People have been eating al fresco since the beginning of time, but every outdoor meal does not make a picnic. The idea of dining in a natural setting as a social event dates to at least the Middle Ages, when hunting parties of wealthy noblemen quaffed ale and feasted on roasted meats between volleys. Upper-class Victorians were mad for picnics, with tables and china toted into the lawns by servants. The classic Victorian cooking guide, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, included a suggested menu for a “picnic luncheon for twenty persons” that included lobster, veal pies, four types of cakes, and a gallon of strawberries. Picnics simplified with the beginning of the automobile era, when a drive and a picnic lunch was considered high entertainment for a Saturday.
While never falling out of fashion, picnics are having a major moment now. Covid-19 concerns have made outdoor meals a safer-seeming choice for socialization, and many restaurants have limited or no indoor seating anyway. The onset of chillier weather hardly looks to slow the trend: outdoor heaters are already scarce, suggesting people plan to dine outside for the duration. Restaurants are joining the party too, with many offering take-out “picnic packages.” Celebrity chef Curtis Stone even launched a Los Angeles popup called Picnic Society, with premade food baskets, blankets and small tables to go.
To enjoy your own picnic, take inspiration from these picnic traditions from around the world.
In Hong Kong (where I live), picnics often take the form of seaside barbecues. Hungry groups arrive early to local beaches or coastal parks to snag public grills and picnic benches. Then they hit the local market for charcoal, long grilling forks, plates and utensils. Many seaside shops offer coolers of pick and mix BBQ items: fish balls, chicken wings, corn, squid, small fish, mushrooms and more. The rest of the day is spent grilling and eating, stopping for a swim or a stroll when stomachs are too full, then resuming again at the first rumble of hunger.
You can replicate the vibe yourself at any fire pit or grill—use charcoal for the most authentic flavor. Finish up with the classic Hong Kong BBQ dessert, a slice of thick toast grilled and slathered in honey or condensed milk.
In the UK, a classic picnic involves “lots of different foods which can be enjoyed cold, as there obviously isn't any way to heat food when eating outside,” says Tom Shingler, editor of the website Great British Chefs. “Think sandwiches, Scotch eggs, quiches, pies, bean or potato salads. It's a little bit like a scaled-down buffet, all enjoyed on a blanket laid on the ground.”
If you’re not sure what a Scotch egg is, there are several different recipes on the Great British Chefs website. (Spoiler: it’s a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage, breaded and deep fried.)
To be even more classically British, invest in a croquet set—the iconic picnic game has been popular in the UK since at least the 1800s.
France’s endless farmer’s markets and épiceries (specialty grocery stores) make picnicking a snap.
“Picnic traditions in Paris are simple,” says Shaheen Peerbhai, a pastry chef and author of the cookbook Paris Picnic Club. “Grab a baguette sandwich and a pastry from the bakery, a bottle of cider, and go to the banks of the Canal St. Martin or the Seine with friends.”
Classic picnic sandwiches include jambon-beurre (ham and butter on a baguette), pâté-cornichon (pâté and pickles), and pan bagnat (hard-boiled eggs, veggies, tuna and olive oil on country bread). Recipe site Epicurious has several versions of the last one, including this take, with tuna, anchovies and parsley.
A French picnic also calls for a classic lawn game—try pétanque, similar to Italian bocce. You can buy a set easily online.
Summer heat makes lunchtime picnics in India less appealing, says Peerbhai. So many save their outdoor dining for the cooler hours later in the day.
“Growing up in Bombay, a form of picnic would be going to the beach in the evening and enjoying corn on the cob and coconut water while watching the sunset,” says Peerbhai.
Mumbai’s Chowpatty Beach is famous for its vendors selling chaat (savory snacks), such as vada pav (a fried potato patty on a bun) and pani puri (ball-shaped crackers filled with chutney, chickpeas, tangy tamarind water and other ingredients, to be eaten in one sweet-savory-sour bite). If you're nowhere near India's west coast, long-running food blog Dassana's Veg Recipes will tell you how to make your own pani puri.
Australia’s Northern Territory has an official Picnic Day holiday every first Monday of August, traditionally celebrated with a picnic along the Adelaide River. Many residents take the long weekend to attend the Harts Range Races, an Outback horse race and rodeo held for more than 70 years.
To picnic like an Aussie, load up your esky (cooler) with some tucker (food) and stubbies (bottles of beer). For dessert, bake up a tray of classic chocolate or caramel slice (slices are what Americans might call “bars”—tray-baked desserts that can be sliced into squares, often with a base of crushed cookie). The Great Australian Bake Off (the Antipodean version of the beloved British show) offers some of its competitors’ best slice recipes online.
Argentineans are famously wild for their yerba maté, a kind of tea typically sipped from a gourd cup with a special metal straw that strains out the loose leaves. Even a short jaunt to the park calls for a thermos of hot water in case you want a maté break; stores even sell traveling maté bags and sets for picnic purposes. Traditionally, maté cups and straws are shared between friends and family, though Covid-19 has put a halt to this ritual.
“The most classic type of picnic in Argentina would consist of drinking maté in a park or plaza,” says Buenos Aires-based food blogger Allie Lazar. “Usually, this would take place in late afternoon for ‘merienda,’ the meal after lunch and before dinner. Maté usually is accompanied by some sort of facturas [pastries].”
In Japan, cherry blossom season is serious business. When the delicate pink sakura flowers bloom, starting in March and spreading northward through May, everyone flocks to enjoy hanami (cherry blossom viewing) at local parks. Though this may all sound very sedate, it's not: hanami are an opportunity to eat, drink and party well into the night. Many depachika (department store food halls) sell premade hanami bentos, picnic boxes packed with rice, fish, pickles, tofu and other treats.
For a taste of cherry blossom (minus the actual trees), check a Japanese market for sakuramochi, glutinous rice balls stuffed with sweet red bean paste and wrapped in cherry blossom leaves. Or make your own: the Japanese food blog Just One Cookbook offers a recipe.
Picnicking has been a popular pastime in Turkey since the early Ottoman Empire, when, according to the Hürriyet Daily News, "[a]lmost any public green space served as a place to have a picnic."
Today, finding a place to picnic in Turkey is still easy, thanks to the many piknik yeri (public picnic grounds). But putting the picnic together—that takes a logistics expert. A true Turkish picnic is an all-day affair, with blankets or rugs spread on the ground to hold a groaning feast of flatbreads, salads, dips, meatballs and more. You eat, you play games, you make some tea. Then you do it all over again until dark. A family might even bring a portable mangal (grill) for hot, smoky kebabs.
Kuru köfte are a type of meatball commonly served at picnics, since they travel well and are delicious cold. Try the recipe on the blog Seasonal Cook in Turkey.