Sampling the local cuisine can help you make friends, understand the history, politics or religion of the place you’re visiting and provide a lasting memory of your trip. Food and travel go hand in hand, and there’s no better way to delve deep into a destination than to try its most famous dishes.
No matter where you go around the world, every culture puts its own spin on food, whether they’re serving a slightly different version of a familiar favorite or a strange (to you) dish sure to challenge even the most adventurous eater.
From China’s famous Peking duck to good old US barbecue, here are some of my top ten iconic dishes from around the world that every traveler should try at least once!
1. China: Peking duck
The imperial dish Peking duck from China is synonymous with superior Chinese food of the non-takeaway variety. What makes this particular roast duck a standout ‘try before you die’ candidate is the garlicky sweet crispy skin. Plating up the dish is an event in itself: order the whole duck, and the bird will be carved in front of you.
First you’ll be served the famously crispy sweet skin. Next, juicy slivers of meat will be carved and served with steamed pancakes, spring onions and a sweet hoisin sauce so you can create your own Peking duck pancakes. If you’re still hungry, the remaining duck will be served as a stir fry or broth. Try Peking Duck and other specialties on a food tour in China.
2. France: Escargots
You’ve got to try snails at least once in your life, if only to try to distinguish their flavor lurking beneath all that garlic butter. The ancient Romans ate snails, and they’re eaten across the globe from Morocco to Cambodia. However, it’s the French who are most readily identified with these tasty morsels, ideally sourced from Burgundy.
Escargots are generally eaten as an appetizer, served in the shell and cooked in a delicious melange of garlicky parsley butter. And what do they taste like? As you might expect, the texture is firm, but shouldn’t be chewy, and the flavor underneath all that garlic and butter is similar to mussels. Learn more on a food tour in France
3. Greece: Moussaka
The national casserole in Greece is a certain must-try dish, and these days there aren’t many of us who haven’t succumbed to this melting concoction. The Greek answer to the Italian lasagne, the dish is made by smothering layers of ingredients in a cheese béchamel sauce, and baking until creamily melted and golden.
Along with ground beef or lamb, the major ingredient in a traditional Greek moussaka is eggplant; regional varieties might use other vegetables following this method, such as artichokes and potatoes. The salted and browned slices of eggplant are layered with meat stewed with onions, garlic, tomatoes and spices. Wherever you live, the resulting cheesy casserole is a heart-warming dish to serve in winter. Sample these dishes and more on a food tour of Greece
4. India: Masala dosa
If one subcontinental meal could persuade a committed carnivore to order vegetarian, my vote would go to a masala dosa while dining in South India. The plate-covering, paper-thin pancake is made from rice and lentils, cooked to lacy perfection on a hot griddle. What creates the more-ish flavor is a spiced concoction of mashed cooked potatoes and fried onions, served with a liberal dose of garlicky chutney.
5. Italy: Zucchini flowersEveryone who’s eaten Tuscany’s fiore di zucca, or deep-fried zucchini flowers, says they’re to die for, so it makes sense to add them to our list. The tender yellow zucchini flowers are stuffed with a delicious filling, maybe herbed ricotta or mozzarella, then dipped into a simple tempura-like batter and sizzled in olive oil. The result is a melt-in-the mouth, sweetly crisp sensation that must be eaten immediately.
6. Japan: TeppanyakiIf you like a little theater and audience participation with your food, don’t miss the experience of dining at a teppanyaki restaurant in Japan. With much flame-fuelled drama, sometimes accompanied by juggling of utensils and flipping of ingredients, the skilled chefs grill your steak right in front of you, via a sizzling-hot gas-powered griddle.
Order grilled Kobe beef, seafood or chicken, or ask for a signature flaming volcano of onion rings, and get ready to be amazed by your teppanyaki chef’s superb knife skills.
7. Malaysia: Seafood curry laksa
Malaysia’s king of soups is a spicy, tangy, coconut-creamy soup packed full of noodles, seafood, fish sticks, puffed tofu, vegetables, a hard-boiled egg, coriander and chilli sambal.The Chinese-Malay dish is a classic of Peranakan cuisine, merging elements from Malaysia and Singapore. There are heaps of regional variances, and some seafood laksas also include chicken. If you come across assam laksa, you’ll find it has a fish rather than coconut broth. The general rule is the simpler the surroundings, the tastier the curry laksa, so pull up a stool at a streetside stall in a Penang backstreet or Singapore food court and tuck in. A curry laksa really is to die for!
8. Thailand: Som tam (green papaya salad)
To savour Thailand’s four essential flavours – sour, salt, sweet and chilli – in one dish, load up a bowl of som tam and prepare for sensory overload. The base ingredient of shredded unripened papaya is combined with any or all of the following: palm sugar, garlic, lime juice, fish sauce, tamarind juice, dried shrimp and, quite often, seafood, tomatoes, carrot, beans and peanuts. Simply add the ingredients to a mortar and start pounding. Learn how to make your own in a cooking class in ThailandA northern Thai dish from the Isan region, som tam is typically served with grilled chicken and sticky rice. If you’re making the dish at home, and can’t source a green papaya at your local supermarket, you can substitute unripe mangoes, apples or cucumbers for a similar, but not as authentic, result.
9. Australia and New Zealand: PavlovaFiercely competitive Australia and New Zealand vie for ownership of this iconic dessert. Currently the odds are on a hotel in Wellington, New Zealand as having invented this heavenly melange of meringue and cream.
The dish is named for the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, and indeed the meltingly soft light-as-air meringue does bring to mind the fluffy tulle of a ballet tutu. A classic pavlova is topped with lashings of whipped cream daubed with passion fruit, strawberries and kiwi fruit.
10. USA: BBQ ribs If there’s one US cuisine that has aficionados frothing at the mouth, it’s the holy grail of smoked pork ribs: the BBQ. Kansas City, Memphis and St. Louis are US BBQ capitals, not forgetting Texas, the Carolinas … hell, it seems everyone has their favorite local.
Memphis ribs get their extra belt of flavor from a dry rub made from garlic and spices, which is slapped on prior to smoking. The ribs are generally served with a tomato and vinegar BBQ sauce on the side.
Kansas City style ribs are prepared with a sweetly spiced rub before being extra slow-smoked, and sugar, honey and molasses add a sweet edge to the BBQ sauce served alongside.
St. Louis pork spare ribs are grilled, and served with lashings of tangy tomato-based BBQ sauce.
Whichever style of BBQ you choose, get ready to tuck in your bib for a messy feast enjoy Travel-Food Writer and Author, Dez Bartelt