One question we are constantly asked is, ‘what’s the best thing you’ve ever eaten on your travels?’ We’re typically left with a puzzled gaze, sputtering out a few words as we stumble over hundreds of foods in our heads. It’s about as easy to pick one meal as it is to pick a favorite country or city – we’ve had so many that have been wonderful yet so uniquely different.
Since we can’t choose just one, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best dishes we’ve had around the globe. Admittedly, “our” favorites here are largely Stephan’s picks (save for the pici pasta and vegan take on miang kham), as many national dishes are traditionally quite meat-centered. However, both of us do hope this list will provide some useful culinary information and inspiration for your next adventure abroad:
Lomo saltado (Peru)
One of Peru’s most beloved dishes, lomo saltado unexpectedly has roots in Asian cuisine, dating back to the 1850s when the first Chinese immigrants arrived in Peru. The savory stir-fry is considered a Chifa dish – a fusion of Chinese (Cantonese) and Peruvian flavors and ingredients – and has since become a staple of Peruvian cooking. Lomo saltado combines beef strips, tomato, onion, chili and soy sauce, and is served with both rice and fried potatoes, a nod to the two distinct cultures.
Sai oua (Laos)
Lao pork sausage is wildly popular in the Mekong River community of Luang Prabang. The traditional meat is seasoned with lemongrass, chilis and kaffir lime, and is a specialty that’s served at weddings, ceremonies, and celebrations. Stephan enjoyed the cured staple at several different restaurants throughout the city, each time raving about the Luang Prabang sausage’s unique and delicious flavor profile.
Or lam gai (Luang Prabang, Laos)
Another Lao dish that Stephan adored was or lam gai, also listed on menus as Luang Prabang stew. We quickly learned that Laotian food had a truly distinctive blend of flavors, unlike any food we’d tried before. The layers of spice, bitterness, and light sweetness created this intricate and harmonious essence that was really enjoyable in every dish we tried. Or lam gai featured chicken in a rich broth accompanied by crisp Thai eggplants (small, round, green and white vegetables about the size of a ping pong ball), bitter greens, lemongrass, basil, and chili wood – a naturally-spicy, wild pepper vine.
Noticing a trend yet? If you are a foodie at heart, Laos really seems to be southeast Asia’s hidden gem. While Thailand and Vietnam are regularly touted for their delicious and inexpensive cuisine (and rightfully so), Laos is kind of tucked discreetly between it all. And nestled within the mountains of central Laos, beside the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, Luang Prabang in particular showcases some exceptional, authentic Laotian fare.
With that, a third traditional Lao dish to make our ‘must have’ list is larb. The minced meat (typically beef, beef tripe or chicken/duck liver and gizzards) salad is tossed with a tangy, fermented fish sauce (padaek), fresh herbs, lime, chili and sticky rice. Stephan sampled a beef version at Lao Kitchen in Vientiane (at the recommendation of the owner of our guesthouse, Moonlight Champa), and was thoroughly impressed with the meal.
Miang kham (Laos)
While many of the ethnic foods on this list are meat-centric and, thus, mostly a compilation of Stephan’s favorites, miang kham is great local dish for the vegetarians out there. A traditional snack of Laos and Thailand, miang are typically served with small, dried shrimp; but because the dish is often served as a ‘build your own adventure,’ it’s quite easy to just omit the shellfish. I had a strict vegetarian version at Tamarind, a fantastic little café in Luang Prabang, that was really delicious. This dish was served with a heap of bitter greens, with a dozen or so compartmentalized goodies for stuffing inside the leaves – rice paste, eggplant paste, rice noodles, ginger, lemongrass, Thai chilis, shallots, lime, peanuts, long beans, and Thai eggplants. It looked like a gathering of random ingredients on the plate, but when you put everything together, it made for a really flavorful and cohesive combination.
Kep crab with Kampot peppercorns (Cambodia)
Along the shores of Kep Bay, in southeastern Cambodia’s coastal province of Kep, you’ll find the local crab market – a string of shabby stalls, each housing a small restaurant and offering freshly-caught crab and seafood for dine-in or take-away. At the waterfront market, fresh crab is pulled directly from bamboo traps off the back of the restaurants and served to eager diners. A much-loved and mouthwatering selection here is fresh crab sautéed with green Kampot peppercorns. And as good as the fresh crab was, the Kampot pepper may have stolen the show.
About 30 minutes (20 km) west of Kep, the small town of Kampot is nestled between the mountains and sea. With its quartz-rich soil, Kampot is said to have ideal conditions for producing high-quality, flavorful peppercorns. It’s believed that pepper has been grown in the region for some 1,000 years, with written accounts of an established trade dating back to ~1200 A.D. Today, Kampot pepper maintains a Protected Geographical Indication status, to protect both the name and character of the region’s agricultural product (other examples include Roquefort cheese or Georgian wine). If you’re visiting Kampot, we’d recommend a tour of Sothy’s Pepper Farm, a small, eco-certified pepper plantation that also grows a variety of fruit (rambutan, mango, and durian). Everything is done organically and follows environmentally-sustainable practices, and they have a great little tasting room where you can sample the peppercorns and specialties like handmade mango pepper jam and peppercorn tea.
Egg coffee (ca phe trung) (Hanoi, Vietnam)
A must-try if you’re visiting the historic capital and cultural hub of Hanoi, egg coffee combines a thick layer of sweetened foam made from egg yolk and condensed milk (similar to meringue) with a dark, bitter Vietnamese coffee. Served hot or cold (we enjoyed it hot), the unusual beverage is part coffee, part dessert. We tried a few egg coffees at little cafes across Old Town, including one at Café Giang, the bistro that claims to have invented the local favorite. Supposedly, the owner’s father concocted the drink back in 1946, when he substituted egg for milk, which was in short supply at the time. Whatever its true origins, egg coffee is certainly a special drink, and just another of Hanoi’s many curious treasures.
Bún chả (Vietnam)
Bún chả is a time-honored favorite of northern Vietnam, and one of Hanoi’s most beloved street foods. The dish combines grilled, fatty pork in a broth of fish sauce, sugar and vinegar, and is served with rice noodles, a mountain of fresh herbs and greens, and smaller sides of crushed garlic and Thai chilis. The balance of savory, salty, spicy, sweet and sour components gives the dish a really interesting character, and the filling meal can be had for just a few dollars.
Bún bó Hue (Vietnam)
As its name implies, this spicy beef and vermicelli soup originated in the Imperial City of Hue. Located in central Vietnam, Hue was the nation’s former capital and seat of the Nguyen Dynasty, Vietnam’s last ruling family. While Hue is most recognized for the 19th-century, walled citadel that stands commandingly beside the Perfume River, a bowl of traditional bun bo is another highlight after a day of touring the ancient city. Bun bo begins with a beef-base broth that gets a fiery kick from the addition of lemongrass and chili oil. The hearty soup is piled with pieces of tender beef and thick-cut rice noodles, and is finished with a bit of green onion and fresh lime.
Well, our culinary journey continues through Vietnam and with yet another meat and noodle-laden soup. But I suppose if you’ve got a versatile and delicious foundation for a meal, why not stick with it? Vietnam’s quintessential street food, pho is thought to have originated in the country’s northern Nam Dinh Province in the early 20th century. In the last couple decades, pho has exploded in popularity; the dish can now be found on menus around the world, and is a fixture on various world’s best food lists. Pho combines beef (sometimes chicken), rice noodles, and green onions in a thinned broth, and is served with an assortment of garnishes – bean sprouts, hot peppers, lime, and fresh greens such as peppery Thai basil. I think Stephan’s bowl of pho on a Saigon street corner was one of his most memorable meals.
So, whether you’re in Saigon, Hanoi, Hue, or Da Lat… you haven’t experienced Vietnam until you’ve sat on a tiny plastic stool on the street and enjoyed a heaping bowl of meaty goodness (paired with either a Bia Ha Noi or Bia Saigon) with the locals.
Two old-fashioned Eastern European classics, I am quite certain Stephan would be content to move to Poland and stuff himself daily with savory dumplings and Polish sausage. While an assortment of folk legends describe the exact origins of the pierogi in Poland, the filled dumplings date back to the Middle Ages. The boiled pockets of dough are traditionally stuffed with potatoes, ground meat, and onions, though you can also find versions commonly filled with cheese, sauerkraut, mushrooms, spinach, or even fruit – more of a sweet, dessert pierogi. In Krakow, a great place to stop for a plate of pierogi is Przystanek Pierogarnia (‘Dumplings Stop’), just east of Old Town. The miniature eatery is described as serving dumplings from a ‘wall-hatch’ – a quite accurate interpretation. There are about four wooden stools at a narrow counter in the corner shop, with an arched window open to the kitchen where you place your order. Along the wall, colorful strips of paper are tacked to a strip of corkboard, displaying menu items/prices as well as handwritten notes professing diners’ love for the tasty boiled dumplings. A plate of 9 pierogi (either a single type or a make-your-own combination platter) cost us just under 8 Zloty (zł) – a delicious bargain at around $2 USD.
Kielbasa krakowska (Poland)
If you are looking for a totally fun and unique dining experience, as well as a delicious kielbasa krakowska (Krakow’s version of the pork sausage that’s smoked with pepper and garlic), keep your eyes peeled for a blue, vintage cargo van. Every Monday through Friday from 8pm to 3am, a pair of veteran grillers park their ‘diner’ in front of the Hala Targowa – a lively, outdoor flea market during the daytime hours. Each weeknight, the duo bust out a small grill and some cases of oranzada (an orange-flavored soft drink), and fire up the wood-burning cooker. A queue forms along the street almost immediately. A grilled kielbasa served with a crusty roll and splattering of mustard will cost you a mere 8 zł ($2.20 USD), plus another 2 zł ($0.55 USD) if you’d like to wash it down with the much-loved orange soda. And just as much fun as being served out of the back of a van is the experience of dining on the street with the locals. Table service is standing room only, with people crammed along a couple small benchtops, seeking just enough room to set down their sausage and cram it down while laughing with their neighbors. I told Stephan at the time he looked like the happiest man on Earth. If you are looking for an awesome late-night nosh, definitely check out the ‘Kielbaski Pod’ at Hala Targowa.
Hungarian sausages (Hungary)
Yes, that’s right… more freakin’ sausages! The cured meats certainly are a staple throughout eastern and central Europe, and you can’t visit a market without being enveloped by pungent, sausage drapery. With that in mind, Stephan had to include a great little café we found in Budapest’s Jewish Quarter. Töltő specializes in grilling up some tasty sausages (kolbász) with unique flavors and an artistic flare. The sausages were presented as little works of art, and included flavors such as (left to right in photograph) chili and paprika pork sausage (with spicy tomato jelly and kumquat), lime ginger chicken sausage (with ponzu sauce, coconut balls, and purple radish), and rosemary pork sausage (with fig Dijon mustard and apple chutney). In addition to the dazzling display of local sausages, Töltő also offers a small selection of bottled beers from local craft breweries. Really, what more could you ask for?
Ćevapi (Bosnia & Herzegovina)
Perhaps a bit less familiar than some of the other ethnic fares on this list, Bosnian cuisine is a beautiful blend of Eastern and Western influences, served as simple, comfort foods. Traditional Bosnian fare blends influences from the Middle East, Turkey, and Greece (such as stuffed grape leaves, grilled flatbread, and phyllo-based pastries like baklava) with those of Central Europe (such as sausage and paprika). From klepe (a meat-filled dumpling) to filovane paprika (peppers stuffed with minced meat) to a vegetarian version of duvec (a vegetable stew seasoned with paprika) we really enjoyed eating in Sarajevo. With dozens of small food stands scattered around the Baščaršija (Sarajevo’s old bazaar and cultural center), it’s fun to hop from stall to stall and sample the tasty and inexpensive street food (most dishes ran us between 2,00–6,00 KM, or about $1.20–4.00 USD).
One of Stephan’s top picks is a centuries-old favorite of the Balkan nations. Ćevapi are small, skinless sausages made from minced beef and mutton, served with onions in a flatbread pocket. While there’s really nothing fancy or extraordinary about the dish, he found it to be just a delicious meal.
Burek (Bosnia & Herzegovina)
Continuing with the Bosnian food tour, another of Stephan’s favorites was burek. The street food originated in Turkey, and today is found ubiquitously across the Balkan Peninsula. The quintessential Balkan street food, the Bosnia version of burek is a minced meat-filled phyllo pastry, twisted into a spiral and baked in the oven. Though they can be eaten hot or cold, try to find one that’s been just pulled from the oven – crisp, warm, and flaky.
Bosnian pot (Bosnia & Herzegovina)
The final favorite traditional Bosnian fare on the list, Bosanski lonac is a type of stew made with a variety of chunked meats (typically beef and lamb) and vegetables. It seems to be fairly adaptable in its ingredients, and Stephan’s still not sure exactly what was in his pot. He is certain, though, that it was delicious – full of flavor and heaped with tender meat you could cut through with a fork.
Bosnian coffee (Bosnia & Herzegovina)
As with Hanoi’s egg coffee, Bosnian coffee was just too good to leave off our list of global must-haves. Much-adored and an unequivocal source of national pride, Bosnian coffee is similar to the strong, dark, thick brew of Turkish coffee, however locals assert that there is a difference in the brewing process that makes Bosnian coffee unique. I am not a habitual coffee drinker, so there’s no way I’d ever tell a difference, but it was exceptional coffee. Perhaps even surpassing the taste was the presentation of the local favorite; the hot brew is served in a džezva – a beautiful, long-handled copper pot with a pair of tiny ceramic cups set inside pedestaled copper casts. Sipping a cup of flavorful coffee and chatting with friends on a bustling, cobblestone street seems to be a popular pastime in Sarajevo – not a bad way to spend a sunny afternoon.
Pici pasta (Italy)
Italy is nothing short of a food-lover’s dream come true! And better yet? It’s a vegetarian’s dream come true! The hardcore herbivore of the pair, it’s a perpetual struggle for me to find food in more than a handful of countries. But in Italy… no such worries. It seems people always return from the Mediterranean peninsula raving about the cuisine, and I quickly learned it was for good reason. Handmade pasta, hand-tossed Neapolitan pizzas… creamy gelato, classic cannoli… an assortment of rich, Tuscan reds (Brunello, Chianti) made from succulent Sangiovese grapes… and did I mention gelato?
For a main course, the pizza was pretty stinkin’ delicious, but my favorite had to be Tuscany’s signature pici. The pasta originates from the province of Siena, and the thick, hand-rolled spaghetti noodles are traditionally made from just two ingredients – flour and water (typically, there is no addition of egg). I’ll tell you, I could have eaten pici by the ton! What am I saying… I did eat pici by the ton! And I savored every tomato-drenched bite.
Pane mare (Italy)
Just across the Tiber from Rome’s bustling historic center is the charming neighborhood of Trastevere. A labyrinth of cobblestone streets lined with old-world homes, the medieval quarter offers a laid-back retreat from the city’s congested hotspots. And with dozens of rustic trattorias and osterias, it’s easy to find a mouthwatering plate of spaghetti alla carbonara or amatriciana. If you’re interested in something a bit less traditional, Pianostrada, a tiny hole in the wall tucked at the back of one of Trastevere’s narrow alleys (vicoli), offers an assortment of creative sandwich creations served on house-made bread. Stephan was a huge fan of his pane mare – a fusion of smoked swordfish, fresh mozzarella, arugula, fig jam, rosemary, and pink peppercorn oil, all sandwiched between a seed-laden bun infused with octopus ink.
Note: Since our visit in October 2016, Pianostrada has since moved to a larger location just across the river and can now be found on Via delle Zoccolette, near the Ponte Sisto. New game plan – now enjoy your pane mare on the east bank of the Tiber, cross the Ponte Sisto to Trastevere, roam the cobblestone passageways and make your way up Gianicolo (‘The 8th Hill of Rome’) to take in some lovely views… by the time you’re finished you’ll have made some room for some regional fare from one of Trastevere’s quaint eateries.
An unassuming, toasted ham and gruyere sandwich, the croque-monsieur is a pervasive menu item throughout Parisian cafes, and has been since the early 20th century.
Though it may have a sophisticated-sounding name, the croque-monsieur is anything but – an unassuming, toasted ham and gruyère sandwich. Since its first appearance on a Parisian menu near the start of the 20th century, the ubiquitous little toasty has grown in popularity, and now adorns menus throughout the city. While you can enjoy the pervasive provision in virtually any café, Stephan opted for the highly-rated croque from the Café de la Paix, an elegant eatery on the ground floor of the posh InterContinental Paris Le Grand Hotel (when in Paris, right?). With a history dating back to 1862, the hotel and café have hosted royal and prominent guests to the likes of Tsar Nicholas II, Victor Hugo, Oscar Wilde, and James Gordon Bennett Jr., the New York Herald publisher who sponsored Henry Morton Stanley’s expedition to Africa in search of David Livingstone.
And while it’s fun to nosh on a local classic in a historic setting, picturing yourself among Paris’ high society, you will certainly pay for the swanky atmosphere. Even accounting for Paris’ high prices, the croque-monsieur at Café de la Paix will cost you a pretty penny at 19€ ($22 USD). Being the parsimonious miser budget-minded traveler that I am, I couldn’t fathom paying that much for a tout petit grilled ham and cheese. But Stephan clearly loved his little sandwich (it made this list) and claimed it was worth the $20. And in the end, that’s really all that matters… the quest for a fine, French croque-monsieur was his, after all.
Belgian waffles (Belgium)
While waffles supposedly date back to the medieval Europe, it wasn’t until the 1964 World’s Fair in New York that Americans were introduced to the Belgian waffle (more accurately, the Brussels waffle). And because our culture’s unrelenting sweet tooth has likely bastardized the Belgian treat to some extent (or at a minimum “evolved” the recipe), it was fun to try one of the many regional versions during a visit to Ghent. The waffle served at Fritz’ Tea Room was light, fluffy, not overwhelmingly sweet, and piled high with dollop of lightly-sweetened, fresh whipped cream and a cornucopia of fruit (we counted 14 different varieties atop the airy waffle pillow).
Haggis. Yup, that’s right… haggis made our Stephan’s list of must-have meals. And what is haggis, you may be wondering? Haggis is Scotland’s national dish. The first written recipe dates back centuries – to around 1430. Scottish poet Robert Burns immortalized the dish in his work, Address to a Haggis. But what, really, is haggis? The hearty grub is a savory ‘pudding’ of sheep innards (heart, liver, and lungs) mixed with oatmeal, onions, and spices, traditionally served with ‘neeps and tatties’ (either turnip or rutabaga and potatoes). Not convinced yet? Perhaps Burns’ prose will persuade you: ‘Trenching your gushing entrails bright, Like onie ditch; And then, O what a glorious sight, Warm-reekin, rich!’
Still not sure? Neither was Stephan. When I asked if he was going to be trying the perhaps unappetizing-sounding local fare, he winced and tentatively declined. After reminding him that he’d tried tarantula and various insects in Cambodia, and various viscera-laden soups off the streets of Bangkok, he withdrew his prejudgment. On our final day in Edinburgh, we marched up the street to The Royal McGregor where Stephan confidently ordered their ‘haggis tower’ – a carefully-constructed tier of haggis, turnip, and potato served in a pool of rosemary gravy. I watched curiously as he took his first bite… Without hesitation, he surprisingly exclaimed how delicious it was, and devoured the tasty turret within minutes. Since returning to the U.S., he’s regularly professed his unwavering fondness for the Scottish treat, encouraging others to give it a whirl and suggesting that, while different in composition, the taste and texture isn’t that far off from our traditional meatloaf.
And if any of you out there are devoted kids’ show enthusiasts and enjoy a good episode of The Disney’s Channel’s Phineas & Ferb, perhaps the meatloaf song by fictitious, British pop band Tiny Cowboy will remind you of Burns’ homage to haggis: ‘Ground beef, breadcrumbs, some onion and an egg; My mouth is watering so please don’t make me beg… I’m talkin’ ‘bout meatloaf.’ At the end of the day, I guess everyone loves a good, meaty mash… not to mention Davy Jones voicing meatloaf-loving, cartoon heartthrob, Nigel [sigh].
We hope you enjoyed our run-down of some of our favorite foods around the world. Like many of you, our goal is to keep traveling and keep eating, so if you’ve had a favorite dish somewhere, leave us a comment below. We are always looking for a good recommendation!