There’s no better way to get to know a new place than by tasting some of the local food. Each country, each region and even each city has a special cuisine that it’s known for – each with its own history, traditions and culture.
While there are thousands of different dishes across the globe and you might not be able to dig into all of them in a lifetime, there are some worth taking a special trip for. We take a look at eight unique dishes across eight different regions around the world. So satisfy your tastebuds, and don’t leave these places without trying the national specialties first.
València, Spain – paella
When you think about Spanish food, chances are that paella comes to mind. It may seem like a simple dish at first glance, but paella is in fact a culinary piece of art. While there are different regional varieties across Spain, traditionally paella is made by simmering long grain rice with broth, saffron, herbs and a variety of vegetables, seafood and meats mixed in according to preference.
Originating in València, ‘paella valenciana’ is the original recipe and one of the most typical versions – consisting of chicken and rabbit, or pork can be substituted for those who are not keen on rabbit. ‘Paella de marisco’, or seafood paella, is a bold and intense rice that usually includes mussels, prawns, clams and calamari among other seafood. For those who want to try something different, ‘paella negra’ is made with squid ink, which gives it its signature black colour and unique flavour.
Catch a flight to València for an authentic paella feast. Located right on Malvarrosa beach, La Pepica is perhaps the most famous restaurant in town and just might have the best paella in the world. It specializes in seafood paella, but is also a favourite among locals for its traditional paella valenciana.
Vietnam – Phở
Pronounced as “fuh,” pho is a Vietnamese soup made of a clear beef or chicken-based broth, thinly sliced meat, rice noodles and vegetables. Typical garnishes like onions, bean sprouts, chili, basil and lime top off the soup with an extra little kick. A dish that is said to have originated in the northern city of Hanoi, pho has historically been eaten for breakfast, but many shops are extending their hours nowadays. Because it’s considered to be a quick meal rather than long, sit-down affair, pho is usually sold in open storefronts where it’s common to see people queuing patiently for their steaming pot of noodles.
Pho has become one of the most internationally popular foods, especially in countries such as France, the United States and Canada. After the Vietnam War, Vietnamese refugees brought pho to many different countries and now it can be enjoyed in restaurants all over the world.
But there’s no place quite as special to slurp down some pho than the birthplace of the famed soup itself. In the historic French Quarter of Hanoi, Pho Thin is a no-frills, family-run shop that has been serving pho for years. What makes their pho so special? The steak is stir-fried with ginger, garlic and onion before being added to the broth, something not typically done in pho shops.
Quebec, Canada – poutine
Canada’s national dish, poutine, reigns as one of the all-time best comfort foods. This highly caloric meal is made up of fries, cheese curds and brown gravy. Celebrated as a symbol of Québécois cultural pride, poutine is so well-loved by locals that there are even annual poutine celebrations in cities around the country, including Quebec City, Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa.
To maintain the crisp texture of the fries, the hot gravy is poured over them immediately before serving and the cheese curds are usually room temperature so that they begin to melt once the gravy is on top. It might sound like a heart attack on a plate, but this hearty treat can satisfy any guilty craving, cure a hangover and fill the stomach without breaking the bank, as a serving usually only costs about £3-5.
Chez Gaston in Quebec City is a small 12-seat restaurant in downtown Saint-Roch with one of the best and most flavourful poutines around. It’s revered for its generous amounts of thick beef stock and fresh Chaudière cheddar curds, so grab a seat at the counter and get ready to drool as you watch the cooks fill up your plate.
United Kingdom – fish and chips
The most iconic meal in British culture is none other than fish and chips. This popular takeaway dish (which can also be enjoyed at sit-down restaurants) consists of chunks of battered fried fish, served with piping hot potato chips. The fish is traditionally cod, haddock or other white fish and it can also be served with mushy peas on the side.
It first appeared in the 1860s and became a staple meal among the working class in England. Back then, fish and chips were served wrapped in old newspaper, but thankfully nowadays most places use paper and cardboard.
One of the best places to grab some fish and chips in east London is Fish House, located in the heart of Victoria Park Village. Their exceptionally fresh, melt-in-your mouth fish and chips are the perfect savoury snack to enjoy while walking around Victoria Park’s 86 hectares of lush gardens. On the other side of town, Bonnie Gull Seafood Shack in Fitzrovia is known for their beer-battered North Sea haddock and extra crispy batter. They use Japanese tempura mix to give their batter an extra crunch and they even serve their own homemade mushy peas and ketchup.
Colombia – arepas
One of the most popular street foods in South America, arepas are a staple of dining in Colombia. Similar to the Mexican ‘gordita’ or Salvadorian ‘pupusa,’ arepas are essentially a flat, round bread made of cornmeal, water and salt. They are served grilled or fried and are usually cut in the centre to make a pocket that is then filled with a variety of delicious fillings like meat, cheese and avocado. There are no rules when it comes to what to fill an arepa with and the options are endless, but one of the simplest and tastiest versions are the ‘arepas de queso,’ or arepas topped with cheese.
These tasty treats can be found in almost every market and on every street in Colombia. But if you’re in Bogotá and looking for a unique experience, Gaira Cafe is a lively restaurant, bar and concert hall rolled into one. Owned by Colombian singer Carlos Vives, it’s known for its lively atmosphere, traditional cuisine and extensive cocktail list. Try the ‘arepas de choclo con quesito’ (Colombian corn cake with fresh cheese), which are slightly sweet, golden brown corn pancakes topped with cheese.
Middle East – hummus
Meaning ‘chickpea’ in Arabic, hummus is a delicious dip that originated in the Middle East and is enjoyed across many different cultures today. Made by blending chickpeas, tahini (sesame paste), lemon juice and a little fresh garlic, hummus can be served with warm flatbread alongside falafel, chicken, eggplant or other main dishes. Even though hummus is very common and can be found in almost every supermarket in the Western world, not every hummus is the same.
For example, ‘mashaba’ hummus is made with whole chickpeas, so it has a thicker texture and is less paste-like than the ones you would typically see in the store. Another type called ‘mashawsha’ is very similar but the peas are broken before cooked and a heaping of warm chickpeas is added to the hummus before serving, making it more like a chunky stew.
The debate over who has the best hummus in the Middle East is never-ending – there are simply too many great places to choose from. But in Israel, in Tel Aviv’s trendy neighbourhood of Florentin, the Levinsky Market is home to Garger HaZahav (Golden Chickpea) which is affectionately referred to as hummus for hipsters. Don’t be put off by the queue though – everyone gets their turn to snack on fluffy hummus, fried cauliflower, homemade falafel, all washed down with a complimentary tea or coffee.
Poland – pierogi
Although there are different varieties throughout Central Europe, pierogi have been around Poland since the 13th century and they are even one of the country’s official national foods. Traditionally served during important holidays such as Christmas and Easter, pierogi are savoury or sweet filled dumplings that are made of thinly rolled dough and usually fried before serving.
While there are hundreds of types ranging from ground meat with mushrooms and cabbage to the sweeter fruit-filled variety, one of the most well-known is the ‘ruskie pierogi,’ which is made of cheese, potato and onion. There are also varieties of seafood pierogi that can be found in seaside resorts like Sopot or Gdynia.
If you should ever find yourself in the city centre of Krakow, head to Pierozki u Vincenta, a small restaurant located in the old Jewish quarter. Inspired by Vincent Van Gogh, its colourful decor is the perfect setting for classic pierogi as well as modern flavours like chicken and spinach or bacon and egg.
Campania, Italy – Neapolitan pizza
Making pizza is a kind of art in Italy especially when it comes to pizza napoletana, which is a Traditional Specialty Guaranteed (TSG) product in Europe and is even on Unesco’s list of intangible cultural heritage. Different from the Roman-style pizza which has a thinner, crunchier crust, neapolitan pizza has a soft, puffed-up crust and comes with a very specific set of rules for cooking. In order to be considered neapolitan, the pizza must be made with San Marzano tomatoes and Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, and it must be cooked in a wood-fired oven.
But the extra effort is well worth it – savory mozzarella melts on top of perfectly sweet and acidic tomatoes, and the intense aroma smells of freshly baked bread.
And there’s no better place to taste it than the capital of Campania, Naples. In the heart of the city, you’ll find Pizzeria Port’Alba – believed to be the first pizzeria to open in the world. It offers classic pizzas with both indoor and outdoor seating. A few streets away is Sorbillo, one of the most popular pizza places in the city. It’s not uncommon to queue for more than an hour, so bring a cold beer (or two) to help pass the time.
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