National Dish Quest: Experiencing the World Through Food

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JB Macatulad is one-half of Will Fly for Food, a travel blog for the gastronomically inclined. He and his wife Renée are the Traveleaters who enjoy experiencing the world through food.


We love to eat. It’s the one thing that excites us most about travel. For some people, it’s climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro or diving the Great Blue Hole. For others, it’s visiting a UNESCO World Heritage Site or doing the Camino de Santiago. But for us, it’s the food. Just the thought of tasting something new and unfamiliar is enough to give us a serious case of resfeber.

Food has always played a key role in our travel decisions. If a destination is known for having interesting food, then chances are it’s on our list (if we haven’t crossed it off already). Our desire to try new and unique dishes takes us to some pretty interesting locations.

In a week’s time, we’ll be in Minoh, a city in Osaka prefecture known for serving momiji or maple leaf tempura. It’s said to be the only place in the world that offers this dish. In May of next year, we’ll be spending the day in Vila do Bispo in Portugal to try percebes, a delicacy of goose barnacles more colorfully known as “Lucifer’s Finger’s”. We’ve also tried basashi or horse sashimi in Kumamoto, sannakji or “live” octopus in Korea, and tamilok or mangrove woodworms in Palawan, among others.

As exciting as it is to try new and exotic delicacies, it isn’t just the promise of the unconventional that drives us. Much like art or language, food teaches us a lot about a culture and its people.

That bowl of mi quang we enjoyed in Da Nang taught us about the resourcefulness of the Central Vietnamese. The invention of chicken ramen demonstrates the resiliency of the Japanese while the communal way food is served in Korea is a testament to the importance of the family unit in Korean culture. You only need to look that far to make sense of the seemingly bizarre spectacle of mukbang, and to understand why haute cuisine hasn’t caught on in Korean food.

The way we see it, we haven’t fully experienced a new culture until we’ve tried enough of the local cuisine, which is why we started our National Dish Quest – to try every country’s national dish and learn as much as we can through food.

THE BEGINNINGS OF A QUEST

I attended Gary’s session on social proof at TBC Asia Manila in 2016. At the time, I was doing our blog mainly as a hobby so I had little idea on what social proof meant. I needed all the help I could get with growing our social media presence so I attended the session.

One of the topics he discussed that really resonated with me was his example of Justin Carmack’s list of the top 100 dive sites in the world. At the time, Justin was struggling to make his travel scuba diving blog stand out, so Gary suggested he create a list of the world’s most sought-after dive sites. Justin did, and it was just enough to get his blog noticed and land him a few promising opportunities.

I’ve always been a fan of crossing off to-do lists so I took this suggestion to heart and ran with it. Ours was a travel food blog so I couldn’t come up with just any kind of list. It had to be relevant to our niche so I came up with the idea of sampling every country’s national dish. We were already basically doing it. Why not formalize it and put it in the form of a tangible list? Something that people could easily relate to and digest.

It’s proven to be promising for us thus far. It’s gotten us on a few podcasts, interviews, and food tours. We even won an award at the recently conducted TBC Asia 2018 in Sri Lanka, taking home silver for best travel food blog.

Before the list, we were just another married couple traveling the world together, but now, we were the Travelers on a quest to try every country’s national dish. It sounds a lot more interesting and purposeful doesn’t it? Not only has it given us more to look forward to when we travel, but it’s provided us with an identity, something to leverage for many years to come.

HIGHLIGHTS FROM OUR NATIONAL DISH QUEST

We’re still only at the start of our quest but we’ve already learned quite a bit from this journey. Every experience is special and noteworthy in its own right, but here are five that stand out.

Japan

Japanese sushi
Japanese sushi

It only makes sense that I start this list with Japan. Japanese is my absolute favorite cuisine in the world and the one I can’t do without. In fact, if I were to be relegated to just one cuisine for the rest of my life, then it would be Japanese.

Based on my research, Japan recognizes three national dishes – sushi, curry, and ramen. For the purpose of this article, I’ll only discuss sushi which is probably the first dish that comes to mind when most people think of Japanese food. If you live on Mars and have never heard of sushi, it’s a dish consisting of specially prepared vinegared rice combined with a variety of ingredients, mostly raw seafood.

When we first stated traveling, I assumed that eating a dish where it’s originally from would be a significantly better experience than trying it somewhere else. But that isn’t always the case. I recently went to Delhi and found that the butter chicken there was only marginally better than the best butter chicken I’ve had in other parts of the world, at least by my standards. It wasn’t infinitely better like I was expecting it to be.

Not so in Japan. Here, everything is better. They are such a precise and exacting people that the extra effort they put into doing things manifests in everything they do – from their electronics to their packaging designs, to their food. Being raw, you’d think something like sushi would be on par everywhere, but it isn’t. In Japan, every piece of sushi you put into your mouth is the best sushi you’ve ever tasted in your life. It’s that good.

Sushi is better in Japan
Sushi is better in Japan

Vietnam

I added Vietnam to this list because Vietnamese is one of the cuisines that surprised me the most. Neither my wife nor I were big fans of Vietnamese cuisine until we spent two weeks in the country. Now, we look for it every chance we get.

Vietnamese banh mi
Vietnamesse banh mi

The one invaluable lesson Vietnamese cuisine taught us was balance. We already knew how important it was before, but to see it in practice to this degree was remarkable and inspiring. The yin and yang of flavor, texture, and temperature were palpable in many of the dishes we tried, even in the street food. Sweet would be balanced with salty, hot with cold, smooth with gritty.

I remember eating nem cua be from a street food vendor in Hanoi. Nem cua be are deep-fried spring rolls made with pork and crab meat. In our native Philippines, we have similar dishes which we enjoy with a side of vinegar or ketchup. That’s it. But in Vietnam, they have it with a side of fresh greens like lettuce, coriander, perilla, and mint, along with a dipping sauce made with water, fish sauce, cucumber slices, and other ingredients.

I’ve eaten fried spring rolls all my life and I always found them to be too greasy and unctuous. But these Vietnamese spring rolls were surprisingly refreshing in spite of being deep-fried and oily, and much of that had to do with this balance of ingredients. It was an eye-opening experience for me, and one that suggested if the Vietnamese had the wherewithal to apply this discipline of balance to their food, then they probably achieve it in other aspects of their lives as well.

Pho, goi cuon, and banh mì are listed as Vietnamese national dishes. My personal favorite of those three is banh mi, which I think is one of the best sandwiches you can have anywhere in the world. For me, the secret to a good sandwich is in the bread. Vietnamese baguettes are crusty on the outside but soft and pillowy on the inside so they sort of crumble in on themselves when you take a bite. They’re so good.

Best sandwich in the world?
Best sandwich in the world?

United Kingdom

Like Vietnam, the United Kingdom was surprising to me, but not for the same reasons. It was surprising because it turns out that my favorite Indian dish in the world – chicken tikka masala – wasn’t of Indian origin at all. It actually originated from the United Kingdom, where it’s a national dish! I couldn’t believe it.

Chicken Tikka Masala
Chicken Tikka Masala

Though no one seems to really know where the dish came from, one story traces chicken tikka masala’s roots to Glasgow in the 1970s. The Shish Mahal restaurant had been offering chicken tikka on their menu, when one customer complained of the chicken’s dryness and requested it be served with sauce. They sent it back to the kitchen and cooked it with a sauce containing yogurt, cream, and spices, and so chicken tikka masala was born.

It’s funny, there are many versions to this story so the true origin of this dish isn’t certain. I recently went on multiple food tours throughout India and my guides gave conflicting accounts as well, some even claiming that it is, in fact, a dish of Indian origin. I guess we’ll never know.

Indian curry is one of my absolute favorite dishes in the world. For me, there are few greater pleasures than dipping freshly baked garlic butter naan bread into a rich, creamy bowl of masala curry. It’s to die for and would make a strong contender for my hypothetical last meal.

If I were to die tomorrow, then what would I eat tonight? Chicken tikka masala with naan bread would be on my shortlist.

Believe it or not, it is from Scotland, not India
Believe it or not, it is from Scotland, not India

The Philippines

Speaking of last meals, I couldn’t possibly write this article without including my native Philippines. We don’t have the most enticing cuisine in the world – in fact, many travelers find it to be their least favorite in Southeast Asia – but I grew up with it and find it to be the most comforting.

For several years now, my wife and I ask nearly everyone we meet: “What would your hypothetical least meal be?” You’d think many people would say a Michelin-starred meal at this and that restaurant, but no, most people say something simple and comforting, like a cheeseburger or pizza, or a bowl of soup made by their grandmother. Asking people this question taught me that comfort is what many of us look for and value most in food.

Homemade Filipino adobo
Home made Filipino adobo

For many Filipinos, including myself, few dishes are more comforting than a home-cooked plate of adobo. It consists or meat marinated in a braising mixture of vinegar, soy sauce, black peppercorns, bay leaf, and garlic. Ask any Filipino: “Who makes the best adobo?” and nearly all of them will say “my mom”. It’s recognized as our one and only national dish and would be a strong contender for my hypothetical last meal as well.

Turkey

I’m adding Turkey to this list at the request of my wife Renée, the better Traveleater. Lamb is her favorite food in the world, which is why Turkey is currently her favorite country to visit for food.

When someone says “meat” in Turkey, more often than not they’re referring to lamb. Lamb is one of the most important elements in Turkish cuisine, with the Ottomans traditionally being herders and sheep being well-suited to Turkey’s climate. We had it almost every day in Turkey – stewed in casseroles, skewered as kebabs, served as chops and rolls, and used as a topping for pide and lahmacun.

One of the most popular ways to enjoy lamb is in doner form, which is a type of kebab cooked on a vertical rotisserie. The meat is sliced off the spit and served on a plate with various accompaniments, or it’s stuffed in bread as a type of wrap or sandwich. Doner is a Turkish national dish and one the best things we ate in our two weeks in the country.

Turkish Lamb Donner
Turkish Lamb Donner

FOOD BRINGS PEOPLE TOGETHER

One of the things I love most about food is its power to bring people together. We may not speak the same language or share the same religion and belief system, but we can get together and bond based on our mutual love for food.

In the Philippines, one of the most common greetings even amongst strangers is “Kumain ka na ba?” or “Kain tayo”. This means “Have you eaten?” and “Let’s eat” respectively. Food really does have the power to bridge cultural gaps, which is one of the reasons why this quest has become so near and dear to us.

We’re just at the beginning of our quest and have many more dishes to explore and experience. There’s too much food for us to enjoy on our own so we’ve opened up our quest to others. Food is all about sharing so if you love food as much as we do and would like to join us, then you can follow the link to learn how you can contribute to our National Dish Quest. We’d love to have you.

Thanks for reading and happy traveleating!