Prepare for some serious stomach growls as we reveal 20 of our favourite foodie experiences around the world. These picks, taken from the pages of Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth, are some of the finest ways to truly eat authentic dishes in the countries that do them best. If you're looking for the best food in the world, look no further.
Something like fish salad, ceviche is “cooked” in an acidic bath of lemon and lime juice and diced onion, tomato, coriander and ají pepper, leaving the fish soft, moist and cool. Peruvians are proud of their national dish, and its preparation is a familiar ritual. Though other countries have tried to claim it, peruanos know it’s as unique to their heritage as Machu Picchu and the Nazca lines. They’ve even mythologized it: leche de tigre, the bracingly sour “tiger’s milk” that remains after the fish has been devoured, is a potent aphrodisiac. When sampling ceviche, don’t forget the choclo (boiled, large-kernel corn cobs) and sweet yams, ceviche’s traditional accompaniments.
Thankfully, this austerity applies only to the substance – not the quantity – of the meat. Gut-busting excess is what makes barbecue truly American, after all, especially at places like the legendary Salt Lick, southwest of Austin near the town of Driftwood. The all-you-can-eat spread here includes heaps of beef brisket, pork ribs and sausage, all bearing the signature smoke-stained pink outer layer that signifies authentic barbecue. On the side, you get the traditional fixin’s: German-style coleslaw and potato salad, soupy pinto beans, sour pickles, plain old white bread and thick slices of onion.
Lebanese food is one of the great pleasures of travel in the Middle East, and the mainstay of this cuisine is meze.
The concept extends far back into history: the ancient Greeks and Persians both served small dishes of nuts and dried fruits with wine as an appetizer, a tradition which continued (with a non-alcoholic beverage) throughout the medieval Arab period.
Today, good restaurants might have thirty or forty choices of meze on the menu, ranging from simple dishes of herbs, olives and pickled vegetables, labneh (tart yoghurt), and dips such as hummus and baba ghanouj (aubergine), up to grander creations like kibbeh (the national dish of Lebanon, a mixture of cracked wheat, grated onion and minced lamb pounded to a paste, shaped into oval torpedoes and deep-fried), tabbouleh (another Lebanese speciality: parsley and tomato salad with cracked wheat), shanklish (spiced goat’s cheese) and warag aynab (stuffed vine leaves). Kibbeh nayeh (lamb’s meat pounded smooth and served raw) is perhaps the most celebrated of all meze, while mini-mains such as lamb or chicken shish kebabs, charcoal-roasted larks and even seafood are also common. Everything is always accompanied by unlimited quantities of hot, fresh-baked flat bread, used for scooping and dipping.
Meze exist to slow down the process of eating, turning a solitary refuelling into a convivial celebration of good food and good company. Sitting at a table swamped in colours and aromas, and eating a meal of myriad different flavours and textures, is nothing short of sensuous delight – as, indeed, it’s intended to be.
However, you’re rarely served such treats in Arabic restaurants: there’s not a strong tradition of postprandial desserts. Instead, you’ll need to head to one of the larger outlets of Habiba, or their competitors Jabri or Zalatimo, patisseries with a café section.
Glass-fronted fridges hold individual portions of Umm Ali, an Egyptian milk-and-coconut speciality, sprinkled with nuts and cinnamon, and muhallabiyyeh, a semi-set almond cream pudding, enhanced with rosewater: comfort food, Arab-style. Choose one to go with a coffee and perhaps a water-pipe of flavoured tobacco.
Habiba, Jabri and Zalatimo (www.zalatimosweets.com) have numerous stores across Amman.
No snack is more symbolic of New York than a bagel with cream cheese, piled high with lox (smoked salmon), a few slices of tomato and red onion and perhaps some capers for effect. You can find bagels nearly everywhere, of course, and many claim to be the best, but no one does it quite like Russ and Daughters.
It’s not a restaurant or diner but an “appetizing” store, family-owned to boot, that has spent four generations brining, baking, whipping and generally perfecting the art of righteous Jewish food. It’s mostly known for its smoked fish, and you can’t go wrong with any of their salmon offerings (or their whitefish or sable, for that matter). But the salty belly lox, cured rather than smoked, may be most toothsome of all. Lay it over their own home-made, soul-satisfying cream cheese, smeared on a garlic bagel, also made in-house, and you’ve got the best accompaniment to a cup of coffee and the New York Times known to man.
Russ and Daughters, 179 E Houston St (www.russanddaughters.com).
When you’re ready to begin, crack the claws in half, pull out the meat with your little fork and dip it in the melted butter. Lobster meat comes well-defended, so be wary of sharp points along the shell. The tail follows the claws: tear it from the body, pushing the meat from the end. Finally (if you’re feeling emboldened), pull off the legs to suck out the last bit of flesh. There is no other meat like lobster – tender, sweet, elusive – and in Maine, where lobster is king, the crimson crustacean is celebrated with parades, festivals and an energetic devotion that’s shared by everyone.
If Blackpool feels a little too bellicose, then head a few miles south to the tiny village of Lytham, where Whelan's has been frequented by the likes of Rick Stein, who loved this bijou gem so much he wrote about it in his Seafood Lovers Guide. Here, the haddock is fried in beef dripping and the chips have a deeply satisfying crunch.
Perhaps the most revered of all the northwest's chippies, though, can be found up the coast in the sleepy county town of Lancaster. Here lies Hodgson's, proud recipient of a garland of awards including the National Federation of Fryers' "Fish and Chip Shop of the Year". Like all the best chip shops in this area, you'll struggle to find gravy, spring rolls or microwaved pies. What you will find is an authentic slice of northern hospitality and gargantuan portions. Just keep any references to Yorkshire strictly critical.
“Picking” hard-shell steamed blue crabs is a sport Marylanders attack with gusto from May to October – though anyone will tell you that the heaviest, juiciest number-one “jimmies” are available only near the end of the summer. That’s when the most popular crab restaurants up and down the bay have lines out of the door, and every other backyard in Baltimore seems to ring with the sound of wood mallets smacking on crab legs. The process starts with yanking what can only be described as an easy-open pull tab on the crab’s under-shell. From there, dig out the yellowish fat called “mustard”, as well as the gills, then snap the hard-back shell in half and proceed to scoop out the sweet, succulent flesh.
Try Annapolis’s Cantler’s Riverside Inn www.cantlers.com) or Costas Inn www.costasinn.com in Baltimore.
Lunch, particularly on Friday and Sunday, is the meal of choice; set aside an entire afternoon. Arriving at the restaurant brings you to a display worthy of a Tennessee Williams play. Seersucker-clad powerbrokers puff on fat cigars, dangling dainty Southern belles on their arms; immaculately coiffured women greet each other with loud cries of “dawlin’!”
It’s the same century-old menu, too: basically French, pepped up with the herbs and spices of Spain, Africa and the West Indies. Lump crabmeat and plump oysters come with creamy French sauces or a piquant rémoulade, a blend of tomato, onion, Creole mustard, horseradish and herbs; side dishes might be featherlight soufflé potatoes or fried eggplant. To end with a kick, order a steaming tureen of potent café brûlot – jet-black Java heated with brandy, orange peel and spices – prepared tableside with all the ceremony of a religious ritual.
Highway 1 connects the Florida mainland with Key West, a spectacular ribbon of causeways and bridges that soars above sandy bars, mangroves and channels thick with giant mantra rays and sharks – it’s also your route to the best key lime pies in the country. Aficionados are divided: graham-cracker or pastry crust? Meringue on top or whipped cream? The one thing that everyone can agree on is that adding green food colouring is taboo. Authentic key lime pie is always light yellow.
The gluttony begins in Key Largo, where the Key Lime Tree offers thick, piquant creations made with condensed milk. Heading south, Marathon is home to Porky’s Bayside Restaurant; skip the barbecue and go straight for the coronary-inducing, deep-fried key lime pie. This time it’s the batter that’s top secret. Key West, at the end of the road, is pie central. The Key West Key Lime Pie Co serves all sorts of fancy, custard-like, frozen versions, including mango, pineapple and coconut. For classic fluffy meringue toppings, head to the Blond Giraffe Key Lime Pie Factory; they also do whipped cream. Finally, Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe serves pie with a consistency somewhere between gelatin and cake, a perfect blend of sugary and tart.
And then there’s the venerable jiggs dinner, a traditional and deceptively simple Sunday feast that’s one of the most satisfying home-cooked meals you’ll ever have. Each family has its own variation – even Newfoundland truckstops serve it according to the dictates of the local ladies in the kitchen – but expect a heap of corned or salted beef drenched in rich gravy and served with buttered cabbage, potatoes and a bevy of lightly boiled vegetables. Cod tongues, another local delicacy, are actually the chunks of gelatinous meat found behind and under the tongue of said fish. Animal lovers, meanwhile, should note seal-flipper pie really is made with seal flipper.
Ensenada, a large fishing centre on the peninsula’s northwest coast, is one of the best places to sample the taco de pescado – it’s said that the dish was first concocted here by Japanese fishermen. Fifteen minutes inland from the port and the Mercado Negro fish market lies a well-established street vendor, Tacos Fenix. The three-person outfit operates from the pavement: one person preps the ingredients, a second mans the frying pan and the third handles the money and drinks. You don’t have to know much Spanish (beyond por favor and gracias) to order; just listen and watch the people in front of you. And don’t worry about the juices running down your hand after the first bite – getting dirty is part of the fun.
The beef’s flavour is expertly brought out in its preparation. The traditional – in fact, practically the only – method is on a parrilla, a barbecue using wood (or occasionally charcoal, but certainly never gas). Almost sacred to Argentines, the parrilla is a custom that has its roots in gaucho (cowboy) culture: the fire is lit on Sundays, holidays, after football matches – pretty much at any excuse. In the countryside, ranch hands spread the embers along the ground; in the town, chefs use a metal pit. A grill is hung above and the food lined up – fat chorizo sausages and rounds of melting provolone cheese to start, followed by tasty asado ribs and, finally, huge slabs of steak.
The meat is of such quality that there’s no need to drown it in sauces – the parrillero (cook) will lightly season it and offer up some chimichurri to add zip. The best parrillas are found outside Buenos Aires, closer to the source. Stay on an estancia (ranch), such as El Ombú, to enjoy beef reared on site, or seek out family-run parrillas found in pretty much every countryside town.
This area, centred on three roads - Ladypool Road, Stoney Lane and Stratford Road - is home to something just as iconic to Birmingham as the Bullring and the Rotunda: the balti.
Baltis are cooked and served in the same balti bowl, a small thin-pressed steel wok that allows for a swift cooking time (baltis take around eight minutes to cook, far quicker than a curry). Vegetable oil and fresh herbs and spices are used, rather than ghee and curry pastes, giving the dish a lighter, fresher taste. And naan, instead of rice, is the accompaniment of choice.
The Balti Triangle, as it's been dubbed, has around a dozen authentic balti restaurants: among the best are Punjab Palace, Al Frash and Shabab, all on Ladypool Road, and Shahi Nan Kebab House on Stratford Road.
The Balti Triangle is spread over the Sparkhill, Balsall Heath and Moseley neighbourhoods and is easily accessible from the city centre. Visit www.balti-birmingham.co.uk and www.visitbirmingham.com for maps, transport details, restaurant reviews and tours.
At a crab banquet, first you are shown your crab, trussed up in reeds and clicking indignantly, then it is taken away and cooked, to be returned to you still whole, but now a delightful blushing pink in colour. You’ll need to roll up your sleeves – eating crabs Chinese-style is a pretty visceral experience. First you have to take the shell off, exposing the soft fleshy parts. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a female stuffed with delicious red roe. You eat everything but the lungs (the gill-like greyish bits), dipping the meat in a pungent sauce of soy, ginger and vinegar.
Hairy crabs are regarded as being cooling to the body, so are taken with a good “warming” wine as an accompaniment: hua diao rice wine from Shaoxing is traditional, but a good Chardonnay does the job nicely.
Everyone in Shanghai has a favourite crab restaurant, but the crab harvest has been hit hard by water pollution, and unscrupulous counterfeiters abound, so don’t order it just anywhere. A reliable staple is Wang Baohe, at 603 Fuzhou Lu.
At a kaiseki restaurant the atmosphere is just as important as the food. Ideally, it will be in a traditional, wood-framed building. Kimono-clad waiting staff show you to a table set out on rice-straw tatami mats. A hanging scroll and a perfectly balanced flower arrangement, both chosen to reflect the season, enhance the air of cultural refinement.
The food fits the occasion and setting. A full kaiseki meal usually consists of ten to twenty small dishes, perhaps featuring succulent slivers of raw fish with fiery wasabi relish, a few simmered vegetables, silky smooth tofu, delicious pickled items or tempura as light as air. Only the freshest ingredients are used to create a flawless array of seasonal delicacies designed to complement each other in every way – taste, aroma, texture and visual appeal.
Kyoto is the place to sample kaiseki cuisine – try Nakamura-ro or Hyotei.
Crowded alleyways, blaring scooter horns and a mix of Mandopop and Nokia tunes may not sound like an appealing night out, but there’s a reason why Taiwan’s night markets pack people in – some of the best food in Asia.
The Taiwanese love food so much, they’ve perfected what’s known in Chinese as “little eats” (xiaochi), tasty snacks served in small portions – think Chinese takeaway meets tapas. The places most associated with xiaochi are night markets held all over the island; most get going in the evening and don’t typically close till after midnight.
At Shilin, Taipei’s best and biggest night market, a typical evening starts with a few warm-up laps, perhaps grabbing a couple of appetizers along the way: a sugar-glazed strawberry, fried pancake with egg, or succulent Shilin sausage served with raw garlic and eaten with a cocktail stick. Suitably inspired, it’s time for a little more chopstick work: many stalls own a cluster of plastic tables and chairs where you can slurp and munch while seated. Classic dishes include slippery oyster omelettes covered in luscious red sauce, and addictive lu rou fan, juicy stewed pork on rice. Still hungry? Try some celebrated regional specialities: danzi mian from Tainan (noodles with pork, egg and shrimp), or deep-fried meatballs from Changhua.
Serious connoisseurs – or more likely those with adventurous palates – can opt for the really scary stuff. Most infamous are chou doufu, cooked in pig fat and better known as stinky tofu, the smell of which sickens newcomers but the taste of which is sublime (the fried, crispy outer layer perfectly balances the fluffy tofu underneath), and lu wei, a savoury blend of animal guts, simmered in broth, and often eaten cold.
A rich sauce normally served with turkey or chicken, mole poblano can boast upwards of thirty ingredients; the most cherished recipes are guarded like state secrets. Fruits, nuts and spices are toasted over a fire, ground by hand and mixed into a paste. The chocolate, added at the last minute, is in its traditional unsweetened form, powdered cacao seeds.
A prime time to sample the sauce is during the Festival of Mole Poblano, held on three consecutive Sundays each July, when local restaurants compete to have their mole judged the city’s best. The dish also stars on menus across the city on the fifth of May, or Cinco de Mayo, a national holiday that celebrates the defeat of Napoleon’s invading army in Puebla in 1872.
In Granada and assorted hinterlands they’re still a complimentary courtesy; in the rest of the country a free lunch has gone the way of the siesta and the peseta. But if you’re going to pay for your nibbles, Madrid offers one of the meanest tapas crawls in the land, starting from the central Puerta del Sol. In and around the narrow streets between Sol and Plaza Santa Ana you can tuck into fluffy fried prawns (al ajillo, in garlic), washed down by heady house wine at the Lilliputian Casa del Abuelo. Unpretentious, atmospheric bars also serving authentic bites are Las Bravas, a former barbers turned fried-potato-in-spicy-sauce specialist with a closely guarded recipe, and La Oreja de Oro, which translates as “The Golden Ear”, but in fact serves ears of the conspicuously edible variety.
If cartilage doesn’t tickle your tastebuds, it’s probably worth taking a little detour back to the western edge of the Plaza Mayor for Mesón del Champiñones, an earthy taberna that’s been doling out mouthwatering pan-fried mushrooms and sangría for longer than most Madrileños can remember. Even older is Taberna de Antonio Sanchez in nearby Lavapiés, a bullfighters’ den dating from 1830, where the dark wood walls are heavy with scarred taurine trophies from long-forgotten duels. For something less queasy to finish up, cut back east to Taberna de Dolores, where the slender Roquefort and anchovy canapés will ensure you wake up with fearsome breath, if not a hangover.
In 1985, Restaurants serving anything other than bland, uninspiring food are extremely thin on the ground, with one very notable exception: the Quanjude Roast Duck restaurant, founded in 1864 and recently resurrected after being closed down during the Maoist era.
Enter most restaurants in China and you’re herded into a special “foreigners’ only” section out of sight of indigenous diners (for whose benefit it isn’t clear), but not here: for Chinese and foreigners alike it’s a free-for-all, where only the quick and strong get fed. The dining hall is so crammed with tables that there’s barely room to fit the chairs in, and that’s a big problem because all available room – absolutely every inch – is occupied by salivating customers hovering like vultures beside each chair, waiting for the person sitting down to finish their meal and begin to get up. The ensuing moments of hand-to-hand combat, as three people try to occupy the half-empty seat, end with the victor knowing that they are about to enjoy a cholesterol-laden feast.
First comes the duck’s skin, crispy brown and aromatic; next the juicy meat, carefully sliced and eaten with spring onion slivers, all wrapped inside a thin pancake; and lastly, a soup made from duck bones and innards.
Quanjude Roast Duck restaurant, 32 Qianmen Dajie, Beijing +86 (0) 10 6701 1379.
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