After a long time on the road, menus – especially on the budget end – start to blur together into a mix of familiar fast-food staples, whether you’re in France or the Philippines. It’s easy to forget that some of the foods people the world over eat with gusto are actually based on a single tasty, authentic archetype. Here’s where to find the real deal.
Shawarma in Turkey
What would weekend revellers do without their 3am kebab? This meaty sandwich has been preventing hangovers ever since it spread into European and American cities. But not just alcohol has blurred the kebab, or shawarma as it’s known in the Middle East – the foodstuff itself has gotten warped by all its travels, the meat being processed and pressed into the Greek-American gyro or doused in ketchup in Romania.
The authentic – and best – shawarma is still to be found in Turkey (the name is derived from a Turkish word) or, with subtle variation, in neighboring Lebanon or Syria. In the best snack stands, the skewer of meat is assembled by hand each morning: layers of beef or lamb, alternating with the occasional piece of fat for succulence, and cooked with a vertical charcoal fire. The grilled meat is shaved off thin and rolled up in a tender pita bread, then garnished with yogurt and herbs or tahini sauce. Heaven – even when you’re sober.
Authentic “French” fries
Poor Belgium is so underrated. It gave the world the thin-sliced-and-fried potato, which was promptly renamed “French fry” by geographically challenged people (er, Americans). In the process, the humble chip became a token garnish, always served on the side and sometimes made with an alarming lack of care.
In Belgium frites are often eaten on their own as a snack. What makes them better here than anywhere else is the fact that they’re made from the Bintje potato, which retains perfect potato flavour after its hot-oil bath. And they’re fried twice, to cook the center through while setting the outside crust to the perfect shatter texture. The technique can be replicated outside of Belgium, but rarely is the potato. And in Belgium, as a bonus, you can wash the frites down with an exceptional beer.
Noodles in Japan
Think of those plastic packets of wiggly noodles that got you through college – the ones that cost less than a bus fare and derive all their flavour from an even smaller plastic packet – and its hard to believe they’re related to a real, non-processed food. But ramen noodles rule Japan, where you can still get a budget bowl-full, even when the noodles are fresh and handmade by some famously obsessive lifelong perfectionist of the craft.
Every region of Japan has a distinct ramen style. In Kyushu, the noodles float in a rich broth made with pork bones. In snowy Sapporo, the soup gets extra warming body from a heavy dab of miso paste. But the simplest, most authentic version is found in Tokyo ramen shops, where the noodles are delicate and thin and served in a soy-infused chicken broth. Slurp up any and all of them – it’s an experience miles from the one you had in your college dorm kitchen.
A slice in Italy
Pizza is perhaps the most abused food on the planet, bent to fit local tastes – ham and pineapple! – or available ingredients (ketchup will do). Sometimes it’s even adapted to the local economy: “Peso pizza” is Cuba’s bare-bones lunch staple; needless to say, it doesn’t feature fresh buffalo mozzarella.
For a reminder of what made pizza a global craze, head to Italy. Ideally to the island of Sicily where pizzaioli (pizza-makers) compete to turn out the most sublime combination of chewy-crispy crust, oozing cheese and brightly sweet-acidic tomato sauce. We don’t dare pick the best in town – just follow your nose to an authentic wood-burning oven, and look for the lines of pizza fanatics.
A hamburger a day in L.A.
Yes, frankfurters come from Frankfurt. But hamburgers as we know them today don’t really come from Hamburg – they were perfected in California. This archetypal American sandwich has been made to endure all sorts of indignities – being topped with foie gras, served bun-less to the carb-conscious or even made with actual ham, due to a translation error.
In the United States, various old-time lunch counters claim to be the originators of the grilled beef patty on a bun, with a variety of toppings. But it’s California where McDonald’s got its start and where the hamburger continues to be most revered – elevated above regular fast food. The small chain In-N-Out Burger probably serves the most authentic example of the form, with quality beef and just a few fresh toppings.