The world’s 11 greatest spreadable foods (and one bad one)

This wasn't my idea. It was my editor, Craig, who was sitting around one day contemplating the greatness of the hummus in front him – an afternoon snack, eaten al-desko – and had a bolt of inspiration: we should do a story on the world's best spreadable foods.

He passed on the idea and I was like, um, yeah, sure Craig. But then I thought about it, and started a little list in my mind, and before long I was totally on board. Spreadable foods are awesome. They don't get nearly enough attention. These are often simple foods, traditional foods, easy foods, but foods that speak so much of a place and a people and their history and passions.

So here we have it: the world's best spreadable foods. For the purposes of narrowing things down, I've only included items that you could eat on their own – so, no condiments like mayo or ketchup, and no dressings like ranch or vinaigrette. Just food that can be dipped or spread, all the best stuff from around the world. I'm sure you'll enjoy it just as much as me (and Craig).

Mutabal, the Levant

There are a few entries here with fiercely contested origins that are likely to get me in all sorts of trouble in the countries I haven't mentioned (see hummus and kaya). So I'm going to dive in and say that mutabal – a smoky, creamy eggplant dip similar to baba ghanoush – is from the Levant, a rough grouping of nations including Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel. The ingredients are relatively simple for mutabal – a base of fire-roasted eggplant mixed with tahini, olive oil and garlic, garnished with pomegranate seeds – but the result, especially when eaten in situ in the aforementioned countries, is sensational.

Taramasalata, Greece

Taramosalata Greek spread Paste (pate) made of ground fish, shrimps, and caviar, served with lemon. Fish Egg Paste Tarama (white and rose), popular Israeli snack. iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. Best spreadable foods Ben Groundwater column tra6-onine-spread

Photo: iStock

Taramasalata is dangerous stuff. Open up a container anywhere near me – doesn't matter what size container – and it will all disappear. It's just so good. I can't stop. This is another spreadable food with contested origin, probably Greek, but also Turkish, and served in similar form in Romania and Bulgaria. It's a spreadable snack based on cured cod roe, wazzed up with olive oil, lemon juice and bread, and it's absolutely delicious. Eat it by the sea, in Greece, and life doesn't get much better.

Soft cheese, France

Fresh brie cheese with white mold on a white background on table iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. Best spreadable foods Ben Groundwater column tra6-onine-spread

Buche de Chevre. Photo: iStock

Spreadable foods don't begin and end with dips – consider cheese, soft and creamy, cheese that yields at the slightest touch of a knife, that goes perfectly when smooshed across fresh, crusty bread. Yep, you get it. Of course, France excels at this sort of cheese (and not co-incidentally, this sort of bread). Go for Brillat-Savarin, a triple-cream cheese from Burgundy, or maybe Buche de Chevre, a goat's cheese from Aquitaine near Bordeaux.

Chutney, India

Assorted Indian chutneys in small rustic bowls on grey concrete background. Top view of colorful chutney, traditional Indian sauces and dips as a snack or side dish, close-up iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. Best spreadable foods Ben Groundwater column tra6-onine-spread

Photo: iStock

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Is chutney a spreadable food? Would you actually spread it on anything, or is it more a condiment? Both good questions that have been discussed lately in my food-obsessed house. And the answer is that yes, chutney is spread on things, because it's a vital part of one of my very favourite Indian street foods, vada pav, a bread roll filled with a spiced potato patty and topped with chutney, served in Mumbai. The chutney itself can be just about anything, made with fresh or preserved vegetables, with plenty of spice.

Kaya, south-east Asia

Male holding a plate of crispy Malaysian style toasted bread with kaya and butter iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. Best spreadable foods Ben Groundwater column tra6-onine-spread

Kaya toast. Photo: iStock

Without wanting to delve too deeply into the exact origins of kaya – let's just say it's popular throughout Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand – we can still sing the praises of this sweet spread made with coconut milk, eggs and sugar. By far the best way to eat it is in a Singaporean hawker centre, where the kaya is spread on buttery toast and served with coffee and peppery, soft-boiled eggs. Dip the toast in the eggs: you don't think it will work, but trust me, it does.

Nduja, Italy

A typical Mediterranean spread made of pork meat and paprika. iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. Best spreadable foods Ben Groundwater column tra6-onine-spread

Photo: iStock

How good is this: even sausages can be spreadable. Italy's classic spreadable sausage, nduja – similar to Spanish sobrassada – is a spicy, porky Calabrian snack that can be spread on crusty bread and eaten as is, or added to pasta sauces for a fiery umami hit. The sausage is usually made using pork meat from the head, mixed with salt and spice and plenty of fat. If you know, you know.

Marmalade, England

closeup of a young caucasian man, wearing a casual gray T-shirt, sitting at a set table, spreading some orange or peach jam on a toast iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. Best spreadable foods Ben Groundwater column tra6-onine-spread

Photo: iStock

Jam is great, of course. I love jam. But surely marmalade is the thinking person's jam, a fruit preserve that carries hints of sourness and bitterness to balance out all the sugar. Though the practice of preserving quinces and citrus fruits began in Roman times, and was popularised in Spain and Portugal, you could argue that it's the Brits who now do it best, and that's where I would like to be having my marmalade on toast, with a cup of tea.

Dulce de leche, Argentina

Differents argentinian dulce de leche images iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. Best spreadable foods Ben Groundwater column tra6-onine-spread

Photo: iStock

Fair play, Argentinians. Not only have you somehow made it acceptable to eat cake for breakfast (seriously, it's a thing), but you've also taken good old-fashioned caramel and persuaded everyone to just eat it all the time, on everything. Visit a breakfast buffet in Argentina and you will find little pots of dulce de leche to smother on your toast or drizzle on your fruit. Have a midday snack and you might get alfajores: biscuits with a huge dollop of dulce de leche smooshed between them. And dessert will definitely feature everyone's favourite caramel.

Hummus, the Middle East

Hummus with olive oil, paprika, lemon and pita bread. iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. Best spreadable foods Ben Groundwater column tra6-onine-spread

Photo: iStock

Yes, I've said the Middle East, because you wouldn't even attempt to say where this cherished and delicious dish is really "from". It's from a lot of places. Let's move past that and concentrate solely on the greatness of hummus, the dip of mashed chickpeas blended with tahini, lemon juice and garlic. Somethings you get toasted pine nuts added, sometimes minced meat, sometimes just a sprinkle of paprika. The common thread is that this is a simple dish that is an alchemical wonder once it's put together.

Cream cheese, USA

New York Style Bagels with Cream Cheese - Photographed on a Hasselblad H3D11-39 megapixel Camera System iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. Best spreadable foods Ben Groundwater column tra6-onine-spread

Photo: iStock

You know what to order when you get to New York: a "bagel with a schmear". The schmear in question is a great big slathering of cream cheese, which goes on a bagel of just about any flavouring. The cream cheese itself is an adaptation of a French cheese, only – in beautifully American fashion – with a heap more cream added. You can't eat a proper NYC bagel without it.

Butter, France

A woman cuts a slice of butter on a market in Bayonne, southwestern France, Friday, 20 Oct., 2017. French pastries and butter have become so popular abroad that the increased demand led to a mini shortage of the dairy product in French supermarkets. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)

Photo: AP

This is it. This is the greatest. Quite possibly the simplest spreadable food, and without doubt my ride-or-die, my death row spread, my one and only. Butter. Fresh, lightly salted, preferably unpasteurised French butter. Spread on a French baguette. This is all you need for culinary greatness, just two ingredients that are both the highest quality you can get your hands on. The best I've ever had is butter from the market in St-Jean-de-Luz, spread on a baguette from Montagne near St Emilion, though I'm sure there are infinite similarly delicious combinations throughout the country. Perfection.

Vegemite, Australia

Even Vegemite is feeling the pinch, with its owner Bega Cheese posting disappointing results.

Photo: Eddie Jim

Small caveat here: I don't actually like Vegemite, which, I realise, makes me a poor excuse for an Australian and a generally untrustworthy human being. Still, despite my personal feelings I'm including Vegemite on this list because it really is one of Australia's iconic national foods, a creation of our very own, and one that also happens to be eminently spreadable. Why anyone would want to do that to their toast is beyond me, but hey, you guys do you.

What's your favourite spreadable food from around the world? What have I missed? Where is the best place to enjoy your favourites?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

Twitter: twitter.com/bengroundwater

See also: Eight foreign dishes Australia adopted and perfected

See also: No menus, no Michelin stars: The restaurant Qantas pilots flock to

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