You know the food in Italy is good. You know when you go to Vietnam, you're going to get some great meals. And it's a given that when you visit France you'll find delicious cuisine.
Sometimes, however, it's nice to be surprised. It's nice to go to a country where you're expecting dodgy, stodgy fare, only to find that the food everyone's eating is actually extremely good. That there's a passion for tasty fare. That, despite the bad reputation, you've discovered a foodie gem.
These are the sorts of countries I'm talking about.
Most people's experience of Swedish food goes no further than a cheap hotdog from Ikea, which is why they'd probably be surprised to discover such great cuisine in this Nordic wonderland. From fishcakes with lingonberries served fresh at a market to the fanciest foraged cuisine dished up at world No.25 restaurant Faviken, there's some really, really good food in Sweden.
It's going to take off. Sooner or later, in the next few years at least, there will be Peruvian restaurants everywhere in Australia, because this is a country that's obsessed with great food. We already know about ceviche, but what about "tiradito", the Peruvian-style fish carpaccio, or "chicarron", the fried pork or fish, or the Amazonian cuisine, or the fact two of the world's top 20 restaurants are in Lima? There are a huge number of places to eat in Peru, simply because the locals love to eat.
Japanese food is good. It's very, very good. Maybe that's not the thing that will surprise you. What does tend to catch people off-guard, however, is how varied it is. Sushi, ubiquitous over in Australia, is only a small part of what makes Japanese food so great. It's the ramen, the okonomiyaki, the bento boxes, the yakitori, the karaage, the curry, the soba, the udon, the tonkatsu and the gyoza that will get you hooked. Among other things. I'm hungry.
You don't go to any of the former Soviet states expecting the food to be great. But it can be. There's good fare to be had in some of the 'Stans, and even better cuisine in Georgia. This is the home of shashlik, the skewers of meat grilled over hot coals, but also of some seriously good bread, as well as meat dumplings, rice, hearty soups, and pretty decent local wine. It's a nice surprise.
The US cops a lot of stick for its food, and in some places it really is bad: you get burgers, or fries, or burgers and fries. But there's also some amazing food in the States. Start in New York, where you have every cuisine on the planet (including some of the best pizza around), before you head down south for Creole cuisine, and Texan barbecue, or to the north for giant slabs of steak, and then over to the west coast for Mexican food, or modern takes on American classics. And, come to think of it, there's really nothing wrong with a good burger and fries.
This is another country that's battling a bad reputation, and again, it's sometimes warranted. But even if you ignore all of the imported styles of food in England, the Indian and Bangladeshi and Jamaican and Persian, there is still great cuisine: British sausages, pork pies, fish pies, high teas, scotch eggs, and all of the food dished up by the Jamies and Hestons and Gordon Ramsays of the world. For some reason it's still really hard to find good Italian though.
We're gradually getting educated, but there's still a perception that Chinese food, in China, is dodgy. That you'll get greasy cuts of who-knows-what that's been prepared who-knows-where and you'll probably get sick from it. But Chinese food is anything but dodgy. It's cuisine that's been developed over thousands of years, genuinely delicious fare that's regional and varied.
There are plenty of Middle Eastern countries I could have gone for, from Yemen to Israel to the UAE, but the cuisine that might just be the most surprisingly great is Iranian. It's not just shish kebabs and bread, though those are worthy menu items. Persian cuisine, like Chinese, has been developed over thousands of years – it's complex, it's interesting, and it's taken very seriously. The only bad news is that by far the best food is not served in restaurants, but in people's homes. You just have to hope for an invite.
Like Japan, Hungary suffers from only being known for one dish: in this case, goulash. Not that there's anything wrong with goulash, but all you have to do is walk around the Central Market Hall in Budapest to see everything the Hungarians have to offer, from cured meats and sausages to pastries, spices, sweets, fresh produce and freshly made snacks. There's far more to it than meaty soup.
Mexican food doesn't get a lot of respect, but that's probably due to the Old El Paso version of the cuisine that most of us get introduced to over here. Get on the ground in Mexico, however, and all of a sudden you find the food is not just good – it's extremely good. Mexicans like to eat, and it's not just tacos and burritos, but dishes like chilaquiles: bits of tortilla soaked in red or green salsa and topped with shredded meat and queso fresco. Breakfast of champions.
Which countries do you think have surprisingly good food?
See also: The best country in the world for food