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This Is How to Discover the World’s Best-Kept Food Secrets

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The busy grill at Kenan Usta Ocakbaşı, a classic Istanbul grillhouse.

Photo by Monique Jaques

The busy grill at Kenan Usta Ocakbaşı, a classic Istanbul grillhouse.

A city’s best flavors are often hidden beneath the surface. This company will help you find them—and introduce you to the “masters” making the magic happen.

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For a taste of a destination, throw away your guidebook and turn to Culinary Backstreets. The food blog and tour company helps travelers experience a city’s true flavors by learning the stories of the locals who bring them to life. We chatted with cofounder Yigal Schleifer about his favorite food destinations, the positive impact of Culinary Backstreets, and the humble nobility of the chefs at the center of it all.

On becoming Culinary Backstreets

“This journey began in 2009 when my cofounder, Ansel Mullins, and I were both living in Istanbul. We started a blog called ‘Istanbul Eats’ as our own personal love letter to the city. We both loved Istanbul, and loved eating there, but felt like our favorite places weren’t being represented in the articles that we were reading about the city. Some of the places we loved most were on their way to disappearing, too—either because they touted dying traditions, there weren’t younger generations to take over, or they were getting pushed out due to redevelopment. In 2010, we started offering small-group guided street tours in Istanbul and began expanding to other cities soon after. We now have a network of local correspondents who write for us and help us to develop tours in each of our cities.”

The project’s mission

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“The idea is to tell the story of a city through its food. We take people to places that they wouldn’t likely find on their own. In doing so, we’re supporting local food makers, vendors, and small restaurants as a way of helping to preserve the unique identity of each place. Most travelers really want to have local experiences—we find that food is a very immediate and easy way to do that, because in many places, it’s arguably the last holdout of traditional culture. Local cuisine serves as a launching pad for bigger conversations regarding history, politics, culture, modernization, and more.” 

Meeting the “masters”

“We approach this process by introducing travelers to local culinary ‘masters’ (or ‘usta’ in Turkish). This refers to old-school artisans who take pride in focusing on just one thing and doing it really well. In Tokyo, for example, we take travelers to traditional masters who focus on making only miso or a particular kind of pickle. In Rio de Janeiro, we met a street vendor who sells these delicious doughnuts. He’s not making tons of money, but he does something that he’s very proud of and brings a lot of joy to people. There’s a kind of humble nobility about the work that these local food artisans do; they have a real sense of purpose, and they’re treated with a lot of respect.”

The biggest reward

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“Documenting the masters’ stories and sharing them with a wider audience is the most rewarding thing about this process. In 2010, at one of our guidebook launch parties, we had some of the street vendors serve their food. One older gentleman came up to me and said, ‘I just want to thank you, because ever since you wrote about me, I’ve been getting business from tourists more and more.’ He was so delighted that it made everything worthwhile. Culinary Backstreets allows him to reach a new audience, which hopefully supports him. We’re also allowing travelers to experience his story and his amazing food.” 

Traveling the backstreets

“Everywhere we work, the idea is to really get people off the typical ‘tourist map.’ We encourage them to explore the neighborhood places that may not be in the guidebooks. It’s still OK to get lost—and to take chances! When you eat in a place that hasn’t been hyped up in any way, it feels exciting. That’s a very satisfying experience. But there are other reasons we promote traveling this way, too. We try to help travelers discover some of the city’s outer neighborhoods in order to spread the wealth of the tourism dollars coming in. The idea is to make tourism a sustainable process and also to help travelers discover something new in the process.”

On must-visit food cities

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Tbilisi is a place that we’re really keen on. There’s this great combination of food and wine culture, amazing scenery, and a slightly untamed quality to life that makes it a great place to travel. Mexico City is another place that has amazing street food culture in particular; you walk around and it’s just one tantalizing option after another. One street stand that we wrote about a while back, called Caldos de Gallina Luis, is famous for its enchiladas—made with a great green sauce, incredible tortillas, and delicious chicken. We also just started working in Queens, New York, which is the first North American destination that we’re covering. The Queens tour focuses on the immigrant experience, telling the story of coming to America and making it here through food. But honestly, it’s hard to choose favorites. Every place that we’re working in is one we’re completely jazzed about—otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it!”

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>>Next: Can Travel Inspire Hyper-Local Cuisine? 

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