The musician Frank Zappa once said that you need two things to be considered a real country: an airline and a beer. Zappa, however, was missing something, probably the most important thing of all. But what about the food?
You can tell so much about a country just by eating its national dish. To understand the way people eat is to understand the way they live.
All national dishes have significance. Here, we’ve selected some of our favourites, some official and some unofficial national dishes. These are the plates and bowls of food that not only perfectly represent their country of origin but are also delicious.
Jamon iberico, Spain
Paella is not the national dish of Spain and tapas isn’t a single, identifiable meal. If there’s one food that unites this gastronomically obsessed nation it has to be jamon, the cured meat that should never, ever be confused with prosciutto. At its finest, jamon iberico is the leg of a black Iberian pig, cured for up to 48 months, and carved into paper-thin slices of dark meat and buttery fat that melt in the mouth. It’s eaten across the country for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Som tam, Laos, Thailand
Green papaya salad is representative of everything that’s good about south-east Asian cuisine. It’s fresh, made with papaya, tomatoes and herbs, and it also contains the essential tastes of the region: heat from chillies, sourness from lime juice, sweetness from palm sugar, and saltiness from fish sauce. There are plenty of other great Thai and Lao foods, from fried noodle dishes to curries to satay skewers and more, but som tam is loved everywhere you go. The best som tam is served in the Isan region of north-eastern Thailand.
Cheese and bread, France
It doesn’t matter which cheese you go for, whether it’s the stinkiest washed rind from Bourgogne, the gooiest roquefort or the mildest tomme from Savoie, there’s still almost nothing better in the world than a French cheese eaten with a fresh baguette. From a nation that’s contributed so much to the global dining scene – croissants, steak frites, moules marinieres, pate, terrine, and the croque monsieur to name a few – the humble pairing of cheese and bread is still France’s crowning achievement. Every town in France makes its own. Try them all.
Bife de chorizo, Argentina
There’s definitely an art to cooking a steak the Argentinean way. It has to be done over hot coals on a parrilla grill – a steel grate that can be moved higher or lower over the fire. It has to be seared fast and then cooked slow. It has to be doused in salt and served on a plate with no accompaniments. The steak has to be the star. And it deserves top billing – this is steak like you’ve never tasted before. There are plenty of great cuts, from eye fillet, the skirt, but every Argentinean loves the sirloin.
There are plenty of great styles of cuisine in Japan, but none captures the nation’s heart nation quite like warming, filling ramen noodles. While it originated in China, the Japanese have perfected the art of this noodle soup, and in doing so have become obsessed with it. From meaty tonkotsu broths to miso-based soups to fishy versions with sardines to “tsukemen” style, with the noodles and broth served separately, there are seemingly endless versions of ramen, and they’re all slurped with unbridled joy.
Hainanese chicken rice, Singapore
It seems simple enough: chicken and rice. But as soon as you take a mouthful of Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore, whether it’s in a hawker centre or a flashy three-star restaurant, you realise what all the fuss is about. This is a delicate, complex dish, the rice cooked in chicken stock and rendered fat, the chicken breast poached in spices, with garlic and chilli to dip it in. Singaporeans are understandably obsessed.
You’ll note from the title that the claims to falafel are somewhat controversial. These bite-sized balls of fried chickpeas (or fava beans) probably originated in Egypt, but are now claimed as a national dish in at least four Middle Eastern countries. Let’s leave the arguing for another time. Instead, we can concentrate on the outrageous deliciousness of ground chickpeas mixed with onion, parsley, coriander or cumin – depending on where you’re eating them – and then deep-fried and served with hummus, fresh tomatoes, pickled cucumbers or tahini.
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