Tasty travels

Food-loving tourists are picking holiday destinations based on the culinary options available

When Ms Wendy Liong and Mr Timothy Liew were deciding where to go for their honeymoon in April last year, one factor was the most important to them: food.

"We asked ourselves what we wanted from this trip and kept coming back to the fact that we really enjoy our food and wine," says Ms Liong, 32, an assistant general manager at a property firm.

Says Mr Liew, 36, a project manager at a construction firm: "We considered going to Eastern Europe because of the beautiful scenery we had heard about, but we also kept hearing that the food was bad."

Ms Liong adds: "In our hierarchy of enjoyment, good food trumps seeing an old castle." They ended up choosing Western Europe for their three-week honeymoon, eating at some of the top restaurants in London, Italy and France.

They are among an emerging breed of travellers who plan their trips around food.

In a survey commissioned by global hospitality company Hilton Worldwide in November last year, a third of the 300 Singaporeans surveyed said food was a "critical factor" when deciding on their travel destinations. Food is such a make-or-break factor in their itineraries that they often make restaurant reservations months before their trips.

The Liews, for instance, made reservations at celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal's Michelin-starred restaurant The Fat Duck in Bray, England, 60 days ahead of time. Ms Liong says she was on the online reservation system the minute bookings for her preferred date were available. "Even so, we didn't get our preferred time. But I was still so thrilled to get seats at The Fat Duck."

For some travellers, the flight itself is secondary to snagging that coveted restaurant reservation.

Ms Marie Choo, 37, director of a public relations agency, says she made sure she had a reservation at The Krug Room in Hong Kong in April last year before buying a plane ticket. "I wanted to take my best friend to eat there, so the whole trip was dependent on getting a reservation, which is very hard because the dining room takes only 12 people at every seating."

The Krug Room, which serves molecular, modern Western food, is located in a private dining room in a secret location within the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Guests can access it only if the hotel's concierge takes them through a back door.

While travelling to eat may not be a new phenomenon, the burgeoning popularity of celebrity chefs and food-related media have caused the trend to gain steam, says Mr Allan Chia, head of the marketing programme at SIM University's School of Business.

"It is probably fuelled by an increasing interest in food due to greater exposure to food-related TV programmes, with dedicated cable channels, as well as travel documentaries that feature distinctive food at various destinations, and online social media platforms that rate, show pictures and even direct travellers to food locations," he says.

Foodie traveller Chan Kwai Sum, who recently returned from an eating holiday to Denmark, Iceland and Sweden, says food is the medium through which he best experiences a new country. "To me, food is an integral part of the country you are visiting. I learn a lot about the culture through the food," says the investor, 39.

Food-loving travellers say that meticulous planning needs to go into an eating holiday.

Dr Adrian Tan, a family physician, went on a four-day trip to Hong Kong last month. Right after booking the flights, he, his wife and four friends counted the number of meals they could have - nine - and then proceeded to plan where they would eat every single one of them.

The group researched reviews on TripAdvisor as well as the Michelin food guide, made reservations at popular restaurants such as The Chairman, which serves Cantonese cuisine, and made sure to order six different appetisers and mains at each meal so that they could sample as much as possible.

Dr Tan, 46, adds that the group tried to walk off calories in between meals, but often ended up spotting some other eatery to try.

"Once, we spotted a line forming at a makeshift alfresco stall that a cook had just set up and was taking orders so we joined the line. We ended up having some great claypot chicken cooked in a wine sauce," he says.

"After a while, we stopped ordering so much at meals because we knew we would be eating in between too."

Many foodies have trouble fitting in all the restaurants they want to eat at in just one trip to a city and end up having two lunches or dinners.

Mr Chan was on an eating trip to Tokyo four years ago when he could get a reservation at the famed Nihonryori Ryugin only at 10.30pm. He ate an earlier dinner at another gourmet restaurant - Tapas MolecularBar at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, which has a limited seating of eight people, twice a night - at 7.30pm.

"We had a 25-course dinner at the first restaurant and a 15-course dinner at the second," he recalls. "Surprisingly, we still really enjoyed them both." He spent almost $800 on his two meals that night.

Even with every meal planned in advance, food fatigue can set in.

Ms Choo, who had reservations for both lunch and dinner lined up at restaurants for every one of the 10 days she was in New York last year, says she now regrets having packed her eating schedule so tightly.

The highlight of her trip was meant to be a 14-course birthday meal near the end of the trip, at chef Thomas Keller's Per Se, an American and French cuisine restaurant, which has been dubbed the best restaurant in the Big Apple by The New York Times.

"I had to keep excusing myself to go to the bathroom every three or four courses to walk it off. It was so good but I was just too full to really enjoy it," she says.

She also had to cancel one hard-to-get reservation, at three-Michelin-starred French Restaurant Jean Georges because she felt ill from over-eating.

Other travellers have their own system to make sure they enjoy all their meals.

Ms Liong and Mr Liew, for example, skip breakfast and stick strictly to a rule: have either a heavy lunch or a heavy dinner, but never both.

Mr Jen Shek Voon, 67, a chartered accountant and the founding chairman of Singapore Slow Food Convivum Society, has been on two or three eating holidays a year for the last 10 years to destinations such as France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, India, Chile and Turkey.

He says he walks "for at least 21/2 hours between meals and in the early hours of the morning" when on these eating trips, so as to work up an appetite for his meals. He adds that minimising carbohydrates at meals, by halving the portion of noodles or pasta, for example, also helps.

Writer Sim Ee Waun, who goes on food holidays every year, says first-time culinary travellers must remember not to try to eat everything the destination has to offer.

"Go at a pace you're comfortable with. If it's just one good spot a day, so be it. If you don't have enough time to cover all the spots you want, make that your excuse for a return visit," says the 46-year-old, who has been to Sydney, Bali, Cappadocia in Turkey, Vienna and Prague in search of food.

She adds that foodie travellers should not feel any pressure to eat at only top or famous restaurants when travelling.

"It's not a brag fest. If it's street food you're keen on, that's as good a food holiday as any other. In fact, that would probably bring you closer to the culture than other kinds of dining."


Five meals a day and counting

On a trip to Japan last month, Mr Gani Atmadiredja had one aim: to eat as much as he was physically capable of.

The managing director of luxury sanitary fixtures purveyor W. Atelier dubbed his eating holiday to Osaka, Sapporo and Kyoto a "man versus food" trip.

The main goal of all four travelling companions - Mr Gani, his wife, Katherine, 27, who works in business development, and another couple - was to stuff themselves and sample as many varieties of food as possible during the three nights they had in each city.

The four of them ate five or six meals a day on average, says Mr Gani, 36, an Indonesian who has lived in Singapore for more than 20 years.

The itinerary of one of their days in Sapporo looked like this:

9am: Breakfast at Sapporo Central Wholesale Market where they ate sashimi and sushi.

11am: Early lunch of soup curry at Garaku, located between Susukino and Odori.

4pm: Late lunch of ramen at Sapporo Ichiryuan Ramen, a small noodle house in Hokuren Building.

7pm: Set dinner at Le Musee, a fusion Italian and Japanese restaurant on the outskirts of Sapporo

11pm: Supper of kani shumai (crab dumpling) from a street stall in the Susukino area

Mr Gani chose Japan for his food holiday because he feels Japan is "the culinary Mecca of the world and has held that title for a while now".

He adds: "The chef profession in Japan is highly regarded and the chefs are extremely committed to their craft. In Japan, not only can you find diverse styles of Japanese cooking but also high-quality Italian and French delicacies."

Mr Gani, who made dinner reservations for the trip two months in advance and spent a month planning his meals, cautions that first-time travellers should be careful to proceed at a pace of eating they are comfortable with.

"This is, after all, a vacation first and foremost, so I wouldn't recommend stuffing yourself at the expense of your trip."

He suggests skipping breakfast and opting for an early lunch at 11am. "After that, you can take a sightseeing break before embarking on the next food adventure - a late lunch at around 3pm is recommended. This way, you will avoid the peak-hour crowd, especially at popular spots."

Besides eating, they also went sightseeing and shopping for homeware.

"There were a few instances where we got into a food coma," he admits. "But, normally, after a good night's rest, we were always refreshed in the morning and hungry for more action."

He tried 250 new dishes last year

When the staff of Canon Singapore were asked about their New Year's resolutions for an in-house publication last year, many said they wanted to lose weight, pick up new skills or improve themselves in other ways.

One goal stood out. That of vicepresident and head of domestic business operations Lim Kok Hin - to eat 250 new dishes in the year 2013.

While that may seem ambitious to most, the 56-year-old, who declares that he "lives to eat", pulled it off.

"I reached my goal in the nick of time just before Christmas. It was accomplished over the course of around 70 restaurant meals," he says. "It was a challenge, but I'm glad I did it."

Mr Lim, who is married with two children, says about half of his 250 dishes came from dedicated eating trips across the Causeway. He "explored more or less every nook and cranny in every state of Malaysia" on his quest to try new dishes and made sure to get recommendations from friends and locals on the best stalls to visit in each town he went to.

The best recommendations come from taxi drivers and "locals in the town above the age of 40", says Mr Lim, who feels that "younger people do not have taste buds that are as developed".

Among the new dishes that made up his tally were a palm-sized Teochew-style steamed pomfret he ate in Sungei Bakap on mainland Penang and a dish of freshly caught steamed fish and flower crab in Kuala Muda, Kedah. He adds: "Remembering and talking about these dishes just makes my mouth water."

Another favourite foodie destination is Hong Kong. He especially loves heading there during November for the hairy crab season and has a list of favourite haunts he routinely hits for the crab dish, including Shanghai Jade in Hong Kong's Exchange Square and Shanghai Garden in Hutchison House.

While his wife and children are his usual companions on these trips, he also tries to turn every business trip he takes into an eating one by researching the best dining spots ahead of time and asking local contacts for recommendations.

He says he loves eating holidays because he feels that "enjoying food is an art".

"Just as there are many different types of art to be enjoyed, I believe in savouring the different and eclectic tastes the world has to offer. It's remarkable how the different tastes - sweet, sour, salty, bitter, spicy and even umami - blend to form new and phenomenal flavours," he says.

He is also an avid food photographer and made sure to document each of his 250 new dishes. He shared the pictures with his office by e-mail to prove he had met the goal he had set himself. "A good photo is able to help me remember the taste of that particular dish years down the road."

Despite having reached his goal, Mr Lim is still on a constant lookout for interesting new dishes both here and in Malaysia.

His goal for this year is to focus on the diversity, not the quantity, of the food he tries.

"My goal this year is to sample 25 dishes from countries whose food I have never tasted in my life, such as Myanmar, Belgium and Sudan," he says.

First on his list, though, is Nepal, which he hopes to visit in the coming months.

"I've been reading reviews on the Nepalese Buff Momos, or water buffalo dumplings, and have been dying to try them," he says. "I'd love to experience for myself how they differ from the familiar jiao zi Chinese dumplings that we have here."

Culinary tours catch on

Singaporeans' habit of travelling to eat has caught the attention of local travel agencies, which now cater increasingly to that growing appetite.

Chan Brothers Travel spokesman Jane Chang says the agency has seen a consistent 20 to 30 per cent increase in bookings of food tours every year over the past 10 years.

The agency, which introduced culinary tours more than a decade ago, now has a range of food-related offerings, from celebrity chef-led tours to tours focused on street food to farm-to-fork fresh produce experiences to behind-the-scenes sessions at food factories and hands-on cooking workshops. Its culinary tours go to China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand and Turkey.

A recent well-received culinary trip was a seven-day trip to Perth and Margaret River to participate in the three-day Margaret River Gourmet Escape, a fine food and wine festival attended by world-class chefs, says Ms Chang. It cost about $2,200 and the group size was about 35.

Ms Alicia Seah, director of marketing communications at Dynasty Travel, says the agency saw a 25 per cent increase in interest in food-related tours last year, compared to the year before. The agency organises culinary journeys to China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Prices range from $508 to $1,908 a person.

Mr Nicholas Lim, president of the Travel Corporation, agrees there has been "an increase in requests for food-specific holidays" in recent years. His firm owns guided tour company Trafalgar Tours, which organises food and wine trips to the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, the Alsace wine trails of France, the country roads of southern Italy and the Napa Valley in California.

Mr Jerry Ng, 69, chose to go on a Chan Brothers Travel trip to Jiangnan, China, led by celebrity chef Eric Teo last year. "The trip did not disappoint in terms of quality and quantity," says the retired businessman of his first such food voyage.

So impressed was he with all the restaurants the tour took him to, he has signed up for another led by the same chef in May, to Guangzhou. "I love to eat, so this sort of tour really appeals to me," he says.

This story was originally published in The Straits Times on March 2, 2014.