From the Italian grandmothers, who reign supreme over their cooking, to the incredible and fabulous mix of influences from Vietnam, the wonderful world of gastronomy is as varied as the people who make it up. Embark with me on a short culinary world tour that will not only deepen your gastronomic knowledge, but will also make your mouth water like never before (pizza for lunch?).
Italy: the country where grandmothers reign supreme
The polemic over the Italian dish deserving the title of national speciality cannot last forever and, moreover, everything depends on the person interviewed. A Milanese would probably claim that cotoletta or risotto alla Milanese is the tastiest dish in Italy, while a Neapolitan would no doubt declare that a pizza made elsewhere than in Naples could not be authentic.
One thing is certain, however, whether it is pizza, pasta or risotto, the best Italian cuisine is made by the nonnas, the Italian grandmothers. They are the ones who ensure the continuation of authentic Italian recipes by cooking and passing on their culinary secrets from generation to generation.
Sweden: the country where “Fika” means more than just coffee
You may think that Swedish meatballs are the most iconic culinary speciality of this wonderful Nordic country (thank you IKEA!). Well, honestly, there is something much more important to the average Swede and in everyday life: Fika.
In the Swedish language, the word Fika means to take a coffee break (it is usually used as a verb). However, it expresses so much more than just having a cup of coffee. In fact, it is more of an institution, focused on socialization and special moments spent with friends, family and colleagues. The definition of the word fika is so complex that the Swedes prefer not to translate it to foreigners and instead make sure that they discover its full meaning after setting foot on Swedish soil.
The United States: accept weight gain or go home
When we talk about the United States, it is all about gluttony. Portions are notoriously huge and most people think the more the better. Some restaurants have gone one step further by launching crazy food challenges. How about devouring a 105-pound (almost 50 kg) hamburger in less than 60 minutes, for example? That’s the kind of challenge you’ll be offered at the Clinton Station Diner in New Jersey. Even though you will be allowed to have nine of your friends help you, it still represents more than 5 kilos of food per person! A cash prize of $5,000 will be awarded to all winning teams. One question arises, however: is it really worth it?
The United Kingdom: the country where people love curry
Do you know who are the biggest fans of Indian food before the Indians themselves? The British! For decades, Indian specialities have been at the top of the list of British favourites and there are said to be more than 15,000 Indian restaurants across the country. It is reported that the city of London alone has more Indian restaurants than Mumbai or Delhi, and many of the most popular dishes, including the ubiquitous Tikka Masala, are actually modern inventions designed to appeal to the taste buds of Westerners.
Among Indians, the concept of curry is actually much more complex. In fact, the word refers to any spicy juicy stew (often based on a mixture of spices such as turmeric, cumin and chili powder), rather than a single spice. Therefore, it would be wiser to say that in the spiritual land of the powerful curry, there are as many versions as there are inhabitants (more than a billion, I remind you!).
New Zealand: the country where kiwi is much more than just a fruit
If you come to New Zealand and ask for a kiwi, the whole population could show up at your door. Why would that be? Because in addition to designating a fruit, the kiwi is also a very popular nickname for New Zealanders. The name kiwi is not considered an insult, but rather a tender token of affection.
Although in this case the name kiwi comes from the bird of the same name, the fruit also plays an important role in New Zealand, as it is one of the country’s main export products. The kiwi fruit that is not exported is probably sliced and used to garnish a pavlova, the country’s national dessert, made from meringue, whipped cream and fresh fruit.
Japan: the country where sushi is eaten according to well-established rules
Even if you think that wielding a pair of chopsticks (gracefully and without making a fool of yourself) is the most difficult part of a sushi tasting, the fact is that there are many other rules that you should keep in mind when tasting this piece of melting sashimi.
For example, never crunch a sushi in half to keep one half on the edge of your plate. Sushi is meant to be eaten whole, in one bite. Another point, never pour (or mix as some people do) wasabi into your soy sauce. Wasabi is usually poured directly over the sushi, and in the most upscale establishments, it’s actually the chef who does it – not you. Finally, never eat your sushi with a piece of pickled ginger. Ginger is meant to cleanse the palate between bites. (You’ll find more fun sushi anecdotes in this article).
Spain: the country where the legends about the origin of tapas are tenacious
Like talking about Spain without mentioning tapas. These are small bites served in almost every bar in Spain, from early evening until late at night. The word tapas comes from the Spanish verb “tapar” (to cover) and its relatively old history is also strongly disputed.
Legend has it that the people of Andalusia used to cover their glasses of wine with a slice of bread to prevent flies and other flying insects from drowning. Later, barmen got into the habit of adding a slice of salted meat to the bread to make the consumers thirsty and thus sell more wine. Another legend from Castilla-La Mancha, Spain, maintains that the owner of a tavern noticed that the pungent smell of the ripened cheeses effectively masked the taste of the bad wine, so he would serve a small piece of cheese with each glass to sell his mediocre wines, thus giving birth to tapas!
Vietnam: the country where everyone runs several hares (with bamboo shoots) at the same time
Given the country’s geographical location, it is not surprising that a multitude of countries have influenced Vietnam’s unique cuisine. When they invaded Vietnam in the tenth century, the Mongols brought beef with them, while the Chinese influenced the Vietnamese culinary landscape by introducing culinary techniques such as stir-frying and the art of eating with chopsticks.
Less well known, however, is the essential role played by chopsticks and ice cream in Vietnamese cuisine. When they colonized Vietnam, the French introduced certain foods such as baguette, pâté and custard. And during the Vietnam War, the Americans were so pining for their ice cream that they built several ice cream factories on Vietnamese soil to satisfy this desire.