Sometimes you taste a flavor that transports you directly to another place. Some foods connect us so strongly to their culture that enjoying them anywhere makes us feel like we’re part of it. Here are a few of our favorite foods worth trying that connect you to countries around the world.
1. Tapas, Spain
A fundamental way of life in Spain, tapas have many possible origins. One story tells of a recuperating king who could only eat and drink in small amounts and declared all should do the same. Another says that sneaky bartenders thought they could cover cheap wine with a small plate of strong cheese to blunt the swill. Since the word “tapa” literally means lid or cover, many stories contain this aspect. Originally the small plates of tasty bites were free to tavern patrons ordering drinks. These days, tapas have become ever more elaborate small dishes taking center stage.
Tapas are everywhere in Spain. Fortunately, you don’t need to be in Spain to enjoy this simple pleasure. Make a few small plates of Manchego cheese, Serrano ham, marinated olives, sauteed mushrooms, and simple tapas dishes. Your local grocer and online specialists offer many options. Blend some sugar, chopped fruit, orange juice, and brandy with a dry Spanish red wine in a pitcher and turn on a little music from Spain, and you’re all set to connect with this wonderful, sharable cuisine.
2. Gyros, Greece
Gyros (pronounced YEER-ohz) is a food with roots stretching back 2,000 years to Alexander the Great’s Army. Long knives of skewered meat were turned continually over an open fire. These days, you can find gyros sandwiches, consisting of tightly packed layers of meat sliced thin from a turning vertical spit and placed inside a warm pita bread. Toppings can include fresh tomatoes, onions, and tzatziki, a Greek yogurt, dill, and garlic sauce. Similar to shawarma, gyros flavor is in the spices.
Greek eateries and neighborhood stands from Chicago to Athens make gyros an easy food to find. Your local grocer may carry the ingredients or even a kit to make gyros at home. The flavors of ancient Greece taste as satisfying today as they must have back in Alexander’s time.
3. Pao de Queijo, Brazil
It’s hard not to love these little chewy, cheesy bread balls. Pao de queijo is made with residue tapioca starch from the manioc root (also known as yuca or cassava) used by the landowners for Brazilian dishes. Their slaves made balls of the unused starch and baked them. Cheese and milk were added later as part of Afro-Brazilian culinary development in dairy-rich Minas Gerais when slavery ended in the late 1800s.
Many grocers offer mixes or ready-to-heat versions. One modern brand offers different flavored versions. Brazilians enjoy pao de queijo with coffee for breakfast. For those on restricted diets, this taste of Brazil is also naturally gluten-free.
4. Hot Pot, China
This ancient Chinese tradition with its origin in the Three Kingdoms period, AD 220-280, is a fun communal way to eat. Though hot pot spices and ingredients vary, the foundation is a steaming hot pot full of flavored broth. Diners add raw ingredients like sliced meats, seafood, and vegetables to the bubbling broth. Everyone can use their choice of dipping sauce and enjoy the soup after the ingredients have been consumed.
We had so much fun at a hot pot restaurant in Beijing, and we’d recommend trying an experience near you if you have one. You can also make a hot pot at home with a portable heat source that will keep your broth hot throughout your meal. Don’t forget to try a few different ingredients. Our mom loved the lotus root in her hot pot!
5. Moros Y Cristianos, Cuba
Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians) is one of those dishes that carries meaning beneath its simple recipe. Black beans represent African Islamic Moors, and white rice represents the Spanish Christians who battled during the 8th century. The Reconquista in the 15th century sent the Moors out of the Iberian Peninsula. Cuba’s population descends from these groups. Sofrito, a blend of garlic, green pepper, and onions, is used as a base seasoning along with other spices.
Moros y Cristianos is available everywhere in Cuba. Most Cuban restaurants outside of Cuba will also have it on the menu. If you want to learn how to make it yourself, try out our easy recipe. Add a little Cuban music to transport you all the way to Havana.
6. Baguette, France
The crusty baguette is an icon of French cuisine. People walk around town with one under their arm (we’ve done it ourselves!) as though they have an additional appendage. Spread on some fresh creamy butter and thin-sliced ham, a nice schmear of Brie cheese, or a little pate and we bread lovers are in heaven. The long, lean loaf has various origin stories. Some say Napoleon wanted bread to fit into soldiers’ pockets, while others say bakers created a bread that could be torn to minimize the presence of knives while the Paris Metro was being built with laborers prone to violence. However it started, the baguette is now a universal symbol of culinary France and has even been submitted for UNESCO heritage status.
Try it warm with some fresh tea or coffee, jam, and unsalted butter for breakfast. Most grocery stores and bakeries now regularly carry the baguette, which means “wand” or “baton.” To feel even more connected, carry it home under your arm. Beret not required.
7. Bratwurst, Germany
As with many cultural culinary creations, the birthplace of the Bratwurst is in dispute. Two German regions, Thuringen and Franconia, each lay claim to its creation. Regardless of its origin, Bratwurst is among the most popular German wurst. It contains pork, beef, marjoram, caraway, garlic, and other spices. Often served on a roll with sweet Bavarian mustard, brats pair perfectly with a fine German beer. It’s also often served with roasted potatoes or hot potato salad and sauerkraut or sweet and sour red cabbage.
Living in Wisconsin with a large German population, there’s no lack of places to find delicious bratwurst. But even elsewhere, brats are often available at food stands and carts. Aldi, the German-based grocery chain, has its own bratwurst, which is authentic and tasty.
8. Pastel De Nata, Portugal
Ask anyone who has visited Portugal what their favorite food find is, and you’ll likely hear one answer many times — Pastel de Nata. The luscious creamy egg tart’s history extends over 300 years from a monastery in Belem west of Lisbon. Because monks and nuns used egg whites to starch their clothes, the abundance of yolks leftover called for some creative thinking. The monks started making custard tarts to sell until the monastery closed in the 1830s, and they sold the recipe to a local bakery. Though only that bakery, Fabrica de Pasteis de Belem, has the original recipe (locked in a secret room, it is said), the taste swept the country and is now sweeping the world.
It’s hard to imagine a visit to Portugal without a stop at one of the many excellent bakeries specializing in pasteis de nata (plural). They are also enjoyed in former Portuguese colonies like Brazil and Macau and Portuguese enclaves in Indonesia. Their popularity has increased so dramatically that now you can purchase authentic natas online or from bakers in places such as California, New York, Toronto, and London, many of whom will also ship to your home.
9. Tacos, Mexico
Although no one is precisely sure when the taco first came into being, one reasonable theory is that 18th-century silver miners in Mexico, who used the word “taco” to refer to small dynamite charges, were probably there at the beginning. Their small fish wrapped in tortillas bear an early culinary reference to “tacos de minero” or miner’s tacos. Since then, it’s easy to say that tacos have become a defining dish of Mexican culture and cuisine. Some places, such as Los Angeles, where Diana grew up, have such a strong connection to Mexico that you can get truly authentic Mexican tacos everywhere in town. And as tacos have made inroads into cultures around the world, they have transformed into a unique category with fusion fillings, crispy corn shells, and unusual toppings seen nowhere in Mexico.
To savor an authentic taste of Mexico, try some of the most traditional meat and fish fillings such as barbacoa, birria, carne asada, carnitas, pescado, or cochinita pibil. Jarritos Mexican fruit soda or Mexican beer pairs well with them too.
Wherever you may be, there are ways to enjoy wonderful cultural experiences from around the world. Foods that connect you to countries around the world are increasingly available far beyond their home. We hope to encourage you to try some of these delicious foods that can transport you to the cultures from which they come.