neighbor, the writer Anya von Bremzen, was reporting a story about the diverse foods of Queens for Airbnb Magazine. (Disclosure: I’ve written for the magazine as well.) Von Bremzen is a hard-partying Muscovite with a jealousy-inducing talent for teasing stories out of people. She gossips with Bukharan bakers. Jokes in Spanish with the taco guys about the World Cup game on TV. They open up to her, tell her where they like to eat in the neighborhood, offer tastes of blood sausage fresh from the griddle. Von Bremzen, in turn, soaks all this in. Follows up on leads. Is always down to hit one more empanada shop with an enticing window display.
This is harder work than it sounds. Plenty of angles that sound intriguing turn into dead ends, and the empanadas are not always worth the trip. But you learn something along the way. And bring a hell of a story back home with you.