What a culture eats can say a lot about its character. It's called cuisine, doofus, and a lot of countries have one iconic dish that is the most widely eaten thing within its borders. But how do these meals stack up, say, from a taste and ingredient standpoint? We set out to rank them, from least impressive to world-class.
Naturally, not every country has a most-loved pick, and some are just too big and diverse -- we're looking at you, India -- to pick one. So, without further ado (or any tandoori), here are 27 countries’ favorite dishes going head-to-head:
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Hakarl What it is: Fermented shark Why it placed where it did: Sharks in the movies seem to have a big appetite for people, but the reciprocal isn't really true; Anthony Bourdain tried this stuff -- rotten, fermented shark -- and said it's the worst thing he's ever eaten. And that dude's eaten raw seal eyeball. And probably a lot of other things that weren't on his show.
Bigos What it is: Sauerkraut and meat stew Why it placed where it did: This Polish hunter's stew is assuredly hearty, but that's about all it's got going for it. Best washed down with Sobieski. The vodka. Not the Leelee.
Colcannon What it is: Mashed potatoes and kale Why it placed where it did: Despite being the subject of many a jaunty Irish tune, colcannon isn't too awe-inspiring of a dish. Fun to say, though. Especially after a few pints of Uncle Arthur.
Moules frites What it is: Mussels and fries Why it placed where it did: When you get mussels at any Belgian restaurant, you usually get a huge portion -- and that can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your personal level of affection for mussels ("meh", says I). The fries are universal. As are the Mussels from Brussels jokes.
Ful medames What it is: Mashed fava beans in oil with cumin Why it placed where it did: In addition to being a favorite of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, fava beans are just plain OK. Kinda lacking in the food group department (it could use some pita), though.
Fasolada What it is: White beans, vegetables, and olive oil stew Why it placed where it did: The last entrant in the "IT'S JUST BEANS" category is Greece, whose fasolada is a stew with big white beans and olive oil and some veggies, like tomatoes and peppers. It was supposedly the dish most heavily favored by the ancient Greeks, and those guys invented democracy... but, like this dish, their version wasn't perfect.
Frikadeller What it is: Danish meatballs Why it placed where it did: These aren't technically meatballs; more like minced meat dumplings that are composed of veal, beef, or pork. They're generally served with boiled potatoes and gravy. Rated middle-of-the-road because the meat factor is there, but they're a bit lacking in imagination -- like the similarly named 1979 Bill Murray vehicle (That's right, we said it!).
Adobo What it is: Vinegar-stewed meat Why it placed where it did: The word "adobo" is a loanword from Spanish, which was first used by explorers when they experienced the cooking of the Philippine islands. It means "marinade", and that's pretty much what adobo is -- any meat simmered in vinegar, soy sauce, and other stuff until it's tender. It's delicious, but there are better meat preparations on this list.
Chiles en nogada What it is: Meat-stuffed poblano pepper with walnut sauce Why it placed where it did: We would've expected a slightly stronger showing in the national dish department from Mexico (hola, tacos!), but chiles en nogada ain't half bad. The colors of the dish are supposed to represent the colors of the Mexican flag, so it's got that going for it. (Although we're kinda glad hamburgers aren't red, white, and blue.)
Ajiaco What it is: Herb, potato, and chicken stew Why it placed where it did: With a nice diverse flavor profile and a spicy kick, ajiaco is a solid stew. It could also be attributed to Cuba, where it means something slightly different and isn't quite as ubiquitous. So, to Colombia it goes, just like so many anti-Spanish Empire revolutionaries after achieving independence.
Wat with injera What it is: Meat/vegetable stew with spongy bread Why it placed where it did: Wat can be made with pretty much any meat -- chicken, beef, lamb -- and is always spiced with berbere. It's eaten by scooping some up with injera, the spongy bread that acts as utensil and place mat in Ethiopian dining settings. Despite its promised spice, it's usually still relatively mild.
16. South Korea
Bulgogi What it is: Grilled, marinated beef Why it placed where it did: If you haven't experienced the joys of Korean barbecue, do so immediately, and be sure to order as much as you can of their delicious signature meat: bulgogi. It's marinated beef that's super flavorful, owing to a marinade of soy sauce, sugar, and sesame oil. Our one problem with it is that the strips of sirloin are usually too thin and too few. Also, at restaurants, you have to grill them yourself. Talk about high maintenance! (Just kidding... it's actually pretty awesome.)
Crepe What it is: ... A thin pancake Why it placed where it did: An argument could be made for France's most popular restaurant dish (magret du canard, or duck breast), but crepes have been their international export (now available in most mall food courts, probably much to the chagrin of every French person ever), and are good whether prepared sweet or savory.
Peking duck What it is: Glazed, roasted duck Why it placed where it did: Peking duck is an ancient dish that has been made in the Beijing area for over a thousand years. Sure, the meat is tender, but the real value of the dish is in the skin -- and there's precious little of it.
Fish and chips What it is: Battered fish with fries Why it placed where it did: England's cuisine isn't quite world-renowned, but they are really good at making fried things (hello, fried candy bars!), and fish & chips are no exception. Plus, you usually get to read a newspaper while you eat it! Everyone wins (especially Rupert Murdoch).
Feijoada What it is: Bean and pork/beef stew Why it placed where it did: This hearty Brazilian stew is served with farofa (coarse cassava flour) toasted in fat, but it's mostly comprised of beans and pork. And while the parts of the pig used in it might have changed since the olden days (from intestines and noses to, well, pretty much anything else), it's still as smoky and salty as ever.
Pad Thai What it is: Stir-fried noodles with shrimp and/or meat Why it placed where it did: That nighttime staple of many a Seamless/GrubHub order is, obviously, such a popular dish with good reason. Sweet and savory, pad Thai is a powerhouse of a dish whose only weakness is that peeps with peanut allergies usually can't touch it.
Falafel What it is: Fried chickpea balls Why it placed where it did: While there's no proper "national dish" of Israel, most people there agree that the fried falafel that is on every street corner, in every strip mall, and usually in everyone's stomach should be the clear choice.
Ramen What it is: Noodle soup Why it placed where it did: You'd think Japan's national dish would be sushi, but ramen's really the dish people there go for at all times of day -- ramen shops dot the streets, and are popular after-work haunts for lots of business-types, who inevitably have to explain why they smell like ramen when they get home afterward.
Currywurst What it is: Sausage with curry sauce/spices Why it placed where it did: Currywurst is a reflection of changing tastes within Germany, and it's got the best of both worlds. National figures estimate that around 800,000,000 servings of currywurst are eaten in Germany every year. And since Germans are all about efficiency, we can logically assume that they all cleaned their plates.
Wiener schnitzel What it is: Breaded veal tenderloin Why it placed where it did: Tenderized, breaded, fried veal tenderloin. Yep. That's about all you need to know.
Arepa What it is: Maize flatbread stuffed with fillings Why it placed where it did: We already lauded arepas as our favorite international breakfast, and they more than hold up in the national dish rankings as well. These maize-based flatbreads are stuffed with all kinds of stuff, from avocados to salty cheese to smoked chicken and other meats. Their versatility is their greatest asset.
Pho What it is: Noodle soup Why it placed where it did: Another noodle soup?! Yeah mang, but this one's made with rice noodles instead of ramen's wheat ones, and it is generally brothier and spicier, owing to the inclusion of chili peppers. They also usually put brisket and meatballs in there, too. And tendon. Or, if you're adventurous, pizzle. But maybe don't be that adventurous.
Doner kebab What it is: Spit-roasted lamb/veal in a wrap Why it placed where it did: The story of the doner kebab is long and riddled with history, and while it may be considered another one of Central Europe's favorite fast foods, it originated in good ol' Turkey, where -- since the days of the Ottoman Empire -- street vendors have been shaving crispy meat from a vertical spit and tossing it into a lavash with lettuce, tomato, onion, cabbage, and sauce. Sometimes they put fries in there, too, if they're feeling particularly awesome.
Pasta What it is: C'mon. You know. Why it placed where it did: OK, so there are about a thousand pasta dishes out there. And sure, boxed macaroni and cheese technically qualifies (and sometimes it's great!), but there's nothing in this world quite like the experience of a pasta dish in Italy made by someone's Nonna.
Hamburger What it is: All that is good in the world Why it placed where it did: Whether fancified and topped with an aioli you cannot pronounce or just a simple American cheese masterpiece, burgers are the lifeblood of America, and there are few things in life as pleasurable as the first bite of a burger as the juices of the patty, the crunch of pickle, the smoky, sweetness of caramelized onion, and the tang of cheese meld into… whoa. Wait. Sorry we just blacked out for a second.
Poutine What it is: Fries with gravy and cheese curds Why it placed where it did: There are typically only three ingredients to this most kingly of Canadian exports (sorry, Michael Cera), but that doesn't mean it's not amazing. In fact, simplicity is its biggest asset -- aww, who are we kidding? This sh*t's just the bomb, and we're totally unashamed to give our Northern neighbor a gravy-covered hat tip for their master dish.
Adam Lapetina is a food/drink staff writer at Thrillist, and is probably eating a hamburger right now, wherever he is. Read his musings on Twitter at @adamlapetina.