Who doesn’t like good food? It really adds to a cultural experience. As any experienced traveler can tell you, a favorite bonus to international tourism are the culinary sensations. Find just the right spice or texture and suddenly a vacation becomes a study abroad in intercontinental gastronomy. With so many variations, within so many countries, the task of trying everything feels somewhat daunting.
No two countries taste the same. No two BBQ’s are alike as are no two curries. Just like a fingerprint. Yes, the trillions of restaurants spanning the globe easily prove that it doesn’t take much to create a unique flavor, but let’s talk regional palates. A McDonald’s burger in the United States will taste vastly different from one in Japan (does a fried egg and aurora sauce sound appetizing?). On a smaller scale, BBQ in North Carolina tends to use vinegar and cayenne pepper, but South Carolina’s loves a thicker, tomato-based sauce. They simply do not taste remotely similar despite the proximity to each other. This monumental difference illustrates just how diverse regional food tastes really are, and how even something seemingly familiar still finds ways to shatter expectations.
Every region has at least one staple, something to call theirs. A must try for every visitor that passes through. In this continuing series, we’ll look at the squishy, slimy, spicy, smooth, and sublime tastes that can cause a taste bud tango. Not only are these four suggestions delicious but they add an extra splash of color to their culture that just must be experienced.
Massaman Curry, Thailand
Surprisingly, the history behind this Thai dish originates outside of Thailand. Though contested among food journalists and Thai historians, each camp tends to agree on one of two major theories. Some think a Persian merchant named Sheik Ahmad Qomi introduced it to the ruling Thai family in the 17th century. The other theory suggests it came from the south, heavily influenced by India. Further confounding historians, Massaman uses cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and other spices completely alien to 17th century Thailand. Today though, it’s wholly Thai.
Most commonly eaten with chicken to better observe the Muslim dietary restrictions of the region, Massaman tastes quite sweet, rich, and flavorful. It doesn’t burn like other curries so connoisseurs suggest new curry patrons start here.
Cacio e pepe, Italy
A very simple dish, Cacio e pepe literally means “cheese and pepper.” For a true, simple Italian experience, restrict the need to add ingredients beyond the required pepper, Pecorino Romano cheese, and pasta.
Cacio e pepe originates in Rome, created by shepherds who spent months outside herding. Quick and easy, the dish proved popular enough to see menu places in major Italian restaurants. While you can experience it at an Italian street cafe, do the wallet a favor and make it at home. With literally three ingredients, Cacio is among the easiest foreign dishes to assemble.
Ankimo – monkfish liver – may not look like something to swallow but the Japanese consider it a delicacy. To prepare Ankimo, rub the liver with salt, rinse in sake, steam it, and then serve it with scallions and ponzu sauce. The almost Spam-like appearance doesn’t do the flavor justice, however. Advocates of the dish say its silky, velvety texture along with a mild buttery taste hits the spot.
Ankimo’s popularity often gets the dish into trouble. Overfishing and waste attributed to liver harvesting (leaving the carcass to harm seabed ecosystems), caused outcry and demands on population control. This means in order to try Ankimo, obtained in an environmentally friendly manner, some restaurant research is required. For many though, it’s well worth the hunt.
Philly Cheesesteak, United States
Unless Philadelphian or frequent visitor to the region, an authentic cheesesteak is out of reach. Made with thinly sliced top round steak, topped with onions, peppers and mushrooms, then doused in American cheese and Cheez Whiz (yes you heard right, and it’s a must), this Philadelphia street food sandwich of sorts has hundreds of variations all of which claim to be the original. The cheesesteak surfaced in the early 20th century, but that’s where the facts end. No one really quite knows whom to credit with its creation.
Today popular joints like Geno’s or Pat’s draw crowds with their unique twist on the theme though they allegedly attract more tourists than true cheesesteak aficionados. Instead, locals insist on Sonny’s or John’s Roast Pork. Either way, next trip through the “City of Brotherly Love” include one on the agenda.