If you live in a major urban center, you probably think you’ve had it all. Chinese, Indian, Italian – your town has a great restaurant and you’ve tried the whole menu. The truth is, however, that “ethnic” food gets altered to suit the palate of whatever country it’s being served in. Chinese food tends to be sweeter in Australia, spicier in Europe, and completely unrecognisable in some parts of North America. So, what does food actually taste like in China? You’ll have to go there to find out.
July 25th is Culinarians Day, which is a fancy way to say “thank you” to all of the world’s chefs. And that includes your mom, spouse, or whoever prepares the meals in your home. It’s also a great excuse to go out for dinner and try something new – preferably a local meal in the country that claims the delicacy as its own.
Here are some of the many types of cuisine that you’ll never fully appreciate unless you go directly to the source.
Portuguese delicacies go way beyond pasteis de neta, those delicious little egg tarts that you can find in Portuguese bakeries around the world. Salt cod has long been a staple in the local diet, and anything that comes from the sea can be found on a Portuguese menu. You can’t appreciate the joy of a grilled sardine sandwich until you’ve had one in Porto.
Yes, you can get Kobe beef in other countries, but eating it in Kobe takes the experience to a whole new level. A lot of what you think is Kobe beef is actually Wagyu – meat from a Japanese cow but not necessarily the right kind. Kobe beef comes from Tajima-Gyu, a strain of Wagyu that’s raised to very strict standards. In Japan, “Kobe” is trademarked so if you’re ordering the world’s most expensive steak in its country of origin, you know that’s what you’re getting.
If you want to try real Thai food, you have to go to Thailand. First of all, Thailand doesn’t have deep fried spring rolls. Secondly, authentic Thai cuisine contains only small portions of meat to flavor the dish rather than provide its dominant ingredient. Thirdly, Thai food is extremely flavorful, and that doesn’t mean just loading up on the chillies. Dishes are liberally sprinkled with local herbs, salty dried shrimp, or “sours” to amplify and balance the taste of the other ingredients. And you just can’t get that in North America.
There really isn’t any such thing as “Indian food”. The country’s cuisine varies enormously by region, influenced by religious practices, colonization and cultural heritage. Curries are a staple, but the complexity and taste of different dishes vary widely depending on which spices and legumes are added. Northern India uses a lot of dairy, Goa favors pork and beef, while chutneys tend to come from the western provinces. The desserts on offer at your local Indian restaurant probably come from the east of India, and you’re unlikely to find much on the menu from the south of the country. You’ll need to go to India yourself to really appreciate the diversity of its traditional cuisines.
While Italians do eat a lot of pasta, it’s usually served as a first course or appetizer and followed by a main dish. They don’t eat heaping plates of spaghetti and would be grossed-out by the serving sizes at the Olive Garden. An Italian meal consists typically of a vegetable followed by a little pasta, then meat or fish and a light dessert. Meatballs are a main course, not something you mix in with your pasta (and forget about putting chicken in there as well). If you want a real Italian meal, you’ll need to travel to Italy and experience three or four courses of pure deliciousness that don’t involve masses of melted cheese and the need to loosen your belt.
Just about any kind of food tastes best when it’s made in the same country that spawned its ingredients and recipes. They say even Guinness tastes better when poured from a Dublin tap, so think about how food might influence where you journey on your next adventure. Happy Culinarians Day to all of the chefs out there who fuel our adventures, and Bon Appetit!