Eating shen jen bao is a highlight of any trip to Shanghai.
// © 2014 Richard Lowe
Eating a country’s unique dishes in the right context is not only a great culinary experience — it can also be the most memorable way to experience a culture. Whether you’re zigzagging through narrow alleyways on a mission to track down the best pizza in Rome, sampling exotic spices at a Middle Eastern open-air market or sharing a table of homemade, regional dishes with locals, food experiences abroad can provide unforgettable insight into a country’s traditions, beliefs and even values.
Some of these international dishes have become so popular in the U.S. that it is difficult to remember a time when they were ever even considered exotic. Others are delicious, traditional foods that have remained underrated in the greater U.S. All of them, however, are worth trying in their country of origin.
Below, TravelAge West editors and contributors share their favorite foodie discoveries while eating abroad.
Found in bakeries in Scotland and Atlantic Canada, bannock is a round, rustic soda bread with a bit of bite from buttermilk. When taken fresh from the oven and slathered with butter and honey, it’s hard to beat. — Marilyn Green
Bashed Neeps (Scotland)
Bashed neeps are similar to mashed potatoes, but made from cooked turnips instead of potatoes. Creamy and fluffy, they are usually liberally topped with butter and salt in restaurants in Scotland. Bashed neeps traditionally accompany haggis, a pudding made from sheep innards. — M.G.
Colorado is proud of its meat-focused culinary culture. Bison — which is leaner than beef and not at all gamey — is one protein that steals the show in the Rocky Mountain State. At the Lord Gore Restaurant at Manor Vail Lodge, it’s served in medallions with bourbon yams and a black cherry sauce. — Chelsee Lowe
Cock-a-leekie Soup (Scotland)
Cock-a-leekie soup is made from chicken stock, leeks and prunes and thickened with barley. Found in restaurants and cafes in Scotland and Atlantic Canada, it is a fabulous dish for wet, chilly days. ¬ ¬— M.G.
Cornish Pasty (England)
A pasty is a gourmet pocket pie, a popular dish in the western England county of Cornwall and typically stuffed with meat, potatoes and other veggies. The crusty, semi-circular treat is best eaten fresh from the oven and on the go. — C.L.
Elotes, or hot, fresh-grilled corn-on-the-cobs, are a popular street food snack served in every park and almost every street corner in Mexico. The corn is served on a stick, slightly charred and slathered with mayonnaise and grated cotija cheese. You can then choose from a variety of spices and seasonings to flavor your corn. A little salt and some spicy chile powder usually do the trick. — Monica Poling
Everyone knows about churrasco, Brazil’s famed all-you-can meat fiesta, but the nation’s true national dish is feijoada. The country’s version of pork and beans, it was created to use up leftover parts. Many restaurants serve it with organ meat, tongue or other interesting cuts, as well as smoked and jerked meats. Typically the dish is only served on Saturdays (and in some places Wednesdays) so plan ahead. — M.P.
Plate Lunch (Hawaii)
Discovering a local Hawaiian restaurant that serves a truly delicious plate lunch is a thrill that every visitor to the islands should experience. Plate lunches usually include a protein (fish, chicken, beef) accompanied by two scoops of white rice and a scoop of macaroni salad. While lunches that feature local seafood dishes such as poke or grilled shrimp are a good choice, don’t overlook dishes that take advantage of Hawaii’s Asian influence as well, such as Korean kalbi beef. — Kenneth Shapiro
Ice Cream (Japan)
Soft serve ice cream of all flavors, such as green tea, plum blossom and vanilla, are found in most high-traffic tourist destinations in the Kanto region of Japan. Depending on the prefecture’s most popular agricultural crop, you could be walking around with a cone of wasabi-, sweet potato- or soy sauce-flavored ice cream while admiring the sights. — Skye Mayring
Kalua Pig (Hawaii)
No Hawaii luau is complete without this succulent dish of salted and seasoned pork baked in an underground oven. What emerges is a smoky, ultra-tender taste of the islands. — Marty Wentzel
When you look at a lamington, you might be misled — coconut is just one of three dominant flavors in this Australian specialty cake. Underneath the snowy layer of shredded coconut you will typically find a coating of chocolate sauce, masking a fluffy, white sponge cake. — Mindy L. Poder
Laulau is a favorite at Hawaii luaus and plate lunch stands. After wrapping taro leaves around salted pork, chicken or butterfish, the bundles are steamed to perfection. Don’t eat the leaves, just the luscious fillings. — M.W.
Lilikoi (Hawaiian passion fruit) is often found in the wild or grown in backyard gardens. Creative Hawaii chefs have found an incredible variety of uses for the tropical fruit, including using it in malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts), ice cream, shave ice, mochi or in jams and butters. — K.S.
Manakeesh Bi Za’atar (Middle East)
At its most essential level, manakeesh bi za’atar is just flat bread with olive oil mixed with spices. But the Middle Eastern snack, which is credited to Lebanon but found throughout the region, is so much more. The freshly baked, chewy bread is made even better with olive oil spiked with za’atar, a spice mix of dried herbs (such as oregano, basil, thyme and sumac) and sesame seeds. — M.L.P.
Potato Chips (Mexico)
Unlike chips in the U.S., Mexican potato chips use exotic flavor combinations and spices. These days, in cities with a large Mexican influence, you can find these flavorful chips easily. Nonetheless, Mexico’s local markets remain one of the best places to sample some of the best junk food you’ll find anywhere. Of course, don’t skip out on freshly fried tortilla chips either. — K.S.
Nutella Crepes (France)
After a day of sightseeing in The City of Light, the ideal nightcap is a decadent, Nutella-laden crepe from one of the many crepe stands throughout Paris. The Ile Saint Louis is the perfect place to stroll along the Seine while munching on the warm treat. — Megan Brickwood
When in Japan, don’t miss eating okonomiyaki, a savory pancake made from flour, eggs and a variety of vegetables or meats. The Tokyo version is a slightly runnier, grill-it-yourself pancake called monjayaki. True fans never miss the “Monjayaki Street” in the Tsukishima district, which is packed with restaurants specializing in this one dish. — M.P.
Pap (South Africa)
Yes, it’s bland, white and a bit boring, but no visit to South Africa is complete without trying pap. The traditional porridge is an inexpensive staple for many South Africans, whether it is served at breakfast with butter and sugar or served along a savory impala stew. — S.M.
Pescado a la Sal (Spain)
This classic Spanish dish — fish baked in salt — is a delicacy that Mario Batali serves at some of his restaurants as well. The salt crust totally encompasses a fish served whole, acting as an oven that keeps the fish delicate and juicy. — K.S.
A common food in Xian, China, paomo is a steamy bowl of lamb soup served with a flat round of unleavened bread and pickled garlic on the side. The bread, quite bland and hard, isn’t meant to be eaten on its own. You break it into small chunks, drop them in the bowl and let them soak up the flavors in the broth. — C.L.
Pavlova (New Zealand)
Light and creamy on the inside, with a delicate outer crunch from its meringue shell, pavlova is typically topped with soft fruits such as kiwis and strawberries as well as whipped cream. Officially created in New Zealand in honor of the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, the dessert is also popular in neighboring Australia. The perfect dessert for warm weather, pavlova also makes a tasty ice cream flavor. — M.L.P.
You can put pretty much anything in pierogies and they will taste good, plus the dumplings make for an excellent grab-and-go option while touring Warsaw or Krakow. Dedicated dumpling eaters could even eat pierogies for every meal of the day: fruit pierogies at breakfast, veggie pierogies for lunch and meat-and-potatoes pierogies for dinner. — M.B.
A traditional Hawaiian side dish, poke — pronounced POH-kay — takes bite-size pieces of super-fresh raw fish and jazzes them up with sea salt, soy sauce and other seasonings. It is so popular that supermarkets sell it to-go. — M.W.
Hawaii locals treasure this starchy purple paste made from pounded taro root. A staple of the ancient Hawaiian diet, it ranges from sweet to sour depending on its age. Mix it with salty luau food and let the flavors and textures do their magic. — M.W.
When the craving for comfort food hits, seek out a big bowl of ramen soup. In Japan, nearly every region of the country has its own version of the dish. Visitors should definitely try a bowl for lunch – it’s usually very affordable and so delicious. — K.S.
Ribollita, which means “reboiled” in Italian, may have peasant origins, but the hearty, healthy soup is one of Tuscany’s most underrated culinary finds. The potage of leftover bread, cannellini beans and vegetables — including onion, carrot, cabbage and cavolo nero (kale) — pairs well with the region’s sturdy red wines. — M.L.P.
Countries in the Middle East fight over the origins of shakshouka, but most can at least agree that it is a delicious dish. Eggs poached atop a thick sauce of tomatoes, chili peppers, onions and spices, shakshouka is a warming, savory and hearty option anytime of the day. In Israel, where it is as popular as hummus and falafel, it is even found on happy hour menus. — M.L.P.
Shepherd’s Pie (United Kingdom)
Seek out this U.K. dish — also known as cottage pie — in the pubs of England and Scotland. Its lack of a bottom crust is not missed — a rich, delicious combination of minced meat, vegetables and gravy is hidden under a high dome of fluffy mashed potatoes that get browned in the oven. — M.G.
Shen Jian Bao (China)
You can’t miss the delicious smell of shen jian bao when exploring in Shanghai. The bready dumplings are usually filled with ground pork and fried in a large drum until the bottom is brown and crispy. Beware the hot juices within, which tend to gush when you bite into the bun. — C.L.
Soon Tofu (Korea)
Some people might not “get” tofu until they try it in a spicy, bubbling bowl of soft tofu known as soon tofu, or soondubu in Korean. To make the spicy stew, tofu is simmered in a base broth, which can be ordered mild, medium or extra hot, and served with a variety of ingredients, ranging from veggies to shellfish to grilled meat. Soondubu is served with a side of stone-cooked rice, which is ladled into the soup, and with a raw egg, which thickens the soup as it cooks in it. — M.P.
Come April, Bavarians have something very important on the mind: spargel. Thick swords of spargel, or white asparagus, are best enjoyed steamed al dente and topped — liberally — with hollandaise sauce and a dash of chopped parsley. — S.M.
Steamed Pork Ribs (China)
Among all the great dim sum dishes, don’t miss pork ribs, cut into bite-size pieces and steamed with black bean sauce and a hint of red chili pepper. — M.P.
Tabbouleh Wrap (Israel)
Tel Aviv’s bustling Carmel Market is home to piping-hot falafel balls, fresh-baked bread and vegetables in every color of the rainbow. Insider’s tip: Look for a taboon (cone-shaped oven) and order a goat cheese and tabbouleh wrap from a Druze chef. Load it up with slices of preserved lemon, hot peppers and olives — it might be the best thing you eat in Tel Aviv. — S.M.
On wintry days in Japan, warm up your hands and belly with taiyaki, handheld cakes that are stuffed with red bean, custard, chocolate and beyond. Cooked in special griddles, most taiyaki is shaped like a fish, but that’s not a hard and fast rule — one delicious version was Hello Kitty-shaped, found just outside a Sanrio store in Tokyo. — C.L.
Larger than tortellini but also navel shaped, Bologna’s famous tortelloni pasta is hard to top — especially when it’s crafted by hand using a centuries-old tradition. Simple, local ingredients work in harmony, and the pasta is served piping hot as part of an epic, multi-course meal that starts with mortadella (Italian sausage) and ends with gelato. — S.M.