Food, glorious food: is there any better reason to travel? Is there any more satisfying and authentic way to sample local culture than to sit down to a plate or a bowl of its finest?
Food is so simple, and yet so complex. It speaks to who we are as a people; it tells a story of our history, it displays our passions and creativity, and it provides the base for so many of the rituals we hold dear, the special occasions and everyday gatherings that make our worlds turn.
For travellers, food provides such a simple and enjoyable window into everything that makes a destination great. Eat, and you experience. Dine, and you understand. Use knives and forks, chopsticks and fingers. Eat from plates, bowls, banana leaves and boards. See the world through your stomach. Taste everything it has to offer.
Because there's always something new. This year, as ever, the Traveller team has been scouring the globe to sample its foodie delights, taking the world's culinary pulse, tracking new restaurants and trends, and rediscovering old favourites in classic destinations.
We've enjoyed individual dishes that have made lasting impressions, and basked in the gastronomic glory of entire cities or neighbourhoods that know how to do food right. We've gone from the cheapest roadside shawarma joint to the fanciest hotel or fine-dining eatery to uncover the very best the world has to offer. - Ben Groundwater
Here are our top 21 dishes of the year.
THE DELICATE DIM SUM OF MADAME FAN, SINGAPORE
It's taken some time for Alan Yau, the renowned founder of London's Hakkasan and Yauatcha, to hit Singapore with his unique brand of exquisite dim sum in sumptuously chic surroundings. The NCO Club – the white-hot lifestyle destination recently launched in this post-war modernist building by Marriott South Beach – finally did the trick. By night, it's elegant Cantonese fare but by day, it's har gau, siu mai and mooli puffs that set a new benchmark for dim sum. See madamefan.sg
THE $600 STEAK, BLACK BAR & GRILL, THE STAR SYDNEY
This off-the-menu, break-the-bank steak has its own private waitlist. Chef Dany Karam takes a one kilogram, 28-day dry-aged wagyu rib-eye from Victorian wagyu pioneer, David Blackmore and grills it over glowing logs of iron bark, seasoning it only with Murray River pink salt. The taste is not so much beefy as savoury and vegetal – pure umami – with a lightly smoky back flavour. Who would pay $600 for a steak? All those on the wait-list, obviously, and more. See star.com.au
ANCHOVY HEAVEN AT BODEGA LA FUENTE, CARTAGENA
This heavily tiled bar, forever heaving with locals and cruise ship day-trippers, takes the humble anchovy to the next level. La Fuente buys fat, fresh, silvery anchovies from Santona in Cantabria, then buries them in sea salt for up to eight months. Watch as nimble-fingered staff fillet anchovies in their hundreds, ready for you to order as tapas. Eat standing up at the bar or at a tall table, with a cold beer from the on-site microbrewery taps. See bodegalafuente.com
FIDEUADA OF SEAFOOD AT RESTAURANTE SA NANSA, IBIZA TOWN
Ibiza is all glitzy night clubs and tanned Eurotrash, right? Wrong. This modest but serious family-run restaurant on the outskirts of Ibiza Town specialises in locally caught fish and seafood, and traditional Ibizan cooking. The paella is legendary but the real specialty here is fideuada, virtually a paella made with noodles instead of rice. Sa Nansa's fideuada de pescado y marisco, loaded with clams, scampi and prawns, can turn a long, lazy lunch into a lasting memory. See restaurantesanansa.com
CRUMPETS AT QUAY, SYDNEY
Not only did Quay toss out its old interior during the recent $4 million makeover, it also threw away the menu. Peter Gilmore's all-new set menu inspires from the start (oyster cream with oyster crackling and caviar) to finish (white coral of white chocolate ganache, feijoa ice-cream and coconut cream). But the real standouts are the toasty-brown malted barley crumpets perched in an oak and blackwood toast rack, alongside truffled butter topped with butterfly wings of Braidwood's Terra Preta truffles. See quay.com.au
AMUSES-BOUCHES AT HUKA LODGE
Dining at this luxury lodge near Taupo is always a treat, but especially lovely when amuses-bouches are served by a waiter in a long white apron on the verandah overlooking the impossibly green Waikato River. Conversation between guests pauses with each bite as they savour the scrumptiousness of vintage gouda tart with white grapes, spiced macaron with yuzu and lemon balm, and an extraordinary strawberry and tomato bouillon. See hukalodge.co.nz
HONEY-ROASTED DUCK BREAST, KAURI CLIFFS, NZ
Photo: Miz Watanabe
There are any number of reasons to stay at this famous luxury lodge, but you ought to travel all the way there just for the honey roasted duck breast with braised red cabbage, pear, broccolini, Sichuan pepper and five-spice jus. The food is excellent without making the mistake of being too fussy or clever, and the waiters have that perfect balance of efficiency and friendliness. See relaischateaux.com
SEAFOOD FEAST, OMAN
To say the Omani town of Mirbat is sleepy is an understatement: this seaside village is almost unconscious. Blue-hulled boats bob unattended in the harbour. Dusty streets are pedestrian free. The only place there's any action is Al Meena restaurant, where plastic tables overlook the water, and the smell of roasting fish wafts through salty air. Diners here feast on whole fish roasted over coals; baby abalone stir-fried in spicy masala; huge lobsters cracked open and grilled. It's all incredibly good. See omantourism.gov.om
JEWISH FOOD AT SORA MARGHERITA, ROME
The service here is notoriously grumpy, there are no English menus, the reservation system, such as it is, is seriously unreliable, and patrons inside are packed shoulder to shoulder with little fanfare. The home-style Roman Jewish food at Sora Margherita, however, is easily worth the hassle. If you can make sense of the handwritten menu, order the carciofo all giudia, or Jewish-style artichokes, the baccala, or salt cod, and the alici marinate, or marinated anchovies. See soramargherita.com
ONION CUP, CORNER HOUSE, SINGAPORE
Classically trained Singaporean chef Jason Tan's favourite vegetable is the onion, and at his fine-dining restaurant Corner House this humble foodstuff is treated with the utmost respect. Tan uses several kilograms of sweet, French doux des Cevennes onions to create a rich consomme, which is served in a hollowed-out onion cup with a 62-degree egg and shaved black truffle. It's surprisingly and spectacularly good. See cornerhouse.com.sg
"Oc" is the Vietnamese word for snail, and all types – freshwater and salt, big and small – are fried and eaten here on a daily basis. The preparation varies with the species of snail. Some are pan-fried with chilli, lemongrass and garlic. Others are simmered in a salty broth. Others still are grilled over coals. They're all delicious, particularly when paired with cold beer and a humid evening. See vietnamtourism.com
BUN RIEU CUA, HO CHI MINH CITY
This is southern Vietnamese food at its finest: a fragrant soup based on crushed freshwater crabs, poured over vermicelli noodles, roast tomatoes, crab meat and simmered pork, and topped with fresh herbs, chopped banana flower and bean sprouts, garnished with shrimp paste and a spritz of lime juice. It's highly flavoursome, and, at about $1.50 a bowl, almost unfairly inexpensive. See vietnamtourism.com
Every day in Rome should begin like this: with a coffee and an aragostino, a small pastry shaped like a lobster tail. These aragostine are a variation of the Neapolitan sfogliatelle, layers of flaky, filo-style pastry moulded into a pocket and filled with orange-flavoured cream, baked until shatter-crisp. They're as delicious as they sound. Grab one at Roscioli Caffe e Pasticceria near Campo de Fiori. See rosciolicaffe.com
BURMESE SPECIALTIES ON PANDAW CRUISES
Take a look at Myanmar's location on the world map and it's not hard to see where its culinary influences come from. Bordered by Thailand, Laos, India, Bangladesh and China, the national cuisine is like a Best of Asia pageant. On Pandaw's small ship luxury river cruises on the Irrawaddy and Chindwin Rivers, expect to taste traditional tea leaf salad, Burmese curry, spring rolls and mohinga noodle soup as delicious as any you'll find on land. See pandaw.com
THE DESSERT TABLE AT KETO AND KOTE, TBILISI, GEORGIA
Oozing old-world glamour and set in a refurbished traditional 19th-century home with carved wooden balconies, high ceilings and chandeliers, Keto and Kote's elegantly executed Georgian dishes, including warm ajapsandali (eggplant ratatouille) and kinkali (soup dumplings), is overshadowed by its luscious desserts. Order creamy millefeuille topped with flaky pastry, or warm cherry pie. Best enjoyed with a glass of chacha Georgian brandy in the lush courtyard, while taking in magnificent views over Tbilisi. See crooked-compass.com
CRISPY FRIED OCEAN JACKET, LINE & LABEL, PORT LINCOLN
When what looks like three piranhas arrive on your plate at Port Lincoln's new no-expense-spared restaurant Line + Label, set among the vineyards of Peter Teakle wines in the hills above town, it's hard to imagine you're in for a taste sensation. Pull the meat off this fried ocean jacket snout, however, which is accompanied by a dollop of sriracha-infused mayonnaise, and it is moist and full of flavour. It's a reminder that you're in Australia's finest seafood producing region, where more than 65 per cent of our nation's seafood is sourced. See thelineandlabel.com.au
FABULOUS FOOD IN ICELAND
For a tiny country, Iceland sure punches above its weight. Take the food scene: local seafood so fresh it turns itself over in the pan. Organic lamb roasts you'll dream about for months after the fact. Bakeries run by hipsters who really know their sourdough and cinnamon buns. Even the street food in Reykjavik is a cut above. Rolling home from a late night (or early morning), finish in one of the city's many bars, join the locals queuing for a famous Icelandic hot dog. See inspiredbyiceland.com
KAIPEN, DEEP-FRIED NAM KHAN RIVER WEED, LUANG PRABANG
Don't let the name put you off: northern Lao's famous snack kaipen is curiously addictive. Harvested from the bottom of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers in dry season, the river weed is soaked with a fragrant dressing, topped with sesame seeds, garlic slices, tomato, galangal or onion and left to dry in the sun. Typically, kaipen is flash fried and served with jeow bong, a sweet chilli relish; sometimes it's accompanied by thin slices of buffalo skin. Try it at the Avani+Luang Prabang in the heart of the old town, with an ice cold Laos beer. See avanihotels.com/en/luang-prabang
BAHN MI, HOI AN (MADE FAMOUS BY ANTHONY BOURDAIN)
You'll see the queues at the bahn mi shop on the outskirts of Hoi An's old town long before you reach it. The late Anthony Bourdain made the place famous during his No Reservations TV series. At the takeaway kitchen out front Vietnamese women rapidly assemble the delicious sandwiches using chopsticks. Arrive hungry and order one with everything. You'll be handed a fresh, crunchy baguette filled with salad, pork, pate, fish sauce, mayonnaise and a gratuitous fried egg, wrapped in a piece of local newspaper. Bordain described aptly described it as, "a symphony within a sandwich". Madam Phuong Banh Mi, 2B Phan Chu Trinh Street, Hoi An.
EGGS WITHIN AN EGG, JAAN, SINGAPORE
Photo: Nicholas Ee
Chef Kirk Westaway's Eggs in an Egg at Michelin-starred JAAN is a clever take on the ultimate comfort food – eggs on toast. A confit hen's egg yolk sits on celeriac custard, topped with pickled brown shimeji mushrooms and pickled Cevennes onions, with a generous sprinkle of Oscietra Caviar. Served with a slice of parmesan brioche, a highlight of the deconstructed-reconstructed dish is its presentation in a large egg-shaped bowl. Diners gasp as waiters lift off the top in one synchronised and theatrical movement. See jaan.com.sg
ORGANIC BREAKFAST BOWL, BELMONDO'S NOOSA
There are no water views at Belmondo's Noosa, housed in an industrial estate, but you won't regret the detour from the coastline. Belmondo's houses several businesses under one roof including an organic supermarket, and Clandestine Coffee Roasters which serves up what is arguably Noosa's best coffee. Order your coffee first, then head over to Vanilla Food for their organic breakfast bowl. Ingredients change seasonally but may include broccoli, peas, spinach, pea and avocado puree, edamame and thinly sliced radish (soft poached egg optional). It's as righteous as it is delicious. See vanillafood.com.au
Writers: Anthony Dennis, Terry Durack, Ben Groundwater, Brian Johnston, Nina Karnikowski, Katrina Lobley, Rob McFarland, Alison Stewart, Guy Wilkinson, Ute Junker, Kristie Kellahan, Sheriden Rhodes.