As they do with birds, animals and flowers, most countries have a national dish, which in most cases, is a food that’s been prepared for generations; it’s a food that shares history, legends and traditions with each and every forkful. Experiencing a country through food is one of my favourite ways to get to know a new place; it’s really quite astonishing how much you can learn simply by sitting down, digging in and sampling its national fares.
Throughout our travels, I was lucky enough to try the national dish in nine of the 15 countries we’ve visited. As with anything, there were hits and misses. Most of the time my curiosity was rewarded with amazing and surprising flavours, but there were a few odd times where my curiosity got the better of me and I was left with a meal I probably wouldn’t order again.
For the purpose of this post, I’ve only decided to feature national dishes that I ate in that country, for example, I enjoyed a ham hock in Vienna, and although it was delicious and it’s a food the city is famous for, it’s not a national dish. It is, however, a national dish of Germany, but I was too focused on Christmas market beverages to get into the ham hock during our visit to Hamburg, so unfortunately, ham hocks just don’t make the list. I also omitted a couple of foods like Bratwurst (Germany) and Pasta (Italy) because really, what can I say about those delicious meals that hasn’t already been said. And, chances are you’ve probably sampled them somewhere along the way yourself!
So, let’s take a look at my thoughts, feelings and impressions of the national dishes I sampled in 2016:
Wiener Schnitzel is a very thin, breaded and pan fried cutlet made from veal. It is one of the best-known specialities of Viennese cuisine (source).
Weiner schnitzel was quite delicious – I mean really, in general, breaded meats are pretty good – but the hot meat combined with the cold, cool and tangy potato salad was divine.
Moules-Frites or Moules et Frites is a popular main dish of mussels and fries originating in Belgium. Moules marinière is probably the most common and internationally recognisable recipe, which includes white wine, shallots, parsley and butter to cook the mussels (source).
I’ve long been a fan of Moules (mussels) – I love the various sauces, the dipping of the bread, the eating of the meat – but I never quite understood the combination of mussels and fries; so, what better place to unpack this confounding food combo than in the Moules-Frites capital of Belgium. Served in the tradition white wine sauce, the Moules were perfect – plump, juicy, tender – and the sauce was delectable. I dug into this meal like I’d never seen food before. I sampled a few fries along the way – you know to cleanse my palette with a heavy dose of salt – dipping them in the sauce, but left the majority until I had cleaned out every last shell. With just a bowl full of liquid left, I then proceeded to experience the fry-sauce combo.
Honestly, I still don’t understand the fries – I mean, they’re okay for dipping and soaking up the sauce, but I think on the whole I prefer bread – but I’m glad I tried them, and wouldn’t hesitate to order this dish again.
Let’s start with the basics: A waffle is a leavened batter or dough cooked between two plates, patterned to give a characteristic size, shape and surface impression. There are many variations based on the type of waffle iron and recipe used. While in Belgium, I sampled the Liège waffle.
The Liège waffle is a richer, denser, sweeter, and chewier waffle. Native to the greater Wallonia region of Eastern Belgium – and alternately known as gaufres de chasse (hunting waffles) – they’re an adaptation of brioche bread dough, featuring chunks of pearl sugar which caramelise on the outside of the waffle when baked. It is the most common type of waffle available in Belgium and prepared in plain, vanilla and cinnamon varieties by street vendors across the nation (source).
I mean, what can I say about waffles – they’re pretty great on the whole, but the Liege waffle was something special. With sugar crystals baked throughout, the Liege waffle itself was sweet, which is why I decided to forgo the traditional tourist toppings of whipped cream, chocolate sauce, fruit and pretty much anything you can think of and went for the simple, delicious plum-based hot and sticky Liege sauce. It was a rich snack, but on a cold and rainy day, it was heaven.
Vepro-knedlo-zelo is a dish of roast pork with dumplings and sauerkraut. Dumplings (knedlíky) (steamed and sliced bread-like) are one of the mainstays of Czech cuisine and are typically served with meals. Smaller Czech dumplings are usually potato-based and are often filled with smoked meat and served with spinach or sour cabbage (source).
I’m a bit biased when it comes to this meal because dumplings are one of my favourite foods. So, obviously, this was the only thing I was determined to eat when we visited in Prague. After exploring the Old Town and Castle, we popped into a semi-traditional restaurant that featured a myriad of dumpling choices to choose from. I settled on the dumplings stuffed with pork and it was fantastic – hot, juicy pork, enveloped in the potato dumpling. If a hug could be food, this would be it. And then there was the sauerkraut – a red cabbage soaked in vinegar and slow cooked over a few hours. The sweet yet tangy cabbage complimented the pork dumpling in so many fantastic ways. It was everything I hoped this meal would be, and more!
Smørrebrød usually consists of a piece of buttered rye bread, a dense, dark brown bread. Pålæg, the topping, that among others can refer to commercial or homemade cold cuts, pieces of meat or fish, cheese or spreads (source).
Now Smørrebrød is not the official national dish of Denmark, but while visiting we learned that most Danes don’t consider the official national dish (Stegt flæsk, fried pork belly) to be representative of their country. So, instead of sampling the “national dish” I decided it was probably better to go for a food that the Danish voted on and adopted as their unofficial dish: Smørrebrød.
Smørrebrød is a dense, hearty bread, and was the perfect accompaniment to our herring buffet meal. After sampling more than a few pieces, it’s easy to see why Danes enjoy eating this bread alongside any meal.
Gulyás, or Goulash, is a soup or stew of meat and vegetables, seasoned with paprika and other spices. Originating from the medieval Kingdom of Hungary, goulash is also a popular meal in Central Europe, Scandinavia and Southern Europe (source).
What’s not to like about a hearty stew-soup?! It was a cold afternoon in Budapest when I dug into my bowl of Gulyás. The hot, steamy stew warmed me up instantly. With each and every spoonful, I could feel each and every rib and bone in my body warming up and coming alive. The flavours in the bowl worked together flawlessly – vegetables, meat and even a chilli pepper or two. When I reached the bottom of the bowl, I ripped off a chunk of the accompanying dark rye bread and soaked up every last drop. It was the perfect dish on a chilly March afternoon.
A tajine or tagine is a North African/Arabian dish which is named after the earthenware pot in which it is cooked. Moroccan and Algerian tajine dishes are slow-cooked savoury stews, typically made with sliced meat, poultry or fish together with vegetables or fruit. Spices, nuts and dried fruits are also used. Common spices include ginger, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, and saffron. Paprika and chilli are used in vegetable tajines. The sweet and sour combination is common in tajine dishes like lamb with dates and spices. Tajines are generally served with bread (source).
I’ve shared my love for Tagine a few times here on the blog, and I stand by each and every comment. The two times we ate Tagine (in three days) in Marrakech, I was not disappointed. Whether it was lamb or chicken, the meat fell off the bone with a shocking ease, and after dipped in its juices, it melted in your mouth; the spicy and sweet flavours teasing you palate. Following the meal, all I could do was nap; but as soon as my head hit the pillow I couldn’t help but plan our next trip back to eat more Tagine.
Broodje haring is herring soaked in a mild preserving liquid. It can be raw herring in a mild vinegar pickle or Dutch brined herring. In the Netherlands herring is most often served as a snack, most frequently plain, or with cut onions. The whole herring is often eaten by lifting the herring by its tail and eat it upwards holding it over your mouth (source).
Dave and I sampled a lot of pickled herring throughout the year; I’m not really sure why we started but once we did it became kind of a game to see how many countries we could eat it in. Of all the herring we sampled, the Dutch broodje haring was the only one considered a national dish. The broodje haring can be eaten two ways – on a bun accompanied by pickles and onions, or whole, swallowed in one foul swoop. I decided to go with the former, and let me tell you, after eating a raw fish and raw onion sandwich I was making friends in Amsterdam like you wouldn’t believe (or not at all, this sandwich requires a serious gum chaser). The flavours of the sandwich weren’t as intense as I would have imagined; the fish was only lightly pickled and complimented the sweet pickle and raw onion beautifully.
Are you interested in learning more about herring? Well, lucky for you because the Petite Adventures resident herring expert (aka, my travel partner and boyfriend, Dave) will be sharing his thoughts, feelings and reactions to the different forms of herring he sampled throughout the year. Stay tuned!
Bryndzové Halušky is a hearty meal that consists of halušky, a boiled lumps of potato dough similar in appearance to gnocchi, and bryndza, a soft sheep cheese, optionally sprinkled with cooked bits of smoked pork fat/bacon (source).
Bryndzové halušky is by far the most interesting national dish I sampled this year and the one that took the most courage. As soon as I read about this dish, I knew had to try it, but at the same time I just wasn’t sure about the sheep’s cheese – there was just something about it and I honestly can’t explain why because I’m a big fan of goat’s cheese, which isn’t that much different. This might have just been that one occasion here the unknown was getting to me. But, I stuck to my guns and ordered it the first chance I got.
Bryndzové halušky is nothing short of a hearty meal; this gnocchi ‘n’ cheese dish stuck to your ribs, your stomach and every other organ it got close to. The cheese did not have a soft flavour, and apparently made itself known by emitting quite the smell, but I was oblivious to it as I dug deep into the dish. Overall, Bryndzové halušky was good and more than filling – I love to eat, but half a portion would have been sufficient. I’m not 100% sure I’d order it again, but who knows; I am a sucker for mac ’n’ cheese.
Spain is a country divided into 17 autonomous regions, and each region has its own special dish. I had the opportunity to sample the national dish (tortilla española) more than a few times throughout our year in Spain, as well as sampling regional delicacies in the provinces of Madrid and Valencia.
It should be noted that overall, I’m not the biggest fan of Spanish food; there’s really so much jamón, cheese and potato a girl can eat, and I was a bit disappointed in the lack of spices and spice. But, for the purpose of this food review, I’ve pushed passed my post-gap year jaded views and have thought back to a time when Spanish food was new, exciting, and I wasn’t wishing ill on every potato I encountered.
Tortilla española (national)
Spanish omelette is the English name for a typical Spanish dish called tortilla española or tortilla de patatas from Spain, consisting of an omelette made with eggs and potato, fried in oil usually only found in Spain (source)
Tortilla española isn’t the most exciting food, but in a pinch, it makes for a great snack. It can be eaten in many ways, the mot popular being on its own – small pieces pierced with a toothpick – or as the filling in a sandwich. As I was often enjoying my tortilla alongside a couple of ice-cold cervezas with a few friends, I opted for the former.
Patatas Bravas (Madrid)
Patatas bravas typically consists of white potatoes that have been cut into irregular shapes of about 2 centimetres, then fried in oil and served warm with a sauce such as a spicy tomato sauce or an aioli (source).
Of all the potato dishes I sampled in Spain patatas bravas is my favourite and that is mostly thanks to the sauce. Chunks of deep fried potato smothered in garlic and spicy tomato sauce, I mean really, you can’t go wrong!
Paella is a Valencian rice dish with ancient roots that originated in its modern form in the mid-19th century near Albufera lagoon on the east coast of Spain adjacent to the city of Valencia. While there are many different types of paella, Valencian paella is believed to be the original recipe and consists of white rice, green beans (bajoqueta and tavella), meat (chicken and rabbit), white beans (garrofón), snails, and seasonings such as saffron and rosemary.
Paella is delicious; the combination of spices, meats and peas is perfect. I enjoyed it more than a few times when we were in Spain (and even learned to make it) but there’s nothing quite like eating a meal in the city from which is originated. Valencians take paella seriously, so it was easy to taste the love and pride they had for the meal with each bite.
Hungry yet? Because I know I am. After reliving my food memories from 2016, I can’t wait to get back on the road and sample a few more national dishes.
What national dishes have you tried, and would recommend?
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