One of the best things about being an expat is the opportunity to explore new cuisines. Sure, every expat misses the taste of home, but there’s no denying the excitement and satisfaction of encountering new flavours and sometimes falling in love with them. Trying a country’s national dish can be particularly rewarding. Because national dishes, whether official or unofficial, are so tied to local ingredients and local cultural traditions, they’re always distinctive, and they’re a great way to begin exploring local culture.Besides, as with any other dish, there are always regional variations, and because a national dish is by definition popular all across the country, there are often numerous versions to try.
Many national dishes tend to be classic combinations of protein and carbohydrates – meat and potatoes, for example, or beans and rice – with the spices and methods of preparation providing the unique, local touch. However, some are rather unusual, due to the main ingredient (yak’s cheese, for example) or the method of preparation (such as uncooked meat). But no matter how strange they may seem to some of us, there are good reasons why these dishes are so popular. Here are ten unusual national dishes that you should try.
Pepper Pot – Guyana
Guyana is a Caribbean nation on the South American mainland, and the country itself is unique in many ways. Particularly notable is the fact that it is the only South American nation where English is the official language, the result of Guyana being part of the British Empire for over 150 years.
In spite of the widespread British influence, the country’s national dish is an unusual Amerindian-based dish called Pepper Pot.
It’s a simple but delicious and satisfying meat stew with a handful of uncommon ingredients, the most important of which is cassareep. This is a sauce made from the juice of the cassava root (which is poisonous before it is cooked), with cinnamon, peppers, and a few other spices. Pepper pot, at its most basic, uses only cassareep, cinnamon, brown sugar, Caribbean peppers, and salt. Today, people often throw in a few additional ingredients like onions and garlic. The meat is usually beef, but pork and mutton are also quite common, and a portion of trotters and/or tail is often included. The resulting dish is a fragrant, rich, spicy stew that is traditionally eaten with homemade bread as a Christmas special.
Khash – Armenia
Khash is one of two dishes that are often described as Armenia’s national dish. Both are delicious, but khash is the more unusual one, in terms of both its ingredients and its simplicity. The main ingredient is cow (or goat) feet, but other bits of offal, usually the head and/or tripe, may be included. This is slow-cooked overnight, until the meat falls away from the bone, creating a thick, rich broth. In a sense, that’s all there is to the dish – no salt and no spices are used. However, there is at the same time plenty more to it, in terms of the food, drink, and traditions that accompany it.
Khash is a winter specialty, and after cooking all night, the broth is eaten hot as part of a communal breakfast, with dried lavash crumbled into it; salt, vinegar, lemon juice, and crushed garlic added to taste; and peppers, pickles, and greens on the side or on top. Lastly, there must also be a generous amount of vodka to drink, usually with several traditional toasts.
Ema datshi – Bhutan
Most cheeses and cheese-based dishes across the world are either European or have European origins or influences, especially if they’re popular enough to be a country’s national dish. In Bhutan however (and in nearby Nepal too), there are local cheeses that are quite popular, and Bhutan’s national dish is ema datshi, which can be literally translated into ‘chili cheese’, although this doesn’t describe the dish too well. The main ingredients are of course chilies (several varieties of local hot chilies) and cheese (local yak’s cheese, with a rather strong, pungent flavour and aroma), along with onions, tomatoes, and garlic. The dish also often includes beef or pork, although a vegetarian version with mushrooms can also be made. The ingredients are cooked to make a rich, delicious soup or gravy, which is eaten with local red or white rice.
Keshi yena – Aruba
Another cheese dish, this time from Aruba in the Dutch Caribbean. Keshi yena is usually described as Aruba’s national dish, but it’s quite popular in neighbouring Curacao as well. The dish uses the rind of a ball cheese, usually Edam, after the cheese itself has been scooped out and eaten. This shell is then stuffed with an assortment of ingredients, including meat (usually chicken or beef, and usually ground up), tomatoes, onions, peppers, olives, parsley, capers, garlic, raisins, celery, and a variety of seasonings, including salt, pepper, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, and relish. Once the shell has been stuffed, the hole is covered and sealed, and the whole thing is either baked or steamed.
Keshi yena is said to have started out as a dish made from table scraps by slaves; in any case, it was (and remains) a great way to use whatever is at hand and avoid waste, and there’s no definitive list of ingredients. In fact, now that the dish is so popular, it has turned into a delicacy of sorts, and restaurants in particular use fancier ingredients and even do away with the hassle of scooping out the shell without damaging it – instead, they turn the dish into a bake with a layer of cheese at the bottom and another on the top.
Bøfsandwich – Denmark
Denmark has two national dishes, one official and one unofficial. We’re not sure which one is more unusual – stegt flæsk, the official one, which has been described as “pork fat, and only pork fat, in parsley sauce”, or bøfsandwich, the Danish version of a hamburger. All things considered though, we feel that the hamburger, especially as a national dish, is the standout.
The dish is so popular in Denmark that it’s available almost everywhere you go, from street vendors to fast food restaurants, and even in some of the more expensive restaurants, where you’ll find some fancier versions. The bøfsandwich consists of a ground beef patty in a sliced bun (like any hamburger), along with raw, grilled, and roasted onions (a Scandinavian specialty), as well as dill pickles, and with remoulade, ketchup, and brown mustard as condiments. Sometimes, the bøfsandwich may also include sliced beetroot and/or pickled red cabbage, and brown gravy may be poured over it. Like the best burgers, it’s a huge, delicious mess!
Gored Gored – Eritrea
The only raw meat dish most people are aware of is sashimi. Most Europeans would also probably be aware of steak tartare, in which the main ingredient is minced, raw beef. However, not too many people have heard of kitfo and gored gored, both of which consist almost entirely of raw meat. Although both dishes are a bit of an acquired taste, they’re truly unique and delicious, and they’re immensely popular in Ethiopia and Eritrea – in fact, gored gored is often described as Eritrea’s national dish.
Gored gored is even simpler than its cousin kitfo, which involves some marination – for gored gored, tender cuts of beef are lightly pounded with a meat mallet, then cut into cubes, and then rolled in a mixture of dried spices (usually hot red peppers with garlic and ginger). That’s about all the preparation that’s involved. The dish is then served fresh and eaten communally, with injera, a local flatbread that’s another national dish. Of course, with a minimal, raw meat dish like this, the ingredients must be of stellar quality (the beef is usually grain-fed local beef), and must also be fresh and hygienically handled and prepared.
Ceviche – Peru and Ecuador
Another dish that uses raw meat; this time the meat is fish or other seafood, and the dish is eaten across the coastal parts of South America, as well as Central America and the Caribbean. However, it’s only in Peru and Ecuador that ceviche is popular enough to be the national dish. In fact, Peru even has National Ceviche Day, a holiday that is celebrated on June 28!
The dish basically consists of fresh raw fish, which is marinated in citrus juice spiced with chilli peppers. Beyond this, there are numerous variations, in terms of the seafood and the citrus juices that are used, the spices and other seasonings, and the accompaniments. Peruvian ceviche typically uses corvina cut into chunks, marinated in key lime juice or bitter orange juice, seasoned with salt, pepper, onions, and peppers, and served with corn-on-the-cob and sweet potato (only the last two are cooked). Ecuadorian ceviche is usually shrimp, lime juice, and salt, sometimes with tomato sauce, and served with toasted corn, plantain chips, or popcorn. However, these are only the most popular versions – in both countries, there are numerous local variations that use a variety of seafoods, ranging from shark to shellfish to crab.
Hákarl – Iceland
Many people are aware of Iceland’s fermented fish, but that doesn’t make it any less unusual. Hákarl is basically fermented shark meat – the meat of the Greenland shark contains certain natural toxins that make it poisonous unless this traditional curing process is used. The body of the shark is buried and left to ferment (the head and guts are removed, or else it would rot entirely) for a few months, then cut into strips, hung to dry for a few more months, and then chopped into cubes. As with all dried fish, the flavour and the aroma tend to be strong; however, with hákarl, the combination of fermenting as well as drying makes them even more intense. Locals however love hákarl, and so do the few outsiders who manage to develop a taste for it.
Kleicha – Iraq
Not too many countries have a dessert that’s popular enough to become a national dish, but Iraq does. These delicious little treats are wildly popular across the country among people of almost every community – Muslim, Christian, and Jewish families all have their own slightly different recipes, and make kleicha for any big celebration. Kleicha can be loosely described as a cookie/pastry that has a date or date paste inside, usually flavoured with cardamom and rose water. Some variations use desiccated coconut or nuts instead of or along with the date filling. If you ever get the chance to try kleicha, be careful – most people say they find it difficult to stop at one, or two… or even ten!
Pavlova – Australia and New Zealand
The pavlova is another national dish that’s a dessert, and it has a particularly interesting story – it’s said that it was invented by a chef as a tribute to the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova when she visited either Australia or New Zealand. That last bit is something that the two countries just can’t seem to agree upon, and most recently, it has been claimed that the invention took place in neither country but in the United States! In all probability, the pavlova was never “invented” but, like so many other dishes, evolved slowly and simultaneously across multiple locations. The one fact that is not in dispute is that both Aussies and Kiwis love their pavlovas.
The dessert is essentially a meringue cake – the outside is crisp, the inside is soft, and on the top is usually whipped cream and fresh fruit. In a way, the pavlova is really simple and easy; however, getting it right and keeping it from collapsing can be a bit tricky.
What’s your favourite local dish? Let us know in the comments!