The world's 12 best national dishes

First: the worst. Let's get it out of the way early.

Many countries produce fantastic food, national dishes that manage to encapsulate thousands of years of history and a rich gastronomic culture. But I really don't like borscht, the Russian beet soup, and Kenyans can keep ugali - the carb-a-riffic maize meal eaten in ball form - all to themselves.

Just my opinion.

However, other national dishes around the world are worth celebrating - in some cases they're worth travelling to their home countries purely to be able to sample them in their natural environment.

The following dishes are some of my favourites, but this is by no means an exhaustive list. I've had to leave out, for example, bobotie, tajine, paella, bulgogi, biryani, pastizzi, larb, falafel, chelo kebabs, ramen, rosti and Pad Thai. All of which I would gladly eat right now if someone would be so kind as to put some in front of me.

But in the interests of listy goodness, I've narrowed it down to my top 12 sources of national gastronomic pride.

Ceviche, Peru

Peruvian cuisine will explode in Australia any day now. Surely. There's a lot to love about this country's food, and perhaps its most famous dish has already been discovered: ceviche. Fresh seafood is cured in citrus juice, maybe spiced up with a little chilli or a few herbs, and then served. It might be sea bass, it might be scallops, or it might be prawns. But it's always delicious.

Hainanese chicken rice, Singapore


There are a probably a few dishes that could claim a place as Singapore's national representative, but my favourite is Hainanese chicken rice, that deceptively simple meal of poached chicken, boiled rice, and a sauce of chopped chilli and garlic. The dish, first adapted by migrants from Hainan in China, is delicate and clean - it just tastes healthy. The best I've had is at a place called Yet Con.    

Moules-frites, Belgium

There's almost no better beer food than moules-frites, or mussels and chips: the seafood steamed in wine and butter, the chips double-fried, the whole mess mopped up at the end with some crusty bread. Belgians know how to do beer, and they also know how to do its perfect accompaniment.

Haggis, Scotland

You can hate on haggis all you like - I love the stuff. Never have minced sheep organs tasted so good. Doesn't matter if it's served all fancy with "neeps and tatties" or dished up in a deep-fried ball at 1am from a chippie, haggis is delicious. And while we're on traditional British food, how good is chicken tikka masala?

Pho, Vietnam

The great thing about Vietnamese noodle soup is that you'll rarely get the same dish twice. Every restaurant and street stand seems to have its own variation while, travelling the country north to south, you'll find that the soup stock gets gradually sweeter and the herbs gradually stronger. You could easily justify a trip to Vietnam just to eat pho.  

Pasta, Italy

"Life is a combination of magic and pasta." So said the Italian film director Federico Fellini, and I couldn't agree more. Whether it's a perfect Roman carbonara or a Sicilian pasta alla Norma, a Pugliese orecchiette or a spaghetti alla vongole from Campania, there is no better food in the world than pasta.   

Kothu roti, Sri Lanka

The soundtrack to many a journey in Sri Lanka is the "ting ting ting" of knives hitting metal pans as street vendors chop up this delicious mix of roti bread, vegetables, egg, meat and spices. Picture a stir-fried curry, only with diced roti instead of rice, and you've got the idea. It's cheap, tasty. And usually very spicy.

Asado, Argentina

Argentineans take their barbecues seriously. And it's not just steak that makes an asado great - it's the chorizos, all fatty and delicious, the morcilla, the racks of ribs, the beef flank and the pork, all cooked low and slow over smoldering embers on a parrilla grill. Vegetarians would not have a good time at an Argentinian asado.

Nasi lemak, Malaysia

This is another deceptively simple dish that seems to be greater than the sum of its parts - take one lump of rice cooked in coconut milk, add peanuts, boiled egg, fried anchovies, maybe some chicken or a lamb curry, and a hot sambal sauce, and you've got yourself the breakfast of champions. Or the lunch. Or dinner. Regardless, it's an explosion of flavour. 

Saltenas, Bolivia

The northern version of the Argentinian empanada, the saltena, is a soupier style of oven-baked, meat-filled pastry, a delicate morsel that you'll need to bite the top off of and slurp out the juice before attempting to eat the rest. Saltenas are a breakfast food in Bolivia, and if you can eat a couple without wearing most of them for the rest of the day, you've done well.

Peking duck, China

Can you really narrow a country as huge and gastronomically diverse as China down to one national dish? No, you can't. But I love Peking duck, and it is one of China's more famous foods, so I'm including it. The crispy skin, the juicy flesh, the crunch of cucumber, the tang of sweet bean sauce - Peking duck done right is foodie perfection. If you're in Beijing, check out Li Qun.

Injera, Ethiopia

You either love injera - the sour, fermented pancake-type bread from Ethiopia - or you hate it. I fall into the former category, especially when said bread is soaked in "wats", the local meaty stews, and stuffed into your mouth in huge lumps with the assistance of hands only. It ain't pretty, but it sure is tasty.

What are your favourite national dishes?