Signature dishes from 50 countries around the world
The flavors and aromas of a signature dish can tell colorful and intricate tales about a nation’s spirit, its history, and its culture.
While tasty platters today may be held up as proud testaments to a people’s resilience or stamina, many dishes originated in far darker times. Dishes like Argentina’s asados were introduced when colonizers arrived in the New World from Western Europe, and wild meat at the heart of Malta’s specialities was introduced by Middle Eastern invaders.
Portugal’s specialty bacalhau was created for sailors who would spend years on board explorer ships, and in the Netherlands, the signature cuisine is eaten each year to celebrate the end of a year-long siege by Spanish forces many centuries ago.
If there’s an international trend among national dishes, it’s the ingenious use of lower-cost ingredients made edible, like conch in the Bahamas and Brazil’s organ meat-rich feijoada. Others illustrate just how creative people have been over the years in finding ways to let nothing go to waste.
Many of the cooking methods in use today are ancient, like dishes cooked on sizzling rocks, buried in the ground, or nestled in homemade stone ovens. Archaeologists have found utensils and pots that are evidence people in some regions have been cooking the same dishes for millennia.
The origins of some dishes may come as a surprise. State tourism authorities in Bulgaria concocted its signature dish to spread a fiction about the nation’s eating habits. Perhaps the best known Thai export, the noodle dish pad thai, was the product of a concerted effort to concoct and promote a national dish to be served around the world. Other dishes, as they have spread about the world, have become weapons in ugly wars of xenophobia.
Stacker compiled a list of signature dishes from 50 of the world’s nations, drawing upon travelogues, news reports, food writers and experts, historical accounts, and global data. The findings are mouthwatering. Bon appétit!
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True to its international reputation for raising top-notch beef cattle, Argentina’s national dish is asados—an array of grilled meats sizzling over an open flame. Typically they would include steaks, ribs, and sausages as well as chorizo and chitterlings from pork. This dish dates to Argentina’s 16th century colonization by Western Europeans who introduced beef cattle to the region.
Bahamas: Cracked conch
Conch is served any number of ways in the Bahamas, but the hallmark version is cracked conch, which is breaded and deep fried. The name comes from the method of tenderizing the chewy shellfish—cracking calls for pounding the meat with a mallet or even a frying pan. For many years, McLean's Town on Grand Bahama Island has hosted an annual Conch Cracking Contest.
The national dish of Bahrain, spicy chicken machboos, can be found across the Middle East, but it is particularly delicious in the Gulf island nation where it is a tradition at Friday family lunches. Machboos mixes Persian and Indian flavors, with an array of spices like ginger, coriander, chilis, mint, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, saffron, and nutmeg, and the same cooking water used to cook the meat is used to cook the rice to blend the flavors.
Barbados: Cou cou and flying fish
The Caribbean island of Barbados is known for its delicious food, especially its specialty cou cou and flying fish. Cou cou is made from cornmeal and okra, traditionally molded into shapes using bottle gourds of the calabash tree, and the flying fish can be fried, steamed, or stewed in spices and tomatoes.
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Bhutan: Ema datshi
Bhutan has an array of popular dishes, many influenced by neighboring India, Tibet, and China, but one of its best local offerings is ema datshi, or chilies and cheese. It’s a stew with onions, tomatoes, soft cheese from yak or cow’s milk, and chilies that can pack a punch.
Brazil’s rich, hearty feijoada is made with black beans and cuts of pork, including organ meats. Many believe the dish originated with enslaved people who created stew with the leftovers from slavers, but a recent challenge to that theory says it was brought to Brazil by European settlers. The popular dish does reflect the needs of those who could afford only tougher, less costly cuts of meat that need to be stewed for tenderizing.
A Bulgarian shopska salad is made up of coarsely chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, green peppers, and onions, topped with grated sirene cheese. Rather than being a longtime national tradition, it was invented in the 1960s by state tourism officials who wanted to showcase Bulgaria’s vegetables, and the ingredients were selected in part to reflect the white, green, and red hues of the Bulgarian flag. It was promoted as a traditional healthy dish, but historians have said Bulgarians did not eat salad before the 20th century and subsisted instead on beans, turnips, onions, and cabbage.
Cambodia: Fish amok
A thick custard-like curry called fish amok is the notable dish from Southeast Asia’s Cambodia. The sauce is a creamy mix of lemongrass, ginger, turmeric, and coconut milk, and the fish is served in a banana leaf or coconut shell. Amok is the name of the cooking method of steaming food inside banana leaves.
Canada’s popular poutine consists of fries and cheese curds, topped with a thick brown gravy. It was first served in the 1950s in rural snack bars in Quebec but now can be found nearly everywhere. It has become a symbol of Québécois culture.
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