Ever since Marco Polo brought pasta from China to Italy, travelers have returned home with any food they could get through customs. For those of us who love food, post cards of the Matterhorn can't compete with dark, rich fondue made from chocolate personally airlifted from Switzerland. And nothing rouses one to a spirited rendition of ''God Save the Queen'' quicker than a hot scone topped with a dollop of canned Devonshire cream and a swirl of wild strawberry preserves straight from England.
Seeking out these bits of local flavor, as it were, is also one of the best ways to meet the local folk.
I have brilliant memories of wandering through steamy, too-aromatic street markets in Africa, seeking out spices and of walking past endless bins of cabbages and root vegetables in the Soviet Union, searching for canned goods I could carry home. But beyond finding that sought-after item, the great bonuses of exploring the markets wherever you go are the experiences along the way.
On a long, hot, dusty ride from Casablanca to the spice stalls in Marrakech a doe-eyed street urchin tossed me an orange through the bus window. Nothing has ever soothed a parched throat like that piece of fruit. To this day I wonder how a quart (or so it seemed) of sweet, cool juice could have been pressed into something no larger than a tennis ball.
There are awkward moments, too. I'll never forget the taxi driver in Cairo who wouldn't stop force-feeding me hot-as-a-poker pita bread sandwiches of ground, gray camel meat as we drove along the Nile from market to market.
These routes of discovery defy exact rules. Back issues of Gourmet magazine and the Time/Life series on Foods of the World describe indigenous foods available both here and abroad. That's some help. And your library's food atlas is another source. While traveling, I like to drop into little stores and ask what foods are indigenous to the area. I've never met anyone who wasn't willing to endlessly discuss his or her specialties and how they're prepared.
A recipe for stingingly delicious garlic soup came from the owner of a small restaurant in Madrid. It has brought tears of approval to many an eye on a cold winter's night at my home. I got not only the recipe but an address where saffron could be bought at one-third of the US price.
You can, of course, go the black-tie route. At Fortnum & Mason in London, salesmen in swallow-tailed jackets and white gloves will happily fill an Edwardian picnic hamper the size of a steamer trunk with all appropriate pate, preserves, and pastries for a proper afternoon at Glyndebourne. (A sticky-thick turtle consomme, elegantly served in the restaurant upstairs at F&M, may be purchased in cans and shipped home from the street-level shop.)
At Fauchon in Paris, upper-crust shopping can be done without taking a step. Simply double park your Rolls and give a tasteful ''beep'' of the horn. A smartly dressed clerk will dash out (they speak English, French, and Arabic), snap the shopping list from your chauffeur, and return - avec goodies - faster than you can say ''pate de foie gras.''
Sometimes a quiet dinner at a humble storefront restaurant will bring a new taste thrill. That oddly shaped noodle you've never seen is probably available just next door at a grocery, along with the herb that gave the dish its exquisite aroma. Ask your waiter.
The food-loving traveler should avoid getting locked into the American plan, under which American-style meals often are provided by the hotel. Steak and salad can be had in Peking, but just down the street a man is making homemade dragon-whisker noodles topped with a piquant shrimp sauce - or something equally remarkable.
Some things we take for granted in our own backyard are savored by the great chefs of Europe. Several years ago Paul Bocuse and Roger Verge made headlines when they returned to their respective restaurants in France with several sacks of Idaho potatoes.
When Ann Robert of Maison Robert's restaurant in Boston takes her frequent sabbaticals to France she admits she doesn't bring much back in the way of food. ''Most things I can usually find right here in Boston in one of the specialty shops.'' When her triplet boys go, however, she says they never return without a loaf of ''real French bread'' tucked under their six arms.
Parents should remember that kids like to play, too. A friend's children came back with tins of Poulain chocolate they took a special liking to at a cafe in Paris. The now-empty tins have been saved as colorful reminders of those afternoons sipping hot chocolate on the Left Bank.
One obvious bit of advice: It's hard to know exactly what United States Customs will let you get through with.
David Ela, compliance officer for the Department of Agriculture here in Boston, says, ''It's a difficult thing to state exactly what you can and can't bring in. You're really opening up a Pandora's box when you ask for specifics. Most foods that aren't sealed are OK too, but will have to be examined upon entry into the country. But a lot of things can be brought in in small amounts for home use.'' Clearly, it's best not to spend a lot of money on something that may have to be left behind in customs. Buy small amounts if you aren't sure.
It's a good idea to check labels, otherwise the edible treasures you bring home may be available at your local supermarket. Witness the four pounds of dried black-eyed peas I paid a bundle for and lugged back from Tobago, only to find - when I read the package - that they were grown in Iowa.
It also isn't a bad idea to be sure, before you lug it home, that your treasure is something you will actually like. Recently a friend and his wife of two weeks were searched by customs agents as they left Hawaii. The agents were looking for the usual fruits, vegetables, and seeds. When a guard pulled two plastic bags of purply colored poi out of their suitcase he asked, ''Oh, you like poi?''
''I don't know,'' my friend responded. ''I haven't tasted it yet. Is it any good?''
''Ugh! It's terrible stuff,'' said the man. ''I was brought up here, so I had to eat it. I couldn't take it without a lot of milk and sugar. And even then. . . .''
My friends haven't yet gotten up the courage to try it themselves. In fact, they've given most of it away.