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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.)
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
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.)
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.