Thursday, April 7, 2011

Lonely Planet's Best Countries for the Hungry Traveler

Fresh peppers in a Croatian market
Right before our move, I received Lonely Planet's March e-newsletter and was excited to see 'The World's Best Countries For Food' as their featured article.  Just glancing at the list made me incredibly hungry, and somewhat regretful that I've only visited a handful of countries that made the cut; of the ten listed (Thailand, Greece, China, France, Spain, Mexico, Italy, India, Japan, Indonesia & Malaysia), I've visited only four (France, Spain, Mexico and Italy).  There are some that sound extremely appealing - I love Americanized Thai food and have tasted some delicious Greek food, albeit outside Greece - but I'll have to reserve my judgment until I've had the chance to try them firsthand.

Of course, I do have a few favorites from my own travels and am always interested in hearing the recommendations of others.  While I don't generally pick my destinations solely on the basis of their food, I'll admit that it does play a part! So, how does my list stack up against Lonely Planet's? Well, here it is for your perusal:

Maltese sausage and rabbit
Malta: I'm not sure what I expected from our visit to Malta, but I certainly couldn't have imagined anything close to the reality of this amazing island nation. A mixture of Mediterranean, North African, Middle Eastern and European cultures, the country itself is fascinating, from the architecture to the history, the cultural identity and the language.  The food, too, is a magnificent melange of cultural influences.  We loved the seafood, the prevalence of rabbit on local menus, and also the use of traditionally Central Asian spices and flavors.  One of my favorite Maltese foods were the pastizzi - ricotta or pea filled savory pastries, often flavored with curry, that made great midday snacks or, paired with salad or soup, an excellent meal.  Of course, the anglophile in me also loved the chance to visit a Marks & Spencer and stock up on Cadbury chocolate, due to the residual British influence.

Squid Pasta in Malta
Croatia: I've only had the pleasure of visiting the Istrian peninsula, but I'll never forget the excellent seafood and truffle-infused dishes I tasted there - we unintentionally arrived during truffle season and I'd certainly recommend it!  I don't think we had a mediocre meal during our entire visit, even in some of the more unpromising-looking places.  I sampled squid in the seaside town of Opatija and it was truly unforgettable - fresh, light, flavorful.  In the hill towns, we ate heartier fare that reminded me of dishes we'd enjoyed in Tuscany.  When you're eating out often (as is necessary on the road) variety is key and Croatia certainly delivered!

Truffle and wild mushroom pizza in an Istrian hill town
Italy: A country famous for its cuisine, and for good reason - there's so much variety in Italian food that you could live there all your life and barely scratch the surface.  Matt and I had the pleasure of spending a few weeks in Italy last summer and came away with many culinary memories and inspirations. From wild boar with chocolate sauce in Tuscany, to the thin, almost crispy pizzas of the South, our tour through Italy was a veritable feast.  Also, the Italians invented gelato - need I say more?

Almond Cake in Venice
Spain: After all my raving about the Camino de Santiago, I'm sure you knew that Spain would feature on my list.  Unfortunately, I can only attest to the cuisine of the north, but I'd like to give special mention to the region of Galicia where we tasted the freshest, most flavorful and most filling foods of the entire trip. By the end of the month, I was craving rich lentil soup, had developed a taste for boiled, spicy octopus, and had discovered my new favorite meal of all time - chipirones, or pan-seared baby squid flavored with nothing more than good olive oil and coarse salt.  Sometimes the simplest things really are the best.

Chipirones in Santiago de Compostella
Czech Republic: Okay, so I'm biased but I really do love Czech food and think that it offers something unique and exciting to the culinary traveler.  Much like the Bavarian cuisine I encountered during my time in Germany, Czech food is stick-to-your-ribs fare, but it's still good.  Caraway and paprika are standout flavors and, if you love pork or game meats, the Czech Republic is the place to visit! I also love their bakeries, with hearty breads (often seeded or spiced - my favorite kinds!) and rich, doughy pastries that aren't quite as sweet as our American treats, showcasing unique ingredients like cheese, stone fruits and poppyseed. The Czech Republic also makes a few good cheeses, which are the perfect accompaniment to the aforementioned bread.

Honorable Mentions:
Finland: It's been nearly ten years since I was there but I still remember the fresh berries, excellent, dense breads and the licorice. Oh, the licorice. For black licorice lovers, Finland is a must-visit destination!
Great Britain: A lot of nasty things have been said about British food, but there are some dishes that can hold their own, even amongst international circles.  Yorkshire Pudding, roast potatoes, lamb and mint and Stilton cheese are just a few standouts. I also think there's a lot to be said for Cadburys chocolate and iconic British puds (i.e. desserts) like Victoria Sponge Cake, cream teas and sticky toffee pudding. Healthy? No. Delicious? Oh yes.
Uganda: My first passionfruit experience occurred here, and it was revelatory.  What amazed me was that apples were treated as a fresh-fruit commodity while passionfruit was, literally, a dime a dozen! Another memorable food moment was fresh-caught, grilled-before-my-eyes tilapia on the shores of Lake Victoria. I also loved all the North African influences, as demonstrated by the use of curry and the street vendors selling chapati at all hours. Mmmm, street food.
Germany: Schnitzel, rye bread, white asparagus, fried carp, liver dumplings and Lebkuchen, just to name a few.  Keep reading long enough and all of these will probably make an appearance on the blog!

Phew! After listing a large chunk of the countries I've visited, I guess the real lesson here is that I just love food and am able to find favorites wherever my travels take me.  For me, that's one of the most important things to remember about foreign food;  it may seem intimidating, but there's usually something for everyone and the best way to find your something is to be open to trying everything.  Maybe I'm just too easily pleased, but I believe you can't go wrong with Andrew Zimmern's maxim from Bizzare Foods: "If it looks good, eat it!"

What food discoveries have you made on your travels? What do you think about Lonely Planet's Best Foods breakdown? Would any of my countries make your list?

No comments:

Post a Comment