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Top 10 Overlooked Culinary Vacations

Anyone with the means can travel the villages of Tuscany, visit tasting rooms in Napa Valley or hit Belgium's chocolate shops. In fact, certain places are so well known as culinary destinations, even those with only the faintest interest in an authentic experience will book tours.

Some gourmands go a little further, seeking out less obvious destinations. They sample fare from street vendors in Lebanon or head to 'undiscovered' restaurants in the Philippines. More adventurous sorts may even savor dark bread and warm vodka in some Russian dacha. And a few daring diners set their sights on cuy or sheep's eyeballs.

The world is wide and food often surprisingly local, personal--and sometimes scary. Sure, being able to tell friends you've tried insects in Mexico or testicles in Midland is worth something. But what about an intimate understanding of chicken and waffles? Damper bread? Halusky? This is for the real gourmand.

So, here are ten trips that will definitely round out a culinary education:

10. The 'other' wine countries
Beyond France, Italy and California--even beyond Germany, Argentina and Washington state--are regions producing good, bad and sometimes unusual wines. So roam through the Finger Lakes in New York, the budding wineries of northern Virginia or the picturesque vineyards in the Czech Republic's Moravian half. You probably won't find anything worth storing in a cellar, but you will find some decent drinking wines.

9. Rendang in Indonesia
This is a simple stew of beef, heavily seasoned and cooked in coconut milk for hours, until the liquids condense and the meat begins to fry. Similar to some Indian curries and very intense.

8. The 'Balti Triangle'
Formed by the English city of Birmingham and its neighboring villes, the Balti Triangle takes its name from from a Brit-Indian chicken curry concoction. It's a lesson on how immigration changes local tastes. Though Balti Houses have spread around the country, Birmingham is still home to the original--and dozens more.

7. Mushroom hunting in the Baltics
Years ago I spoke with a London chef about the quality and variety of mushrooms found in Lithuanian forests. "Beautiful--just beautiful," he said. "I can buy for 10 pounds (British currency, remember) mushrooms that would cost me 200 here."

6. Plov in Uzbekistan
You could go just about anywhere in the former Soviet Union or the Middle East for this one pot rice dish sometimes called pilaf. But it's the national dish of Uzbekistan and they make a heavy, hearty, meaty version full of lamb, vegetables, fat and spices.

5. Schnitzel
The world on a plate: start with Weinerschnitzel in Austria, then try jagerschnitzel in Germany. Head to South and Central America for Milanse steak, order cordon bleu in Switzerland, pork tenderloin sandwiches in northern Illinois and chicken fried steak in Texas. So many parts of the world prepare a version of this dish it could take years to learn them all.

4. Tyrolian Austria
Not only is the Tyrol (sometimes Tirol) region beautiful, the people here turn out some great dumplings, a nice cheese--Graukase--and several distinct and hearty one pan meals. Not the most adventurous in terms of cuisine, but most people stop at Vienna or Salzburg.  

3. Burgoo country
Stews are worldwide. In Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois people stir up countless versions of this meat (whatever is handy) and vegetable stew. Some are flavored with molasses, others thickened with oats or barley. Sophisticated city folk from up north used to dismiss burgoo as 'roadkill stew.' Now towns in burgoo country celebrate it with festivals.

2. Germany in asparagus season
As far as I'm concerned, May is the only time to visit Germany. Park yourself in Heidelberg or--better yet--Schwetzingen at any restaurant and order. The soup will be white asparagus. The schnitzel will come with white asparagus. To start, a plate of...yep. It may seem redundant, but they are very fresh, very local and unforgettable.

1. Small town church dinners
Some food writers--especially those in Europe--insist there's very little regional cuisine in the U.S. Trek across the country visiting church dinners and you'll know otherwise. The women and men who bring family dishes to these little events are keeping chicken and waffles, oyster pie and thousands of other dishes alive.


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