It may not be haute cuisine, but most countries have a favourite or traditional dish that, according to National Geographic, forms part of a country’s identity and is an essential experience for visitors.
In its book “Food Journeys of a Lifetime” (published October 2009), Nat Geo compiled a list of the Top 10 National Dishes that met this criteria and remain enduringly popular with residents.
Two Caribbean dishes placed highly on the list, with Jamaica’s ackee and saltfish and Barbados’ flying fish and cou-cou taking second and third place, respectively.
Here’s what “Food Journeys of a Lifetime” had to say about the Caribbean signature dishes:
2. Ackee and Saltfish, Jamaica
Despite ackee’s unhappy origins as slave food, Jamaicans have reclaimed it as part of their national dish. A nutritious fruit with a buttery-nutty flavor, ackee resembles scrambled egg when boiled. Jamaicans sauté the boiled ackee with saltfish (salt-cured cod), onions, and tomatoes. Sometimes the dish is served atop bammy (deep-fried cassava cakes) with fried plantains.
Planning: Jake’s, Treasure Beach, is renowned for ackee and saltfish and also offers cooking classes.
3. Cou-Cou and Flying Fish, Barbados
A polenta-like cornmeal and okra porridge, cou-cou pairs perfectly with flying fish, which is either steamed with lime juice, spices, and vegetables or fried and served with a spicy sauce.
Planning: The Flying Fish restaurant overlooking St Lawrence Bay claims to be the Barbadian national dish’s home.
Placing first on the list was the United States with the humble hamburger, the unpretentious dish that has arguably conquered the world.
Other countries that made the list with their signature dishes were Korea, Lebanon/Syria, Hungary, Austria, France, England and Ireland.
Here’s what the National Geographic publication had to say:
1. Hamburgers, US
Although the origins of the hamburger are disputed, there is no argument over the popularity of this classic dish. Toppings and accompaniments vary from region to region, but for an original version visit Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut, which has been serving hamburgers since 1900 and claims to be the oldest hamburger restaurant in the US
Planning: Louis’ Lunch is open most days for lunch and some days until the early hours of the morning.
4. Bulgogi, Korea
Beef bulgogi (fire meat) is a dish of thinly sliced, prime cuts of meat marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, onions, ginger, sugar, and wine and then grilled. It is often eaten wrapped in lettuce or spinach leaves and accompanied by kimchi (fermented vegetable pickle). Many Korean restaurants have miniature barbecues embedded in tables where diners grill the meat themselves.
Planning: Seoul’s upmarket Byeokje Galbi chain is a bulgogi sensation.
5. Kibbeh, Lebanon/Syria
Dining well Levantine-style often means sticking to the delicious mezes (appetizers). Kibbeh, a versatile confection of ground lamb, bulgur, and seasonings, is a core component of mezes. It is often fried in torpedo or patty shapes, baked, boiled, or stuffed, but is tastiest raw.
Planning: Aleppans in northern Syria are kibbeh’s greatest innovators, flavouring it with ingredients like pomegranate or cherry juice.
6. Goulash, Hungary
Gulyás—Magyar for “herdsman”—became a national dish in the late 1800s, when Hungarians sought symbols of national identity to distinguish themselves from their partners in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A filling stew of beef, vegetables, red onions, and spices, goulash gets its flavor from the use of slow-cooked beef shin, or similar richly flavoured cuts, and paprika.
Planning: For a lighter version, sample gulyásleves (goulash soup).
7. Wiener Schnitzel, Austria
Made with the finest ingredients and served fresh, this simple dish of pounded veal cutlets breaded and lightly fried is Austria’s food ambassador, despite the dish’s Italian origins. Austrians typically eat Wiener schnitzel garnished with parsley and lemon slices, alongside potato salad.
Planning: Vienna’s Café Landtmann, a city institution since 1873, serves up an authentic version of the dish, as well as a dose of history and glamour: Sigmund Freud, Marlene Dietrich, and Paul McCartney have been among its famous patrons.
8. Pot-au-Feu, France
Originally a rustic dish that was stewed continuously all winter and topped up as needed, pot-au-feu (pot-in-the-fire) is a warming, fragrant dish of stewing steak, root vegetables, and spices. Traditionally, cooks sieve the broth and serve it separately from the meat.
Planning: In downtown Paris, Le Pot au Feu at 59 Boulevard Pasteur (Métro: Pasteur) specializes in its namesake.
9. Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding, England
Despite England’s increasingly cosmopolitan cuisine, this dish remains a much-loved Sunday lunch and national symbol. Named for England’s eponymous county, Yorkshire—or batter—puddings originally served as fillers before the main course for those who could afford little beef. Today, the two are usually eaten together alongside gravy-soaked roast potatoes, vegetables, and horseradish sauce.
Planning: Try the traditional British restaurant London’s Rules, founded in 1798, or country pubs.
10. Irish Stew, Ireland
Originally a thick broth of slow-boiled mutton with onions, potatoes, and parsley, Irish stew nowadays often incorporates other vegetables, such as carrots, and many cooks brown the mutton first. It is a staple of Irish pubs worldwide.
Planning: One place in Dublin to enjoy Irish stew and other traditional fare is Shebeen Chic, in George’s Street.