I didn’t have anything against food tours. I’d seen gaggles of food tourists in my Greenwich Village neighborhood, often clogging the sidewalk in front of Murray’s Cheese with a guide shouting to be heard above the din on Bleecker Street, and they seemed to be having a swell time. But I’ve been writing about food for 25 years. I’ve authored many cookbooks, both my own and with revered chefs. I’ve worked as a professional cook and logged too many hours to count in some of the country’s best kitchens.
When I travel, I want to search out where the locals eat, and eat as they eat, among them, not isolated in a crowd of tourists. And not marching from one shop to another behind an umbrella-toting guide. I didn’t need a food tour.
But on that hot August morning, Ann and I met our guide at the fountain in Syntagma Square in the center of Athens. Tiama Kolikopoulou, in her mid-30s, wore a short black dress, a broad-brimmed black hat and a red bandanna tied around her neck. She carried a canvas tote with the name of the tour company she freelanced for, Greeking.me, so that we and the eight others tourists would recognize The Guide.
After introductions, Ms. Kolikopoulou produced a world map. We were about to taste Athens she said, and so we must first understand the cultural influences that swept through the area during the centuries since Socrates and Euclid trod the rocky Acropolis above us 2,500 years ago. Since then, Greece, a central shipping zone in the middle of the Mediterranean, has been buffeted by food cultures from all sides — the Middle East, Africa and Europe — and all influence the food.
Our first stop was at a small stand in the square selling koulouri, the Middle Eastern sesame-coated bread, a common breakfast snack on the go. We walked next to Karakoy Gulluoglu, a pastry shop. I’m not a fan of pastries, but when Ms. Kolikopoulou passed around tavuk gogsu, a sweet, vanilla custard with a brûléed top, and asked us to identify the main ingredient, I took the challenge. And was stumped.
“Chicken,” she said happily. And off we went, to a small store selling only olives, then to a shop where we tasted examples of Grecian charcuterie and cheese: Soutzouki (dry-cured sausage), loza (like the Italian lonza, dry-cured pork loin), pastourmas (dry-cured beef, but sometimes camel), dolmadakia (stuffed grape leaves) and a smoked cheese called metsovone. I wrote a best-selling book called “Charcuterie,” but I had no idea camel was dry cured. We sampled not simply really good Greek yogurt, but what Ms. Kolikopoulou said was some of the best yogurt in Greece.
I would have found the main central market, Varvakios, on my own — one of the best ways to know a city is through its markets. But I never would have sat in an all-but-empty diner within the market, Oinomageireio Epirus, to taste among other traditional dishes, patsas, a soup that came with a warning from Ms. Kolikopoulou that it wasn’t for everyone: The tripe-and-hoof soup was the essence of barnyard and animal guts, an acquired taste. It was unlike anything I’ve tasted, and it made the portrait of Anthony Bourdain, then dead just two months, proudly displayed on the wall of the restaurant, especially poignant. This was his kind of food — deep, nourishing, innardy, loaded with gelatin. Food that tastes of your own mortality.
The tour concluded at Kafeneio Oraia Ellas, a coffee shop off Monastiraki Square, with a proper Greek coffee service, the coffee arriving in a briki, part of the Turkish influence on this country.
The following afternoon, I reclined in a pool deck chair at our hotel, sipping a cocktail, enjoying an astonishing view of the Parthenon. How magnificent it appeared from afar against a cobalt sky. The site itself had been thronged with visitors when we’d gone, much of the grounds cordoned off by museum-like roping, and I thought, “I know more about Athens, the feel, the manners, the ethos of the place from our food tour, than from hiking the Acropolis.” Or, looking back on it, from any other single thing we would do in that ancient city.
In Mexico City, another tour
Six months later, my wife, a novelist whose wanderlust stems back to her years as a TWA flight attendant, had booked passage to Mexico City, and, just as quickly, she had located not a food tour but rather an individual, an American expatriate and author, David Lida, who offered custom tours. Well, the Athens tour had been good, so I consented.
Mr. Lida, 60, and the author of “First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, Capital of the 21st Century,” arrived early at our hotel in the Roma neighborhood, and we took an Uber to a narrow, decrepit street in the historic center of the city. Had I known to go here, I would have hesitated — was it safe? (Perfectly safe, Mr. Lida assured us, as we ate a magnificent taco in a tiny shop called El Huequito).
Did we know there was a significant Lebanese influence in Mexico City? Mr. Lida asked. We did not. Some 400,000 people, he said.
Fifty yards down the street and around the corner, a young man cut thin slices of what looked like shawarma, but was in fact tacos al pastor: pork and spices piled high on a spit rotating before a fire. He cut slices directly onto soft tortillas, spooning two different salsas on them and handed them to us. Without doubt, it was the best taco I’ve ever had.
Eventually we repaired to Bar La Ópera, a perfect recreation of a belle epoque Parisian restaurant dating to 1895 when all the Americas looked to Europe for cultural clues. Here, over dark beer, the conversation came around to Frida Kahlo, whose house we’d visited the day before. “We’re right around the corner from the National Palace,” Mr. Lida said. “Where Diego Rivera’s ‘History of Mexico’ mural is. Would you like me to see if we can get in?”
In minutes we stood, in awe, before one of the greatest murals in the world, three huge walls — a visual story of a country, novelistic in scope — encircling a vast staircase.
So this is where food tours lead, it occurred to me then — from chicken custard in Athens to Diego Rivera in Mexico City.
How arrogant and elitist I had been, now both shamed and grateful. Arriving as a skeptic, I returned from Mexico City a food-tour convert. The excursions had been markedly different, one a group tour comprising inquisitive, thoughtful people from across the United States, the other intimate and tailored to my wife’s and my interests. Each was an unexpected pleasure. And both tours drove home how intimately food and place are entwined, and how food, when you are shown where to look, is a window into a culture more immediate than any museum, artifact or natural wonder.
As Ms. Kolikopoulou had said, “Food is an international language. We can relate more easily to new places and people through food.”
Indeed, food is the only part of a culture that we take into our body, that becomes a part of us, enters our blood.
Guides tend to do this work because they love food and are proud of their country. So, on a trip to Portugal, when we asked André Apolinário, our guide from Taste Porto, where the best suckling pig, leitão, was in his city, he shook his head. “Not in Porto,” he said, and asked for my notebook. He wrote down the name of the restaurant and town, between Porto and Lisbon, where we were headed. Two days later we sat in the restaurant Mugasa, in suburban Largo da Feira-Fogueira, having, yes, the best suckling pig we had ever had: tender meat, shatteringly crisp skin with, thanks to the server, the customary red sparkling wine Espumante, rather than the pinot noir I’d ordered.
From Diego Rivera in Mexico City to leitão in a Portuguese suburb. And from there to Lisbon, where we ate not only a great pork sandwich, bifana, thanks to Marta Cavaco of Secret Food Tours of Lisbon, but learned how to use the elevators in that very hilly city, toured the Jewish quarter and appreciated the graffiti that electrifies the city’s walls.
And from Portugal to, on another trip to Mexico, Santa Fe de la Laguna, outside the lovely town of Patzcuaro, a few hours west of Mexico City, where we ate in the home of Rosario Lucas, known in town as Nana Chayo, who is a cocinera tradicional; she earns part of the family’s living cooking for tourists. She is among the Indigenous people in the state of Michoacán and prepared a traditional Purépecha meal. A bottle of local mezcal with two small glasses sat alongside the tortillas, which had been whole kernels of blue corn when we arrived, and the beef stew, churipo, she’d cooked in an earthenware pot over the flames of burning branches.
This was a variation on a meal that’s been consumed here for a thousand years or more. And here Ann and I sat, with our guide, Alejandro Vilchis, booked through our hotel, Casa Encantada, who had delivered us to this home.
If you go to Patzcuaro someday, seek him out for personal tours. Ask him about his days as a bullfighter and he may take you out the next day for his favorite barbecue, chicken cooked on a spit leaning against a cement wall in front of an open fire, or suggest a visit to El Rosario to see the monarch migration. And as long as you are there, Diana Kennedy, a British expatriate, the “Julia Child of Mexican cuisine,” is only 20 minutes away — you can go say hello if she’s up for it. We did all that with Mr. Vilchis on our visit.
It was after 10 p.m. when we returned to Patzcuaro from this part of the journey, hungry again. A brightly lighted taco stand in the little square, Plaza Chica, had tacos Mr. Vilchis liked. Here we finished our day.
Michael Ruhlman’s most recent book is “From Scratch: 10 Meals, 175 Recipes and Dozens of Techniques You’ll Use Over and Over.”