There’s no doubt that one of the great pleasures of footloose far-reaching travel is the chance to try a wide variety of foods and flavors from all around the world. In our globalized modern world, the nature of this pleasure has perhaps shifted – rather than involving entirely new discoveries, much of the interest lies in discovering just how different – usually, how much better – ostensibly familiar ingredients and regional classics taste when eaten in their place of origin. This is the case whether in South America, Asia or Europe, munching tacos, kimchi, sushi or bratwurst. So suspend your preconceptions and give these fifteen items a fresh go – and let us know if you have a favorite, or a dish you’re disappointed we missed out, in the comments section below.
Quebec’s most famous dish is surprisingly simple for a region with such strong links to its French heritage, but it’s undoubtedly delicious. Poutine is a gooey, sloshy, salty mix of French Fries topped with gravy and chunks of squeaky cheese curds. It’s swept through much of the province, consumed by peckish children and drunken adults alike, and is sold at pubs, roadside cantines, international fast food chains and local diners (often referred to as casse-croûtes) as well as at elegant restaurants. Some of the best places to try it include traditional Quebec eatery aux Anciens Canadiens in Quebec City with a bucolic setting that goes well with poutine’s rural origins, or La Banquise in Montreal, a 24-hour favorite which has developed a menu with a huge range of twists on the dish.
Pizza was introduced to the States by an Italian immigrant in 1905, and the dish was swiftly taken to the nation’s heart. In fact, it has become so entwined with U.S. food culture that several different regions and cities have evolved their own style. There’s New York’s thin-crust pizza with a tangy tomato sauce. Across the country, Chicago has its own world-famous brand of deep-pan decadence. Back on the east coast, New Haven has developed its own take on the puffy-crusted Neapolitan style. And in Philadelphia, with its massive Italian-American population, you can sample just about any style you fancy at the big Italian market in the south of the city.
Foie gras is held close to the bosom of French culture: a law states, "Foie gras belongs to the protected cultural and gastronomical heritage of France." It is made from the liver of a duck or goose that’s been specially fattened, usually by force-feeding corn with a gavage – in France, this method is enshrined in law, although in some other countries the opposite is true and the delicacy is deemed cruel and banned. But specialist French producers and preparers of the dish, such as Les Cocottes in Paris, insist that it is the only way to get that exceptionally smooth texture and rich yet delicate flavor that sets foie gras apart.
Photo by Annie Roi/Flickr.
Caviar has been synonymous with opulence for quite sometime: as far back as the 13th century, King Edward II of England passed a decree requiring all who acquired it to offer it up to him. It is made from salt-cured roe (fish eggs), and traditionally only dishes made from the roe of wild sturgeon from the Caspian and Black Sea could be called caviar. Because of its geographic location, it was the Persians and, later, the Russians who first cultivated this top-class caviar, and through the 19th and early 20th century Czar Nicholas II collected an annual tax from fishermen using caviar as a currency. Russia remains among the world’s best places to experience it today: try Cafe Pushkin in Moscow for an appropriately decadent experience of the dish.
One of the wonderful things about visiting Spain is that it contains such a diversity of cultures within its ragged borders. And as well as distinct political identities, many of these regions have their own food culture, too. It is fortunate, then, that tapas exists – small dishes that allow you to try a little of each of the great variety of culinary styles that Spain contains. Sample elaborate Basque pintxos in San Sebastian; feast on seafood-speckled paella in coastal Valencia; munch on crisp-fried aubergines drenched in honey in Andalucia; chomp into iberico ham hacked straight from the bone in Extremadura; then continue on to stew-rich Catalonia, cider-loving Asturias, cheese-producing Galicia...
Sushi, now one of the world’s most artful and experimental dishes, began life as simple street food created with fish from Tokyo Bay back when the area was called Edo. It’s current association with craft and quality – Tokyo actually boasts the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world – perhaps stems from the fact that it’s frequently made with raw seafood. In a world where produce travels half the globe before arriving on our plates, handling this type of freshness requires considerable skill. But when you’ve just scooped the living creature from the ocean 15 minutes ago, serving it raw is a far less risky proposition. In Tokyo today you can eat across the whole range of levels of craftsmanship, strolling the simple and often still-crawling offerings in Tsukiji Fish Market or joining the waiting list to feast at two-Michelin starred Sushi Kanesaka.
Photo by Seph Swain/Flickr.
Germany loves sausages – at least, lots of people in Germany do. Wander into an autobahn service station, look round the store, spot a few mysterious covered containers, lift the lids and lo! – there’s a small thicket of sausages standing upright inside. Invariably, they’re delicious. One particularly popular form of sausage is the bratwurst. This sausage, made of finely-chopped veal, pork or beef and usually grilled or pan-fried, originated in Franconia, northern Bavaria, and the region remains the best place to eat it today. Wash it down with equally excellent local beer at famous Munich beer halls such as Hofbrauhaus and Der Ratskeller.
Photo by Mr.TinDC/Flickr.
Falafel – the vegetarian’s fried-chickpea alternative to a greasy 2am kebab – originated in the Middle East, where it has a long and, in recent years, somewhat troubled heritage. Many Israelis see it as their national dish; some Palestinians see this as an appropriation of their culinary heritage; Egyptians argue it was invented in their country as a replacement for meat during Lent, and then reached the rest of the Middle East through the bustling port city of Alexandria. Whatever origin story you’re subscribed to, falafel slots neatly into Jewish dietary laws – being entirely plant-based, it is considered pareve and can be eaten with either dairy or meat dishes, which may not be eaten together. With a strong presence both in street food stalls and upscale restaurants, falafel is served to perfection in plenty of places around Tel Aviv.
Tacos really are everywhere in Mexico City, an exceptionally versatile staple that is essentially just a corn tortilla filled with whatever one fancies – although options tend to orbit around beef, pork, chicken, seafood, vegetables, cheese, tomatoes, guacamole, salsa, jalapenos, onions and lettuce. You can pick one up on most street corners, but one interesting place to try is El Parrillon, which includes pork belly, cured meats, Argentine sausage, Spanish chorizo and griddled provolone among its eccentric filling options. Alternatively, if you’re both hungry and in need of some car repairs, drop into the taqueria El Vilsito, which doubles as a garage.
Covering more than 750,000 square kilometers, the green and fertile Argentine pampas were an ideal ecosystem for cattle grazing when Spanish conquistadors introduced the creatures to the country in the 16th century. Since then, beef steaks have become its national dish, particularly when served asado – grilled slowly over wood, as gauchos did on the pampas in previous centuries, and consumed in a merry social gathering of the same name. Beef is such a universally revered ingredient, from Australia to America, but it’s the pampas that set Argentina apart – the vast rolling plains allow the cows plenty of space to exercise; the cows eat fresh grass instead of being fed lowest-grade corn; and then there’s the secrets of the chefs at superb Buenos Aires steakhouses such as Las Lilas and Parrilla La Cabrera.
Kebabs can be greasy sauce-smothered affairs, sharp with raw onion, shovelled down one’s throat after several drinks on a Saturday night. And to be honest, they’re wondrous enough then. But they can also be delicately balanced assemblages of fresh ingredients, of spices and lightly cooked meat, crafted to perfection by a chef steeped in some Turkic culinary tradition. Of course, there’s no better place to try the latter than Istanbul (other, perhaps, than Berlin). In fact, while in Turkey’s capital, you can take a taste-bud-led trip around the rest of the country simply by visiting its different kebab restaurants. Head over to eastern Anatolia with the marinated lamb of Şehzade Erzurum Cağ Kebabi; try the cuisine of south-east Turkey at Çiya Kebap, where quince, pistachios and poppy seeds figure among the many ingredients; or just feast on Istanbul street food by strolling its winding alleys and souks, chowing down whatever takes your fancy.
Pad Thai is a somewhat controversial dish to represent the sharply spiced cuisine of Thailand – its name and other hints suggest its origins actually lie in south China. But over the past half century it has become perhaps the best known Thai dish globally, a swift-to-cook and intensely flavorful concoction of egg-fried noodles, tofu, garlic, shrimp, chilli, tamarind pulp, peanuts and lime. And cultures and cuisines are in a state of continuous evolution, after all, so why not just embrace Pad Thai’s new role as the ambassador of Thai gastronomy? Certainly, there are plenty of restaurants that have done just that, such as Thip Samai in Bangkok, producing vast wokfuls of the stuff for a fast-flowing stream of customers from five in the evening onwards.
Although Americans call them "French Fries", it is thought that U.S. soldiers fighting on the western front in World War I were confused and erroneously thought they were being served the new-fangled fried potatoes in France – because in fact, fries, or frites, are thought to have originated in Belgium, and are considered by many there the national dish. They are sometimes paired with another ingredient for a simple but delicious meal – moules-frites and steak-frites being common examples – but more often are just eaten alone, bought from a street-side friterie, cradled in a paper cone, and smothered with sauce, mayonnaise being particularly – for some, inexplicably – popular.
Kimchi is South Korea’s national food and nestles deep in the country’s consciousness. During the Vietnam War, the Korean President asked his U.S. counterpart to help ensure kimchi could reach Korean troops in the field, calling this "vitally important to the morale" of his men. Kimchi is at its most simple a form of pickled cabbage, sour and slightly spicy. But this is of course an exceptionally malleable base idea, and so it can encompass a whole range of fermented vegetables mixed with spices. Traditional preparation involves allowing the kimchi to ferment in underground vats for months at a time. Top places to try the stuff in Seoul include Imum Seolleongtang and Hadongkwan.
Eating out in Singapore can be horrendously expensive – in fact, the city was recently declared the most expensive in the world for expats by the Economist Intelligence Unit. It is fortunate, then, that it has some of the world’s best street food, sold at hawker centers around the city. This is a great leveler, and you can see CEOs slurping alongside beggars. There are a couple of reasons this is the case – the food is hygiene graded, and it is usually skilfully made using fresh ingredients right before your eyes. Be sure to try signature Singapore street food classics such as chicken rice, chili crab and laksa.