Sampling the specific cuisine and speciality dishes of the countries you are passing through is something which adds enormously to the excitement and pleasure of travel. Getting stuck into the food how the locals do it can give you a window onto a specific culture like nothing else. Many world dishes are so powerfully iconic they are of themselves an embodiment and encapsulation of the colours, aromas and essence of the very country itself.
There will be flavours and combinations of flavours out their which your taste buds will never have experienced before and you may well find yourself in certain parts of the world asking over and again ‘what is that?’ Not everything you try is going to appeal of course but there are certain culinary treats from around the globe that you simply have to try. These are the dishes which might just change your whole view on food forever and for which certain folk will sail across oceans to try afresh. Here’s a list of 10 such foods and drinks.
1) Pizza – Italy
Pizza can be found everywhere in the world but in Italy……well, it is just simply better. And this isn’t just because all the ingredients are non-imported, super-fresh or locally-crafted – although of course this helps.
If you are in a touristy area you might be able to find all kinds of more internationally influenced pizza varieties but head out of these zones and pizza becomes something else – pizza, in fact, how it was meant to be. Although there is some variation from region to region, typically you can forget stuffed crusts and thick bases for starters. Italian pizza is thin, crust-less and never drowned in cheese. Certain toppings go out the window – any self-respecting Italian would never dream of putting pineapple on his pizza, for example.
Pizza in Italy is more subtle somehow and the results are epicurean masterpieces of perfect balance which will instantly make you realise that, no matter how many pizzas you have eaten before, until now you have never had pizza.
2) Mole – Mexico
Chocolate sauce over your chicken anyone? The first reaction of most to this question is unlikely to be positive but don’t dismiss the idea until you have sampled some Mexican mole. Mole is actually a generic term used to describe many sauces which have incredibly diverse flavours but a similar smooth consistency and although the one common ingredient is some kind of chilli pepper this doesn’t mean all are hot.
Moles are super-complex sauces with an average of 20 ingredients (but often far more) which might include nuts, seeds, herbs, vegetables, spices and chocolate. Preparation takes many hours at best and sometimes days and specific recipes and preparation methods are often closely guarded secrets. One classic mole is the dark coloured mole poblano which contains chocolate. Taste-wise, there is the vaguest suggestion of the underlying chocolate in this sauce but the chocolate is primarily used to balance the heat of the chilli. And it works! Mole can be found all over Mexico but it is most famous in Puebla and Oaxaca.
3) Tagine – Morrocco
There are various different tagines or tajines found throughout Northern Africa (some very different to that described here) but you’d be hard pushed to find it any better than the way the Moroccans dish it up.
A tagine is ostensibly a low temperature, slow-cooked stew heated in a specially-shaped clay pot which has more aromas and flavour sensations going on than you can pin down. Traditionally this slow-stew method enabled cheaper cuts of meat to be transformed into tender and tasty dishes and today most tangines are prepared using either lamb or chicken. Quite what else goes into the pot depends but might involve any number of vegetables – both familiar and totally mysterious – along with fruits (such as apples, apricots, dates), nuts, honey, herbs and spices; the most common of which are cinnamon, saffron, turmeric, cumin, ginger and paprika.
Descriptions from those who get stuck into a tangine – which is typically served with either couscous or just bread – include words such as smoky, savoury, aromatic, musky, fruity, rich, mild and quite possibly a hundred others. However, sweet and sour flavour sensations are the order of the day with many lamb-based tagines and should you be in the vegetarian camp you also get to sample this wonderful dish because tagines come in a wide range of meat-free forms too.
4) Pho – Vietnam
Sometimes the best dishes are not the most elaborate but rather the simplest, perfectly prepared by culinary geniuses. Such is the case with the Vietnamese ‘pho’ (pronounced po) which can be found being dished up in every tiny alleyway in Saigon or from a million and one street carts throughout the country.
Essentially it is a rice noodle soup prepared most often with either beef or chicken and a few herbs but the end result is SO much more than the sum of its parts. Vietnamese folk eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner and after trying it once many travellers follow suit. Luckily, the delicious pho – always served in a bowl – is ridiculously cheap making it a low cost addiction to feed.
5) Ceviche – Peru
In common with other listings here, ceviche is not exclusively found in Peru but this country is its homeland and, as is so often the case with food choices, it gets no better than from the place in which it originated. This is definitely one for sea-food lovers because the base of ceviche is just that. However, this ocean bounty ingredient element might come in the form of fish, shrimp, crab, lobster, squid, octopus and any number of shellfish varieties many of which may be either raw or cooked.
No matter what the base the process involves marinating the fish/shellfish in strong citrus lemon/lime juices combined with various herbs along with chilli and leaving them there until they become entirely infused and incredibly tender. The result is something wonderfully refreshing which combines delicate flavours and a burst of citrus. Beware though – ceviche can be very spicy–hot and at times highly acidic and as personal tastes vary so much you might have to sample a few until you find your perfect mix.
Ceviche in Peru can be served all on its own but often comes with fried corn and sweet potato which are meant to counteract the sourness of the dish.
6) Salteñas – Bolivia
Empanadas – which can be found all over Latin America, Spain and Portugal – are a baked or fried, stuffed savoury pastry and salteñas are a type of empanada. It has to be said that not all empanadas are created equal; some fall into the category of decidedly ordinary while others are so oil drenched they are virtually inedible. However, salteñas represent the very pinnacle of good empanadas and once you’ve sampled the Bolivian variety nothing else afterwards will ever seem quite as good. Salteñas encase their hearty savoury meaty or vegetable insides within a thick pie-type crust.If you’re not sure which of the different styles to opt for go with the spicy, slightly sweet, chopped beef salteñas de caldo. This is the kind of culinary speciality folk have been known to travel across continents for.
7) Thai Iced Tea – Thailand
There are some flavours in the world so highly individual they can’t be likened to anything else you might ever have tried. Such is the case with the vibrantly orange Thai iced tea – the colour coming from the hyper-brewed tea element. But this drink, typically served in restaurants in a tall glass, is so much more than a serving of iced tea. In essence, no two glasses of Thai iced-tea are ever quite the same. This is due in part to the variety of possible ingredients which might include orange blossom water, star anise or all kinds of other spices. But even at its most simple base of brewed tea along with a creamy sweetening of evaporated and/or coconut milk there must surely be some kind of magic going on here too. The first time you try it you are going to understand completely why we are struggling a little to describe it here. So, let’s just say it is heaven in liquid form over ice and leave it at that.
8) Donuts – USA
OK – we know this particular entry hardly qualifies as a food, somewhat bereft as it is of any essential nutrients, but when something tastes this good who cares! The USA has taken the idea of the humble doughnut and played with it (including the spelling) until the final result takes everything to a whole new level.
Frosted, glazed and powdered; stuffed with all kinds of sweet substances including the iconic ‘jelly’; sprinkled and rolled in a bewildering variety of toppings (including nuts – so there’s some nutrients); hand-crafted, personalised, bought singly or by the bucket-load. There are even regional specialities such as the cider donut found throughout the orchard rich Northeast and Midwest states. Dream a donut and there will be one just like that to be found somewhere in the US…as no doubt Homer Simpson can tell you.
9) Cendol – Malaysia
The food choices of Malaysia in general are both a gourmet’s and gourmand’s dream thanks to its wonderful cultural melting pot of inhabitants; no matter which type of ethnic food type – Indian, Chinese, Thai, Indonesian etc – floats your culinary boat you can most likely find it here and typically in the most genuine and highest quality form possible. That means many of the treats you will find here are not exclusive to Malaysia and such is the case with the incredibly delicious and wonderfully refreshing dessert known as cendol. However, cendol is a way of life for the Malaysians like nowhere else and many travellers develop the same love affair after sampling this coconut milk, palm sugar and shaved ice concoction swimming with green jelly noodles made from rice flour. You won’t have to try very hard to hunt it down either because every third street stall seems to be serving up bowls of cendol.
10) Dim Sum – Hong Kong
Cantonese dim sum is a style of food rather than a particular dish and if you’re a tapas fan this might almost be considered the Asian equivalent. Found in many Asian countries, dim sum originates from the southern China/Hong Kong area where it is a dining staple and is offered to diners by way of individual bite-sized portions. The idea is you share with everyone in your party and as the servings are small any one meal can mean having a little taste of any number of different dishes. And there are very many dim sum dishes.
Dumplings, rice noodle rolls and steamed savoury buns stuffed with all kinds of treats such as shrimp, barbecue pork and shredded beef are common but there might be all kinds of seemingly endless other choices too such as soups, spare ribs and desserts.
Dim sum can be found in any number of restaurants but it is also a popular street food often served up as dumplings or meatballs threaded onto a bamboo skewer. The communal sauce bowl or pot you’ll see on the street food carts is there for you to dunk your whole skewer into.