When my friend asked me “if you could only eat one cuisine for the rest of your life, what would it be?,” I’m pretty sure she didn’t mean to send me into an existential tailspin. Buuut she did, and this is my way of recovering. I give you the result of much late-night contemplation brought on by acute psychological trauma.
So, I present you the best cuisines in the world (according to me)
Truth: I spent my 27th birthday at an all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ in Oakland and I cried tears of joy (and smoke irritation). And while Korea is rightfully famous for its BBQ, I love it all.
From the haemul pajeon (seafood pancake) to the kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew with tofu and pork) to the endless variety of ban chan (sweet, spicy, and pickled side dishes), Korean food just may be my #1. But don’t make me commit to it unless you want to see me meltdown. If you like spicy food, Korean is a definite contender for one of the best cuisines in the world.
Two point for food I can eat with my hands. Ten points for being able to eat the plate. For the uninitiated, Ethiopian food is eaten with injera, a spongy fermented flatbread (I know I don’t make that sound good, but I swear it is!).
Various stews of the vegan and carnivorous varieties are ladled atop the injera, spices and flavors soaking into it. You eat using only your hands, picking up bites of the stews with bits of fresh injera on the side. Faves? Kitfo (spicy beef tartar), awaze tibs (lamb stew), doro wat (chicken and egg curry), and misr wat (spicy red lentil stew).
Four words: fermented tea leaf salad. Actually, five words: FERMENTED TEA LEAF SALAD NOW. I had no idea it was possible to be this in love with a salad, especially since I will unabashedly admit that french fries are my favorite food, but dang. The way I feel when I look at a tea leaf salad is pretty much the way moms look at their newborn babies, #allthefeels.
Burmese food doesn’t end at just salads (though it could and I’d be happy, and I’m not normally an eating-salad-while-laughing kind of girl, probably because I’m not a stock photography model). Their curries are also excellent, though they tend to be on the oily side, and Shan noodles are ridiculously amazing as well. Ah, to be back in Burma!
Sichuan food is easily a contender for the top best cuisine in the world — but I’m obsessed with spicy food. A peppercorn that literally numbs your mouth so you can eat spicier food than you normally would? Yes, yes, yes. I take it back, French fries — la zi ji, aka Chongqing chicken is my favorite food on Earth. GAUNTLET THROWN.
Picking through an almost-literal minefield of chilis to excavate pepper-coated nuggets of deep-fried chickeny goodness? Let me stop before this gets sexual. Dan dan mien (spicy noodles topped with rice vinegar, peppercorns, and ground pork), mapo tofu (soft tofu with a spicy sauce and minced pork), hui guo rou (spicy smoky pork belly and leeks)…. okay, this definitely got sexual.
I’ve considering writing down pho as my primary care doctor because I see it basically every time anything in my body goes wrong. But when I went to Vietnam in 2015, I learned that there was so much more to Vietnamese food than pho. Bun bo hue is pho’s bigger, more badass cousin. Like, if soup could ride a motorcycle while wearing Wayfarers, that’d basically be bun bo hue: spicy beef broth, brisket, pork, vermicelli, all the herbs, and (if you don’t look too white), a congealed blood cake.
I did a street food tour in Hanoi and it was the best $20 I’ve ever spent. Unfortunately, I stuffed my face too fast and had no premonitions of my future career as a travel blogger so I didn’t photograph any of it, but my buddy Janet took the same street food tour and was far more diligent! Oh man, do I love Vietnamese street snacks, like banh cuon (steamed rice paper filled with pork and mushrooms), banh xeo (a turmeric-colored rice crepe stuffed with bean sprouts and pork and served with all the herbs and a dipping sauce), cha gio (spring rolls)…. Vietnam, take me back!
Yes, sushi is incredible, and in Japan you can have the most melt-in-your-mouth sushi cut to perfection for 100 yen apiece (86 cents). Sorry, I’ll wait until you get back from booking your ticket…… Ok, cool, welcome back. As ridiculously fresh and delicious as Japanese sushi is, there’s so much more to Japanese cuisine than just that. The Japanese take doing things to perfection so seriously that there’s actually a word for it, shokunin. We translate it to mean “master” or “artisan,” but in reality, it’s more complex:
The shokunin has a social obligation to work his/her best for the general welfare of the people. This obligation is both spiritual and material, in that no matter what it is, the shokunin’s responsibility is to fulfill the requirement.” -Tasio Odate
The foodie result of this is that even the simplest dishes, like zaru soba (cold soba noodles with a simple dashi broth) are revelatory. Other favorites include curry tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet with curry and rice), snack food in Osaka like okonomiyaki (cabbage and everything but the kitchen sink served in pancake form, then topped with enough condiments to embarrass even an American) and takoyaki (fried balls of octopus and batter topped with all the condiments and bonito flakes), shoyu ramen (you better recognize), and karaage (Japanese fried chicken).
Forget yellow chicken curry. I got no time for #basicbitchnonsense when it comes to Thai food. Let’s get down to the real deal, my two favorite kinds of Thai food, Northern and Isaan, both very different. Isaan Thai food may very well be the spiciest food on Earth. Som tam, a shredded green papaya salad, is so good and often so hot it makes even my tongue of steel weep.
Laab moo (spicy diced pork salad with tons of herbs) is equally unforgiving — I may or may not have been openly weeping at Somtum Der in NYC while still shoveling bites of it in my mouth — and equally delicious. Northern Thai is less spicy but no less flavorful. Khao soi (a Burmese-influenced curry soup with noodles, chicken, crunchy shallots, pickled mustard greens, and all the aromatics) and sai oua (lemongrass flavored pork sausages) are two loves. With such regional diversity, Thai food is certainly one of the world’s best cuisines!
Now, I’m not only saying South Indian because one of my most treasured and longest-lasting friendship hinges on it. I’m also absolutely obsessed with the cuisine, one of the world’s most delicious. Y’know how Catholics think that Jesus like, turned himself into a wafer cracker? Well, they were close: he’s actually a dosa.
A paper-thin, physics-defyingly large fermented rice crepe stuffed with masala-spiced potatoes or other goodies. South Indian food is almost exclusively vegetarian but you’ll never miss the meat with goodies like sambar (lentil stew used for dipping), idly (steamed savory rice cakes), vada (lentil fritters), uttapam (like a thicker dosa), and the ubiquitous coconut chutney.
I know after listing all these exotic, highly specific cuisines you may be thinking, really? The inspiration behind Chipotle, the fast food chain that seems to have the single-handed mission of spreading E. coli throughout America? But guys, Mexican food is so much more than burritos. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find a burrito anywhere in Mexico.
Mexico is about tacos al pastor (pork cooked on a spit similar to gyros flavored with pineapple and achiote and smothered in cilantro and onions). Mexico is about Oaxacan mole negro, a dish so complex and flavorful that it often involves over 20 ingredients and 24 hours to make. Mexico is about cochinita pibil, possibly the greatest pork dish of all time (spoken by someone who’s eaten enough pork that I could quite possibly burst into flames if I ever stepped foot into a synagogue or mosque).
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What’s your favorite cuisine of all time?
Allison Green is a former educator turned travel blogger. She holds a Masters in Teaching and a B.A. in English and Creative Writing. Her blog posts merge her educational background and her experience traveling to 60+ countries to encourage thoughtful travel experiences that both educate and entertain. She has been a speaker at the World Travel Writers Conference and her writing, photography, and podcasting work has appeared in National Geographic, CNN Arabic, CBC Canada, and Forbes, amongst others. Now based in the San Francisco Bay Area where she grew up, she has also lived in Prague, Sofia, and New York City.