The musician Frank Zappa once remarked that you need two things to be considered a real country: an airline and a beer. Nuclear weapons and a football team also help. But at the least you need a beer. Zappa, however, was missing something, probably the most important thing of all.
Because there's only one creation that any country really needs to call itself independent, only one element necessary to perfectly sum up a nation's culture and its history, its passions and its divides, and upon which so many people can peg their national pride: food. The humble meal.
You can tell so much about a country just by eating its national dish. You can see where it's come from; you can tell where it's going. To understand the way people eat is to understand the way they live, whether that's a bowl of ramen slurped at high speed by a Japanese salaryman or a piece of jerk chicken eaten at a roadside stand in Jamaica.
All national dishes have significance, but not all of them taste good. Here, we've selected some of our favourites, some official and some unofficial national dishes. These are the plates and bowls of food that not only perfectly represent their country of origin but are also delicious (and we've also selected a few that, for the first-time visitor at least, will be a little challenging).
THE DISH Hainanese chicken rice, Singapore
NEED TO KNOW It seems simple enough: chicken and rice. Does what it says on the tin. But as soon as you take a mouthful of Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore, whether it's in a hawker centre or a flashy three-star restaurant, you realise what all the fuss is about. This is a delicate, complex dish, the rice cooked in chicken stock and rendered fat, the chicken breast poached in spices, with garlic and chilli to dip it in. Singaporeans are understandably obsessed.
WHERE TO TRY IT Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, 1 Kadayanallur St, Singapore
THE DISH Falafel, Israel/Palestine/Egypt/Lebanon
NEED TO KNOW You'll note from the title that the claims to falafel are somewhat controversial. These bite-sized balls of fried chickpeas (or fava beans) probably originated in Egypt, but are now claimed as a national dish in at least four Middle Eastern countries. Let's leave the arguing for another time. Instead, we can concentrate on the outrageous deliciousness of ground chickpeas mixed with onion, parlsey, coriander or cumin – depending on where you're eating them – and then deep-fried and served with hummus, fresh tomatoes, pickled cucumbers or tahini.
WHERE TO TRY IT Abu Ali in East Jerusalem, Salah ed-Din St, East Jerusalem
See also: Jerusalem's thriving foodie scene
Falafels fresh from the deep fryer. Photo: iStock
THE DISH Har gow, Hong Kong
NEED TO KNOW It's said that a dim sum chef's skill can be judged on his or her har gow, the prawn dumpling. It's the simplicity of prawn meat wrapped in a thin, translucent skin that makes this dumpling so difficult. Everything has to be done perfectly. And when it is, the result is delicate, complex and delicious. Hong Kong – a city-state that suffers a collective obsession with food – is the spiritual home of dim sum, and there's no dish more popular than har gow.
WHERE TO TRY IT Lin Heung Tea House, 160 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong
See also: The Aussie chef's taking over Hong Kong
THE DISH Salt and pepper squid, Australia
It could be a meat pie with sauce; it could be a lamington; or it could be roast lamb. According to chef Dan Hong, however, Australia's national dish is salt and pepper squid. It is, after all, a menu item you can reliably find in every restaurant: from the local RSL to the gastro-pub, the Thai to the Chinese, the mod-Oz to the fine-diner. Everyone loves the simplicity of squid rolled in flour, salt and pepper, and flash-fried until crisp. Perfect with a beer or a glass of wine.
WHERE TO TRY IT Mr Wong in Sydney's CBD. See merivale.com.au/mrwong
Neil Perry's salt and pepper squid with aioli. Photo: William Meppem
THE DISH Chicharrones, Peru
NEED TO KNOW Most people will associate Peru with ceviche, the dish of seafood cured in citrus juice that's extremely popular across the nation. But there's another delicacy that holds just as fond a place in most Peruvians' hearts: chicharrones. To understand the love for chicharrones, all you need is a description. Pork shoulder is boiled in a spiced broth before being sliced, pan-fried and served on a crusty roll with sweet potatoes and a red onion and lime juice relish. If that's not the breakfast of champions, we don't know what is.
WHERE TO TRY IT Dona Paulina in Lima. See donapaulina.com.pe
THE DISH Smorrebrod, Denmark
NEED TO KNOW Danish food: it's so hot right now. Thanks to Rene Redzepi and a cast of talented Scandinavian chefs utilising traditional cooking methods in modern kitchens, Danish food has hit the big-time. But it's always been good, and there's no better demonstration of that goodness than smorrebrod – literally, butter on bread. Smorrebrod is an open sandwich, a hunk of dense, dark bread smeared with butter and topped with cheese, or pickled vegetables, or smoked salmon, or boiled prawns, or herring, or roast pork. The tasty possibilities are endless.
WHERE TO TRY IT Schonnemanns in Copenhagen. See restaurantschonnemann.dk
THE DISH Fondue, Switzerland
NEED TO KNOW Like turtlenecks and leg-warmers, fondue suffers from an image problem thanks to the '80s. Back then it was an exotic treat, something you'd invite your bad-jumper-wearing friends over to enjoy while pretending to be all continental. But don't let its modern-day kitschiness put you off: a Swiss fondue is a thing of beauty greater than the sum of its parts (and its parts are pretty great). We're talking several types of alpine cheese mixed with a little white wine and cornstarch, melted in a pot, and consumed via hunks of crusty bread. What's not to love?
WHERE TO TRY IT Le Dezaley in Zurich. See le-dezaley.ch
THE DISH Parmigiano-reggiano, Italy
NEED TO KNOW How do you decide on a national dish for a country as regionally specific as Italy? It's not pizza, because that's a Neapolitan thing. It's not carbonara, because that's just Rome. It's not risotto – you'll rarely find it in the south. It's not arancini, or pesto, or even spaghetti alla vongole. If there's one foodstuff that all Italians seem to agree on, however, it's the absolute perfection that is parmigiano-reggiano cheese. This sharp, salty, aged cheese from Emilia-Romagna is utilised by almost every kitchen in the country.
WHERE TO TRY IT Osteria Francescana in Modena. See osteriafrancescana.it
THE DISH Ramen, Japan
NEED TO KNOW There are plenty of great styles of cuisine in Japan, but none captures the nation's heart nation quite like warming, filling ramen noodles. While it originated in China (keep that to yourself when you visit), the Japanese have perfected the art of this noodle soup, and in doing so have become obsessed with it. From meaty tonkotsu broths to miso-based soups to fishy versions with sardines to "tsukemen" style, with the noodles and broth served separately, there are seemingly endless versions of ramen, and they're all slurped with unbridled joy.
WHERE TO TRY IT Afuri in Tokyo, 1-1-7, Ebisu, Tokyo
Spicy ramen Japanese soup with noodles. Photo: iStock
THE DISH Bife de chorizo, Argentina
NEED TO KNOW There's an art to cooking steak the Argentinean way. It has to be done over hot coals on a parrilla grill – a steel grate that can be moved higher or lower over the fire. It has to be seared fast and then cooked slow. It has to be doused in salt, and served on a plate with no accompaniments. The steak has to be the star. And it deserves top billing – this is steak like you've never tasted before. There are plenty of great cuts, from "ojo de bife", the eye fillet, to "entrana", the skirt, but every Argentinean loves "bife de chorizo", the sirloin.
WHERE TO TRY IT Alcorta Carnes y Vinos in Cordoba. See alcortacarnes.com.ar
THE DISH Cheese and bread, France
NEED TO KNOW It doesn't matter which cheese you go for, whether it's the stinkiest washed rind from Bourgogne, the gooiest roquefort or the mildest tomme from Savoie, there's still almost nothing better in the world than a French cheese eaten with a fresh baguette. From a nation that's contributed so much to the global dining scene – croissants, steak frites, moules marinieres, pate, terrine, and the croque monsieur to name a few – the humble pairing of cheese and bread is still France's crowning achievement.
WHERE TO TRY IT Every town in France makes its own. Try them all.
Cheese wheels. Photo: iStock
THE DISH Som tam, Laos, Thailand
NEED TO KNOW Green papaya salad is representative of everything that's good about south-east Asian cuisine. It's fresh, made with papaya, tomatoes and herbs, and it also contains the essential tastes of the region: heat from chillies, sourness from lime juice, sweetness from palm sugar, and saltiness from fish sauce. There are plenty of other great Thai and Lao foods, from fried noodle dishes to curries to satay skewers and more, but som tam is loved everywhere you go.
WHERE TO TRY IT The best som tam is served in the Isan region of north-eastern Thailand.
THE DISH Rice, Iran
NEED TO KNOW Everyone does rice, right? Iran can't hope to claim it as its own. And yet, if you've witnessed the love and attention that Iranians put into those simple steamed grains, if you've tasted the fluffy, perfect results of all that passion and practice, you would understand that Iranians really are entitled to think of themselves as the world's best makers of rice. Basmati-style long-grain rice is steamed and drizzled with butter before being served as an accompaniment to shish-kebabs, or stews.
WHERE TO TRY IT The best Iranian food is served in people's homes – don't worry, you'll be invited in.
THE DISH Jamon iberico, Spain
NEED TO KNOW Paella is not the national dish of Spain. And tapas isn't a single, identifiable meal. If there's one food that unites this gastronomically obsessed nation it has to be jamon, the cured meat that should never, ever be confused with prosciutto – the Spanish iteration is another thing entirely. At its finest, jamon iberico is the leg of a "pata negra", or black Iberian pig, cured for up to 48 months, and carved into paper-thin slices of dark meat and buttery fat that melt in the mouth. It's eaten across the country for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
WHERE TO TRY IT Joselito, Cordoba. See joselito.com
Close view of a hand with a knife cutting Jamon. Photo: iStock
THE DISH Chicken tikka masala
NEED TO KNOW Good luck finding a chicken tikka masala in India. It doesn't exist. This is a uniquely British invention, thanks to an enterprising Glaswegian chef, and it has morphed into as much a local favourite as pork pies and ploughman's lunches. Head to the "Curry Mile" in Manchester, or Whitechapel in London, or anywhere in Glasgow and you'll find out why: a British chicken tikka – hunks of spiced, marinated chicken roasted in a tandoor and drowned in a spicy, creamy sauce – is a thing of beauty.
WHERE TO TRY IT Shish Mahal in Glasgow. See shishmahal.co.uk
Spicy chicken tikka masala. Photo: iStock
FOOD FIGHTS: FIVE DISPUTED DISHES AND DRINKS
This sweet, sticky dessert of layered pastry with honey and nuts is claimed as a national dish in both Turkey and Greece. It's also thought to have its origins in cuisine from the Roman Empire, or from Central Asia, or possibly even Persia. About the only thing not in question in regards to baklava is that it's impossible to only eat one piece.
Wars have been fought over lesser arguments than the origins of pisco. Was it invented by Chile and stolen by Peru? Or was it developed in Peru and stolen by its southern neighbour? The history of this grape-based spirit can be traced back to the time of Spanish colonisation – however, its exact location of invention remains a fiercely debated mystery.
The greatness of hummus – chickpeas blended with oil, tahini and lemon juice – is certainly not in question. Its origin, however, is. Hummus was probably first made in Egypt, back in the 13th century, though that hasn't stopped Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and even the Palestinian Territories from claiming it as their own.
Here's the thing: kimchi is, in all probability, Korean. However, since Japan proposed designating their own version of spicy, pickled vegetables, called kimuchi, as an official Japanese food at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, the battle to claim this dish has been on. The fact Japanese producers now export more kimchi than their Korean counterparts only adds to the debate.
Australians proudly call this dish their own – unfortunately, so do the Kiwis. Pavlova was thought to have first been first cooked up in the 1920s, at the time the Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova toured both Australia and New Zealand. While its origin remains contested, the first pavlova recipes did appear in Kiwi cookbooks, so we might have to give them this one.
AN ACQUIRED TASTE: FIVE CHALLENGING NATIONAL DISHES
Airag is fermented horse milk. Do you need to know more? Mares are milked, then the liquid is poured into a horse-hide bag and sloshed around for a few days to ferment, producing a sour, effervescent and mildly alcoholic beverage that Mongolians believe is delicious, and which everyone else finds pretty much undrinkable. Steel yourself if you visit Mongolia, however – you will undoubtedly be asked to try it.
Some people get squeamish at the thought of eating eggs. But how about eating eggs that have been fertilised, and contain just-formed duck embryos? That's what balut is, and it's a delicacy in the Philippines, as well as a few other Asian destinations. Duck or chicken eggs are allowed to incubate for up to three weeks before they're boiled and eaten. For the uninitiated, it's about as confronting a food as you're likely to encounter.
Greenland sharks are poisonous if eaten fresh, so the Icelandic people just chuck them out, right? Wrong. They gut these toxic fish, clean them, and then bury them in the ground for up to 12 weeks to allow them to decompose. Predictably, the hunks of rotten shark then reek the most indescribable reek and are ready to be consumed. Yum.
CASU MARZU, SARDINIA
There aren't many foods that should be eaten while wearing safety goggles to prevent maggots from jumping into your eyes, but casu marzu is one of them. This Sardinian pecorino cheese contains fly larvae which "eats" the cheese, turning it all gooey inside. Those larvae eventually become full-fledged maggots, and the idea is to eat the cheese with these insects – which can leap up to 15 centimetres – still alive inside. Goggles sound like a good idea.
Plenty of cultures consume their meat uncooked, from the Japanese to the Italians and more, but few eat it in such large quantities as the Ethiopians. Kitfo is a traditional dish of raw beef mince served with sour injera flatbread and traditionally eaten for breakfast; tere siga, or cubed chunks of raw oxen meat, is also extremely popular. The taste of both these dishes is an acquired one.
FIVE MORE NATIONAL DISHES WORTH A TRY
BILTONG, SOUTH AFRICA
There's nothing pretty about a dry, gnarled piece of meat encrusted with a few spices. But biltong – the South African snack beloved by an entire nation – is far better than it looks. These strips of cured beef, springbok, kudu and even ostrich meat are salty, spicy, a little bit chewy, and – despite their origins back in the early 1800s – seem to have been perfectly designed to be consumed with the companionship of rugby and beer.
These half-moon-shaped pastries, sold on the street in cities such as La Paz, seem custom-built to ruin whatever it is you happen to be wearing. Saltenas are meat-filled pastries that look similar to empanadas, only the filling is much soupier, meaning unless you take care to delicately bite one end off and slurp out the piping hot liquid inside, you'll end up wearing a large proportion of it on your shirt, shorts and shoes.
Beetroot soup: it may not sound that enticing, and it certainly doesn't look it. But imagine it's freezing cold outside, that the snow has been piling up for months. Imagine that a pot of soup has been sitting on the stove all day, improving and intensifying. Imagine that the best root vegetables have gone in there, plus herbs, and maybe hunks of sausage. Imagine that a steaming bowl is placed in front of you, topped with a dollop of sour cream. Now you're getting why this is Russia's favourite dish.
JERK CHICKEN, JAMAICA
There's nothing fancy about jerk chicken. It's food of the people, cooked on the side of the road in 44-gallon drums, served on plastic plates, ready to be eaten then and there. But you don't love this Jamaican staple for its looks. It's not fancy; it's just extremely good. Spices like cloves, cinnamon, allspice, garlic, ginger and thyme are rubbed on chicken pieces before they're barbecued over charcoal and served with bread. That's it. Eat it.
Technically, the thali is not really a dish. It's more a style of eating, but in a country the size of India, a diverse nation of 1.3 billion people, it's impossible to name one dish to represent them all. Thalis, however, can be found across the sub-continent. Essentially, they're a smorgasbord of the local goodness, a selection of rice and curries and bread and dessert that – for first-timers not used to eating with their hands – is often smooshed together and then spread all over your face. It's tricky to eat, but it's delicious.
FIVE OF THE BEST NATIONAL DRINKS
The fruit of the acai palm is consumed with gusto in its native Brazil, where it's prized for its super-food properties. Acai pulp is added to juices from various other weird and wonderful Amazonian fruits and slurped the nation over.
CA PHE SUA DA, VIETNAM
There's nothing better on a hot, steamy Vietnamese day than ordering a "ca phe sua da" – coffee with ice and milk. The coffee drips into the glass from an individual percolator, before being mixed with condensed milk and ice cubes. Perfection.
A few nations would claim beer as their national drink, but none offer the same variety and passion for the product as the Belgians. From the dark, strong Trappist ales to the sour lambics to the easy-drinking blonds, this is a country that knows how to brew.
BUBBLE TEA, TAIWAN
Is it a drink or a meal? It's sometimes hard to say when it comes to bubble tea, the Taiwanese concoction of milky or fruit-flavoured tea mixed with tapioca balls. These chewy spheres are small enough to be sucked up through a thick straw, and the result is … interesting.
Scottish whisky is often imitated and occasionally bettered, but still, there's no country with a culture quite like Scotland's. You could tour the country drinking nothing but, from the smoky, peaty distillations of Islay to the more subtle drops of Speyside.
About the writer
Ben Groundwater is an avid traveller and a voracious eater – two passions he's been lucky enough to combine regularly. He's eaten his way through more than 80 countries, but says his favourite dish of all time is still homemade macaroni cheese.