I could have called this Around The World In Eighty Dishes
One of the great pleasures of living in a lot of different countries throughout the course my life has been the discovery of unique local treats. Although our modern world has internationalized cuisine to a degree hitherto unknown, it’s still true that certain comestibles are instantly evocative of a particular location.
In south-east Asia, street foods are the true spirit of place, whether it’s a lunchtime pad thai or a plate of nasi goreng from your favorite stall. That said, Thai cuisine in general is a feu d’artifice, playing endlessly with the five basic flavors: sweetness from coconut and palm sugar and onion and garlic, mung from dried fish paste, saltiness, spiciness from chili, pepper, and fresh ginger, and finally sourness from tamarind and lime. Then add dance-in-your mouth herbs such as basil). If I had to eat nothing for the rest of my life but the products of a single cuisine, I’d opt for Thai. The range, variety, and subtlety is truly satisfying. Even tourist restaurants can’t mess it up too much.
Although Indian-style curries can now be found around the world it’s not the recently-invented Chicken Tikka Masala that speaks of the sub-continent; for me, it’s dahl. There’s nowhere outside of central India where you can eat a bowl of rich dark creamy dahl that’s spiced to perfection: enough to tantalize the taste buds but not so much as to overpower them. If you’re a meat-eater, however, it’s best to forgo dishes like lamb biryani unless you really, really like chewing on chunks of bone standing in for actual meat. Non-veg is almost always, in India, a huge disappointment.
Eastern Europe for me always conjures up mayonnaise-heavy salads that no westerner would recognize as such. I once wrote a (only slightly) satirical recipe for a Russian салат: take a 10-gallon vat of cheap industrial mayonnaise, add one small cube of boiled carrot, one small boiled pea, one small cube of boiled beetroot, stir vigorously and then serve. Don’t despair, however: if you don’t like such fare you can always gorge on сала (raw sliced pig fat). Oh, and if you want to celebrate, that heavily sweetened cheap carbonated white wine they refer to as шампанское is always served warm. You have been warned.
The British are equally famous for awful food: over-boiled everything or fried everything with chips (French fries). But on one of the extremely rare sunny English summer afternoons, a High Tea of finger sandwiches and scones with clotted cream, real strawberry jam (not the ghastly US jelly that’s merely high fructose corn syrup with red food dye), and Darjeeling tea is a unique celebration of middle-class comfort. For some reason the brief efflorescence of astonishingly fabulous Asian fusion cuisine that swept through Britain in the 1990s vanished as quickly as it came, leaving only lingering memories of greatness behind.
While the Belgians are famous for chocolate, the accolades are not entirely deserved as even the most expensive artisanal fabrications often leave something to be desired. What is worth praising, however, originates not from Brussels but from Liège. Should you happen to find yourself in Belgium on a cold, dark, wet, and thoroughly miserable day (e.g. nearly every day in Belgium) there is nothing better than a warm gaufre liégeoise in one hand and a strong milky coffee in the other. Forget about moules et frites; the vanilla-pearl-sugar infused waffle is the true culinary heart of Belgium.
The Germans are famous for having a cuisine that encourages visitors to spend less than 24 hours in their beautiful nation so as to be able to avoid eating a main meal there.
While tourists satisfy themselves with paella and sangria, for me the real taste of Spain is found in small family-run restaurants in southern Catalonia, inland from the tourist trade. Here is where you can revel in dishes like squid sautéed in octopus ink with black beans and garlic, or grab a slice of frittata and wash it down with a strong local red wine.
It’s difficult to talk about food and the USA in the same breath. While it’s possible to find great food in parts of California and in much smaller parts of Oregon and Washington State, most of the USA is a culinary desert. Forget about those much-vaunted Micheline 3-star restaurants in Las Vegas and the must-eat-at over-hyped places in New York; they’re resolutely awful. And the rest of the USA is much worse, with the South hostage to atrociously unhealthy fried everything while the rest of the nation wallows in McSlop and various ersatz Chinese and Italian offerings designed for the bland more-is-better palates of a grotesquely obese citizenry. As for that north-eastern favorite clam chowder, let’s just say that it makes German food look good by comparison.
There’s nothing wrong in theory with Greek food, and indeed it’s possible to eat moderately well in the upscale Plaka district while gazing up at the Acropolis. If you get to Corfu you’ll be delighted to discover that the Venetian influence has not been lost, making Corfu probably the best place to eat in all of Greece. As for elsewhere, however, tourist fare has intersected with Greek indifference to food and the results are appalling.
I was curious as to why Greek food is so awful when the basic concepts are really good. In theory even mundane dishes like souvlaki should caress the tongue and please the palate. My exposure to Greek kitchens revealed all: the core concept is throw everything into a large pot, use as much low-grade olive oil as possible (presumably each Greek is paid by the government to consume their daily quota) and then cook for two or three weeks until no one will notice that you didn’t bother to peel the onions or garlic before tossing them in. Then serve with more olive oil. Also, Greeks always pick fruit months before it’s ripe to ensure that lovely rock-hard tastelessness that everyone’s bound to love.
As for Greek wines, I could never work out whether they were fractionally less horrible when served ice-cold or in fact even worse than when served at room temperature. Basically, “beware Greeks bearing food.” Oh, and Greek pastries? I heartily recommend the little dough balls covered in what looks like icing sugar. They will suck every last drop of moisture out of your helpless mouth as you desperately but with no success whatsoever try to expel the rampantly hygroscopic fragments. Crete is the very best place to suffer this experience.
The Italians labor under the delusion of having a fantastic cuisine, from the pasta dishes of central and southern Italy to the risottos and polentas of the north. And it’s true that Italian dishes are comforting; done well, a plate of spaghetti carbonara accompanied by a glass of Chianti is a perfect way to end a day spent sightseeing or walking through the magnificent countryside. But this is a cuisine of carbohydrates and comfort foods. Italy can genuinely boast some of the very best ice-cream on the planet, but otherwise it’s an also-ran when it comes to subtlety and delicacy.
Which brings us, perhaps inevitably, to the French.
From a simple omelet made by whipping freshly-laid eggs with a little salt, pepper, and fresh herbs and then sautéed lightly in clarified butter to the most carefully-contrived dishes at Guy Savoy or Pierre Gagnaire, the French seem to have the ability to combine delicacy with immediacy. Cuisine bourgeois such as boeuf en croute or coc au vin are easy to ruin but almost always done brilliantly. While it’s true that many episodes of prolonged starvation have left an unhappy mark on French culinary arts, provided one steers clear of delicacies such as jellied pigs trotters, sheep brain, and braised pig’s ears then French cuisine offers endless delights.
Unfortunately, Paris can also be the worst place to eat in all of France simply because of the tourist trade. Far too many Parisian bistros have adopted a “couldn’t possibly care less” attitude and the food is consequently sad and uninspired. (The word bistro, by the way, derives from the time when Russian soldiers occupied Paris after the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte. The Russian word быстро means “hurry” so the French can lay claim to the invention of fast food.) Basically anywhere offering a menu in English, Russian, and Chinese is a warning: avoid at all costs.
If you want to eat well in Paris, seek out restaurants occupied by snooty-looking people in business clothing. You’ll know you’re on the right track if the waiters all look at you like you’re something unpleasant the cat dragged in. But persevere. Assuming you can read sufficient French to decipher the menu, all will be well despite the air of scorn and loathing you’ll get from everyone around you. The food will (trust me) make it all worthwhile.
And if your taste runs to sweeter things, there is no better place in the entire world than Paris for endless indulgence in patisserie. As for wine, it’s true that forty years ago the French were resting on their laurels in this department but since then the successes of Californian, Australian, and New Zealand wines have forced the French to catch up. One happy consequence has been an explosion of small artisanal winemakers who a generation ago stopped selling their grapes en mass to the big producers and now bottle an astonishing variety of delicious wines in nearly every part of the hexagon.
This brings me to the end of my personal culinary journey around the world. Everyone’s opinion is different, of course, and everyone’s tastes are somewhat different. Your notions will differ from mine. But if I’ve stirred your appetite and encouraged you to journey into the kitchen this evening for a little experimentation with flavors and textures then this article has done its job.