The other day I saw an article declaring how strange it was for a certain destination I love to actually have incredible food. I’d visited there several times and already knew how amazing the food scene is, but I was surprised that they were surprised. The fact is, that some cities, regions and even entire countries have terrible reputations when it comes to the culinary scene. Usually, although I admit not always, these reputations aren’t fair, especially in 2019. In the last 15 years or so, nearly every spot on the planet has realized that creating incredible food experiences isn’t just nice, but it’s healthier and better than what it replaced. Most cities have new chefs designing restaurants all the time, vintners and brewers are opening up new establishments and the average tourist is much more food literate than at any other time in history. (Can you imagine asking for quinoa 20 years ago?) In an effort to help destigmatize some spots around the world that I know to offer delicious food experiences, today I want to share some of my favorites that you might not expect. These are countries and cities that may have had bad food offered in the past but, thankfully, those days are largely gone forever.
This post started thanks to Ireland actually. It was a piece I saw by some journalist who said Irish cuisine is actually delicious. The truth is, not only is traditional food in Ireland amazing, but the new wave of chefs have established Ireland as one of the world’s great foodie destinations. While I truly do love traditional Irish cuisine, that’s not what has surprised me on successive visits to the country. No, instead what has left me intrigued is both the diversity of culinary influences as well as fine dining offered by some truly enterprising young (and not so young) chefs. I saw this most recently while on a slightly unusual food tour of the Stoneybatter neighborhood in Dublin. From coffee shops to small markets to thriving cafes, the many stops shared not only some of the best traditional food in the city, but the edgy ways in which the culinary scene is quickly changing. Covering everything from twists on the traditional sausage roll to coffee slushies and even black pudding, the time spent on the food tour was fun, educational and delicious. We ended our day at a gastropub, as famous for its menu as its beer selection. Trying yet more traditional Irish food reimagined, it was the ideal way to end the walk. It’s an exciting time to be in Dublin for sure, best seen on a leisurely walk through what’s new and exciting in the food scene of the city.
To be fair, many people already know that Colombia is a great foodie destination, but after my trip I learned that there are certain misconceptions about what it’s like to eat in the country. To be fair, there is a lot of fried everything, which I loved but I also understand that it might not be for everyone. Instead, I recommend learning about the different regions around the country. There is no single national Colombian dish though. As with the more snacky foods, even the most popular meals vary dramatically throughout the country. Soups in Bogota are popular, if not incredibly hearty, but in the coffee growing regions these morph into stews with rice, meats with plenty of avocado on the side. In Cartagena the meals are heavily influenced by the city’s position on the Caribbean, so if you’ve traveled around the West Indies before these are flavors well known to you. No matter what you decide to try, try it you must. These traditional and more rustic meals, although different around the country, are at the heart of the Colombian food experience.
I think that the misconception about German food is finally changing and, to be honest, it’s about time. I’m fairly certain that I’ve spent more time in Germany than any other country in Europe and what I’ve learned over the course of those many visits is just how dynamic the country is, and that is certainly reflected in its cuisine. A large country with very distinct regions, the culinary staples shift depending on where in the country you visit and if you’re looking for those hearty German meals that for many people define the country, you’ll find them. But if you look a little harder, you’ll discover a delicious and expansive food scene, like the one I found in Munich. The heart of the Bavarian food experience, many visitors travel here just for the pretzels, beer and sausages. Munich isn’t only about its traditional food though, it’s a vibrant and dynamic city with a lot to offer. This is very well reflected in the current food scene and some very creative and innovative cooks are creating delicious bites. A local food writer spent an evening with me, sharing some of his favorite up and coming spots around Munich, but the one that resonated most with me was an unlikely discovery in southern Germany, a traditional American BBQ joint. There are actually several of these popping up all around Munich; I guess the food from my childhood has made it across the Atlantic. It was a welcome find though and as soon as I stepped into the popular restaurant Meisterstück, I knew I was in for a great evening of delicious food. Low and slow is the name of the game here and the restaurant features a number of BBQ classics, served alongside their equally fabulous beer. It was a surprising discovery, but a welcome one.
Not unlike the US, the United Kingdom has long been the butt of food related jokes and, for a long time, it was in part deserved. A lot has changed though and the culinary scene in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland couldn’t be better, as I’m reminded of whenever I visit. My most recent foray into England was yet another culinary lesson as I ate my way around Manchester. There were many fantastic foodie moments, but for first time visitors I think a more casual introduction is the best way to see what the city is all about, starting at Mackie Mayor. A reclaimed Victorian market hall, this is the exact sort of establishment that the shift in food tastes has created. Inside you’ll find a variety of stalls, permanent food trucks of a sort, offering a little bit of everything, again with a fierce creativity and sense of style. It also doesn’t hurt that the space itself is gorgeous; light and airy but preserving the architectural bones from the 19th century.
Most famous for its many casinos, the historical and traditional side of Macao is too often ignored by visitors. That’s a shame because, as I learned on a brief visit, it’s an incredible city to explore and the food traditions here are as interesting as that history. Loosely based on Portuguese traditions, Macanese cuisine uses spices and ingredients from Africa, Southeast Asia and India – including curry, coconut milk, cloves and cinnamon – which are combined using Chinese culinary skills in a wonderful potpourri of tastes and aromas, giving birth to the uniquely delicious Macanese cuisine of today. African chicken is perhaps the most famous dish, but my favorite was a hash of sorts called Minchi. Originally made by using what was around the kitchen, it’s a combination of meat, potatoes, spices, rice and egg and was usually cooked by parents looking to feed their large families. It’s been embraced again though by traditional restaurants in the city and for me, is the star of Macanese cuisine. UNESCO has even recognized Macao for its very unique culinary history and to enjoy it in person is just one of those experiences everyone has to try at least once.
The Northern Lights, Santa Claus and epic natural adventures are all things that come to mind when one thinks of Finland. Food is not but, as I learned, as long as you avoid their dreadful licorice there are some incredible bites around the country. Like most national cuisines, the unique history of Finland still in large part defines traditional food culture. Centuries of intensely cold winters and remote locations means that meats, hearty stews and anything preserved were the go-to staples in Finland. I experienced this almost immediately when I sat down to my first lunch in Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland. Fish stews and plates of reindeer served with mashed potatoes and lingonberry jam were the popular choices. I didn’t know it at the time, but on that table were some of the most iconic plates in traditional Finnish cuisine. They’re also flavors I became very familiar with, at least in the northern part of the country, finding variations of reindeer filet and stews at almost every meal. Finns though are design-conscious and creative, which means that even up in Rovaniemi there are some new and exciting food trends underway.
My own country too often is the subject of culinary derision around the world, which is a shame. Those who call the US home understand best our complex and delicious culinary history, but visitors to our fair land don’t see the same landscape. Instead they opt to believe often-repeated stereotypes, many of which are completely baseless. That’s a recurring theme actually and something I’ve found throughout my travels. We all have stereotypes about every place we visit, and this extends to the food culture as well. So most times we seek out those dishes that are the most iconic, even though they may not be the best bites. Instead when you visit the US, be sure to match the regions you visit. It may be heavy, but in the South please do try BBQ obtained from a small shack, preferably one without a sign. Aside from that stereotype, the South is also home to some of the most innovative chefs in the nation, preparing intricately prepared meals with an expert touch. But more than anything, when you visit the US please look at the country with a fresh set of eyes. If all you expect is heavy foods served in huge quantities, then that is all you will find. Instead look beyond those misconceptions and you’ll find the real heart and soul of modern American cuisine.
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