From grandmothers that rule the kitchen in Italy to Vietnam’s crazy-cool mix of culinary influences, the wonderful world of food is as varied as the people who cook it. Join me for a quick culinary tour around the world – you’ll know more and be hungrier than ever by the time you make it to the end (pizza for lunch, anyone?)
Italy – Where grandmothers rule the roost
The debate about what should be considered Italy’s national food can go on forever and it all depends on who you’re asking. A Milanese would probably claim that the yummiest food in Italy is the cotoletta or risotto alla Milanese, whereas a Napolitano would undoubtedly say that all pizzas that are not made in Napoli are not the real deal.
One thing is for sure, however – whether pizza, pasta or risotto, the best Italian food is made by nonnas, Italian grandmothers. They are the ones that keep the genuine Italian recipes alive by cooking, teaching and talking about the food from their past.
Sweden – Where ‘Fika’ is about more than coffee
You might think that Swedish meatballs are the most noteworthy food coming out of this Nordic wonderland (thanks IKEA!), but to be honest, there’s something much more important to the average Swede and to daily life: Fika.
Fika is the Swedish word for having a coffee break (it’s usually used as a verb). But it’s about so much more than just slurping down some coffee, it’s actually more like an institution centered around socializing and spending quality time with your friends, family and colleagues.
The significance of the word fika is such that Swedes prefer not to translate it for foreigners, and they’ll make sure you know what it means as you set your foot on Swedish soil.
The US – Where you go big or go home
When it comes to the US, it’s all about indulgence. Portion sizes are notoriously large and most people think: the bigger, the better. Some restaurants have taken it one step further by running some crazy food challenges.
How about finishing a 105 pound (almost 50 kg) hamburger in less than 60 minutes, for example? That’s a challenge you’ll find at the Clinton Station Diner in New Jersey, and although you’re are allowed to bring nine friends with you, it’s still more than 5 kilos of food per person! A cash prize of 5,000 dollars is given to all successful teams, but you have to wonder… is it really worth it?
The UK – Where people go crazy for curry
Do you know who loves Indian food more than Indians themselves? The Brits! Indian dishes have been topping the list of British favorites for decades and there are reportedly more than 15,000 Indian restaurants in the country.
London alone is reported to have more Indian restaurants than either Mumbai or Delhi, and many of the most popular dishes, including the ubiqutous Tikka Masala, are actually modern inventions designed to please western palates.
For Indians, curry as a concept is actually much more complex, and, in fact, denotes any saucy, spiced stew (often made with a mix of spices, including turmeric, cumin and chili powder), rather than one spice.
As a result, it’s probably fair to say that in the spiritual home of the mighty curry, there are as many versions of it as there are people (more than a billion, mind you!)
New Zealand – Where kiwi is more than just a fruit
If you come to New Zeeland and ask for a kiwi, the whole population might show up at your door step. Why? Because kiwi, in addition to the fruit, is actually a commonly used and very popular nickname used for the people of New Zeeland. Being called a kiwi is not considered offensive, but a sweet term of endearment.
Although kiwi in this particular case derives from the bird with the same name, the kiwi fruit also plays an important role in New Zealand as it is one of the country’s key exports. The kiwi fruits that are not exported are probably sliced and put on top of a pavlova, the country’s national dessert consisting of meringue, whipped cream and fresh fruits.
Japan – Where there are rules for eating sushi
Although you might think that picking up those sushi rolls with a pair of chop sticks is the hardest part about eating sushi (gracefully and without making a fool of yourself), the fact is that there are many other sushi-related rules you should remember when chowing down that piece of melt-in-the-mouth sashimi.
For example: Never bite the sushi in half, putting one part back on your plate. Sushi is supposed to be eaten as whole pieces, one at a time. Also, never dump wasabi in your soy sauce (or mix it up like many people do). Wasabi should actually be put directly on the sushi and in finer establishments, is actually done by the chef, not you.
Also, never put a piece of pickled ginger on your sushi before you eat it. The ginger is supposed to be eaten in between pieces to clean your palate. (More fun facts about sushi in this post.)
Spain – Where tapas legends live on
If you have ever heard of Spain, you’ve probably also heard of tapas. Tapas are small bites of food served at almost every bar in Spain from early evening to late into the night. The word tapas comes from the Spanish verb ‘tapar’ (to cover) and its history is ancient, but also hotly contested.
One legend has it that in order to keep flies and other flying insects from drowning themselves in their glasses of wine, people in Andalucia started covering them with a slice of bread. Bartender’s then began adding a slice of salty meat to the bread to make people thirsty and thus sell more wine.
Another legend from Castile-La Mancha in Spain holds that a tavern owner discovered that the pungent aroma of mature cheese effectively masked the taste of bad wine, so to get away with selling less than stellar vino, he began to serve a small piece of cheese with each drink, thus giving rise to tapas!
Vietnam – Where everyone has had their finger in the country’s (culinary) pie
Given the country’s location, it might not come as a surprise that Vietnam’s unique cuisine has been influenced by a whole host of countries. When Mongolians invaded Vietnam in the tenth century they brought with them beef, while the Chinese influenced the Vietnamese culinary landscape by introducing cooking techniques like stir frying and the art of eating with chopsticks.
Less known, however, is the fact that baguettes and ice cream are also essential to Vietnamese cuisine. When the French colonized Vietnam they introduced foods such as the baguette, pâté and custard.
And during the Vietnam War Americans missed their ice cream so much they built several ice cream factories on Vietnamese ground to fulfil that desire.