15 National Dishes You Need to Try

We know there are questions around travel amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Read our note here.

The British have fish and chips and Neapolitans have margarita pizza, but do you know the signature dishes of Croatia or Cuba or Uruguay? Every country lays claim to a culinary specialty that represents the local bounty — be it fresh seafood, wild herbs, native fruits and vegetables, or specially-cured meats. Travel the world and delight your senses by seeking out these 15 delicacies from around the world.

El Salvador: Pupusa

Close up photo of pupusas dish with nuegados, a traditional meal from El Salvador.
Credit: Banana Productions/ Shutterstock

The name pupusa is derived from the ancient Pípil word pupusawa — a verb that literally means “to puff up.” How appropriate! Pupusas are plump corn masa griddle cakes that are split and stuffed with cheese, cooked ground meat (often chicken or beef), refried beans, and minced onions. Traditionally, pupusas are cooked on a flat griddle called a comal. Made of clay, sandstone, or iron, comals get better as they age and season — not unlike your beloved cast iron pan. These delicious puffs, similar to arepas in Venezuela, are the unofficial national dish of El Salvador, the smallest country in Central America.

So beloved are Salvadoran pupusas that the second Sunday in November is National Pupusa Day. Celebrated in the country’s capital, San Salvador, the feast features music, games, and an opportunity to sample all kinds of classic and modern pupusa recipes — deliciously topped with spicy salsas or a savory slaw featuring cabbage and other vegetables.

Croatia: Jota

Istrian stew, made with sauerkraut or sour turnip, potatoes, bacon, spare ribs.
Credit: Fanfo/ Shutterstock

Jota or Istrian stew, a hearty soup and a Croatian classic, is the perfect amalgamation of Austro-Hungarian and Mediterranean cuisines and an ideal representation of Croatian food and culture. The main ingredient of this cold-weather specialty is an Eastern European staple — sauerkraut. In this recipe, sauerkraut is simmered alongside various meats including spare ribs, pancetta, or bacon and like many classic soups, also contains an abundance of beans, potatoes, and parsnips. The soup is completed with copious amounts of garlic and olive oil.

The soup is most popular in Istria and other northwestern regions of Croatia that border the coast. And jota’s home territory also borders Italy, so it’s no surprise that the nourishing stew is also popular in the Italian city of Trieste.

Luxembourg: Judd mat Gaardebounen

Traditional Luxembourgish dish Judd mat Gaardebounen.
Credit: Alena Kravchenko/ iStock

Luxembourg, a tiny, landlocked country bordering Belgium, France, and Germany, has a unique culinary tradition involving the nation’s best-known dish, judd mat gaardebounen. Most often served in early summer, when locally-grown broad beans are young and at their most tender, the dish centers around smoked pork collar. The pork is cooked alongside leeks, carrots, onions, and celery in wine and water with assorted savory aromatics like bay leaves and peppercorns.

When the pork is tender, the dish is ready. Sliced thin, the pork is served with boiled or fried potatoes and topped with a creamy sauce made from the broad beans and bacon in a roux. It’s a hearty dish that shines a light on the region’s local ingredients.

Cuba: Ropa Vieja

Cuban Ropa Vieja stew next to a bed of rice.
Credit: AS Food studio/ Shutterstock

One of Cuba’s most popular specialties is a combination of shredded or pulled stewed beef (often flank steak), black or garbanzo beans, white rice, plantains, and fried yuca. The rustic plate is called ropa vieja — a Spanish expression translating to “old clothes.” Legend has it that a poor old man once boiled his shredded, old clothing and prayed the rags would transform into a meal for his family. Miraculously, his prayers were answered and a meaty stew appeared.

The dish is derived from the cuisine of Spain’s Iberian Peninsula and is prominently featured in a number of Caribbean and Latin American cuisines. But the Cuban take on the dish often features the subtle sweetness of added cane sugar that other variations lack.

The Philippines: Adobo

Homemade Filipino Adobo Pork in a white bow.
Credit: Liudmyla Chuhunova/ Shutterstock

The Philippines consists of over 7,000 islands, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that each island follows a slightly different recipe for the country’s unofficial dish — adobo. A perennial favorite, adobo most often features pork or chicken and is almost always served with white rice. The dish is famously saucy, salty, and slightly piquant — thanks to the vinegar that is a cornerstone of the dish.

Many credit the diverse flavors of Filipino cuisine to Chinese, American, and Spanish influence. The name adobo comes from the Spanish word for sauce. And indeed, adobo’s secret is in the sauce. Depending on the chef, the generous amount of sauce in adobo can include various oils, soy sauce, coconut milk, ginger, chili peppers, garlic, black pepper, and bay leaves. Make sure you try it often, because each variation is fantastic!

Mozambique: Galinha à Zambeziana (Piri Piri Chicken)

Traditional Portuguese Piri Piri chicken on the BBQ.
Credit: CCat82/ iStock

Mozambique, a southern African nation on the Indian Ocean, is known for its cuisine that blends African ingredients and culinary techniques with Asian, Arab, and Portuguese influence. Visitors will enjoy local seafood (prawns are a favorite), porridges of corn and millet, and various preparations of cassava, potatoes, and coconut — often unexpectedly accented with garlic, onions, wine, peppers, paprika, and bay leaves.

The most beloved dish in Mozambique is galinha à Zambeziana, also known as piri piri or peri peri chicken. Prepared with lime, coconut milk, chili pepper, and garlic, the chicken is grilled and served in piri piri sauce, an earthy, spicy, and semi-sweet sauce containing a chili pepper called African birdseye. Almost all versions will include lemon, vinegar, oil, bay leaves, and garlic, but other variations may contain citrus zest, tarragon, oregano, paprika, or other ingredients. Served with matapa (cassava leaves in peanut sauce), the specialty is succulent and famously hearty.

Uruguay: Chivito

Half steak Chivito sandwich, popular in Uruguay.
Credit: Ed-Ni-Photo/ iStock

Uruguay produces some of the finest beef you can get, so it’s no surprise their rustic cuisine features the meat prominently. One of those beef dishes is celebrated so much that it gets its own festival in the city of Maldonado, featuring games, music, and even pony rides. The famous dish is — unsurprisingly — the chivito, a gigantic steak sandwich. The chivito centers around tenderized, churrasco-style steak, ham, mayonnaise, melted mozzarella, lettuce, and tomatoes on a buttered bun. But deluxe versions might contain bacon, olives, hard-boiled or fried eggs, onions, and peppers.

This rich and savory combination dates back to 1944, when an Argentinian tourist visited a well-known restaurant called El Mejillón in Punta del Este and ordered goat meat or chivo — a specialty the restaurant did not serve. The owner served the man a steak sandwich instead, dubbing it the chivito, meaning “little goat.”

Vietnam: Phở

Vietnamese Pho Tom Yum.
Credit: hueberto/ iStock

Phở truly is Vietnam’s national dish — a staple of street vendors and home cooks, this soup is often eaten for breakfast. The base of phở is its deeply aromatic and slow-cooked beef broth. The broth is then poured over thinly sliced meat and rice noodles before a bright garnish is added — usually some combination of hoisin sauce, bean sprouts, herbs, lime juice, and chili peppers. The combination is warming and hearty, and has become the country’s most popular culinary export.

Phở dates back to the late 1800s, when the French occupied Vietnam. The French had a taste for beef and they introduced and expanded beef production in Vietnam, which led to not only more meat but also a surplus of bones. These bones enriched and flavored the traditional broths prepared by both Chinese and Vietnamese vendors and they soon became a staple ingredient. The popularity of the dish spread from the northern provinces to the south, and in the process, the flavors and garnishes evolved. Phở cooked in southern Vietnam is a bit sweeter, but almost all variations include charred onion and ginger, star anise, cloves, coriander, cinnamon, and cardamom.

Malta: Stuffat tal-Fenek

Stuffat tal-Fenek, a national dish of Malta.
Credit: Fanfo/ Shutterstock

A traditional rabbit stew, stuffat tal-fenek has been a staple in Malta since the 11th century and is the undisputed national dish of this Mediterranean archipelago south of Sicily. Surprisingly, rabbits are not native to Malta. Ancient Phoenicians brought them to Malta as a stable source of food and they flourished. Today, the creatures still roam the islands, but most of the rabbits in Malta’s iconic stew are raised on local farms.

Recipes for stuffat tal-fenek vary, but chefs start by marinating the rabbit (or rabbits) in wine, vinegar, and spices. The meat is then stewed with tomato, onion, carrots, bay leaves, and other herbs before it’s served with potatoes roasted with fennel seeds and rosemary. Many restaurants and bars host fenkati, a traditional feast centered around Maltese rabbit. Spaghetti is often served in a rabbit ragù, and the stew itself is garnished with rabbit liver or heart. Of course, local wine and crusty bread round out the meal.

Bolivia: Salteñas

Bolivian Salteña, a baked snack on a plate.
Credit: NaturalLense/ Shutterstock

Bolivian salteñas are a relative of the traditional empanada — savory pastries filled with beef or chicken plus a combination of potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, raisins, or olives. The snack, which is considered Bolivia’s national dish, is named for Juana Manuela Gorriti, a feminist and journalist from Argentina who created the recipe while in exile in Bolivia.

What makes the Bolivian take on the pastry unique is the soupy, stew-like fillings which are achieved by adding beef bone marrow or another gelatin to the filling. While the salteñas bake, the gelatin melts into the crust, helping to avoid sogginess. These football-shaped treats are often eaten as a mid-morning snack with a spicy sauce. Locals and pros eschew utensils while enjoying them; they know just how to hold and bite into their salteñas without making a mess of that soupy, savory filling!

Hungary: Goulash

Hungarian Goulash or Bograch soup.
Credit: from my point of view/ Shutterstock

Hungarian goulash dates as far back as the ninth century, when nomadic cow herders roamed the Great Hungarian Plain and would cook communal stews of onion, wild boar or beef, and millet in cast iron pots. The dish was essentially peasant food, but it was also adaptable. Different regions and different seasons offered different ingredients, and eventually, variations became popular across cities and settlements.

Modern goulash started to take shape in the 16th century, as peppers from Spain and the New World spread to the region. More often than not, these peppers were dried and ground. The result was a spicy version of paprika, which added flavor and a signature red color to the dish. Today, the dish is served across Hungary and around the world. It most often contains cubed or ground beef, tomatoes, garlic, carrots, potatoes, egg noodles, and a variety of spices — notably paprika, which is much less spicy in its modern form.

South Africa: Bunny Chow

Curry Bunny Chow garnished with parsley.
Credit: Paul_Brighton/ iStock

Bunny chow probably isn’t considered the national dish of South Africa, but it was invented there and represents the country’s melting pot of nationalities. The dish consists of a hollowed-out loaf of white bread — not unlike the bread bowl you might find served with creamy soup. But instead of broccoli cheddar, the loaves are filled with vegetarian or meat curries. Serving curries in bread means the dish is portable, and no one has to collect any bowls or plates afterward. Not to mention, assembling bunny chow is a lot faster than making a sandwich. It’s no surprise that bunny chow became a popular street food.

The history of the dish is a bit murky, but the recipe  dates back to the mid-20th century. Many Indians had arrived in South Africa  and brought their culinary traditions with them — swapping out locally available ingredients for the staples they might use at home. As for the dish’s name, bunny chow doesn’t contain rabbit. The Indian shopkeepers were referred to as bania, derived from the Sanskrit word for merchant. Bania became “bunny,” and the rest is history.

Albania: Byrek

A breakfast serving of Byrek me Gjizë.
Credit: HASPhotos/ Shutterstock

Byrek, or börek, is such a staple of Albanian cuisine, you can grab the dish at market stalls and take-away joints as ubiquitous as the American pizzerias you pop into for a slice of pepperoni. A savory pastry, byrek features layers of delicate, phyllo-like dough called yufka. Each circular byrek is filled with feta cheese and parsley alongside chicken, minced meat, spinach, eggplant, leeks, potatoes, or other vegetables. The savory snack is delicate yet portable, making it a favorite of everyone from nomads to royalty.

Byrek likely dates back to the seventh-century central Asia, when nomadic Turks would assemble rustic breads and pastries from purchased grains, homemade cheese and butter, and wild herbs. Hoping to emulate the lofty yeast breads they would encounter in cities, they layered and filled the breads they cooked on flat griddles over an open flame. As the Ottoman Empire expanded and contracted, and variations on byrek spread far and wide — similar dishes with local ingredients began to appear in China, Spain, Italy, and Russia.

Peru: Ceviche

Close up of traditional Peruvian mixed seafood fish Ceviche with red onion and fried corn.
Credit: Alexandr Vorobev/ Shutterstock

Though ceviche is popular across Latin America, the dish likely originates in Peru and remains both a daily staple and sense of pride for the South American country. The Peruvian take on the dish consists of marinated seafood — often sea bass and shrimp — diced and cured in fresh Peruvian lime juice. The acid in the citrus cooks the fish without heat and melds the flavors of the other ingredients: onions, aji amarillo and rocoto pepper, sweet potatoes, and herbs. The ceviche is then garnished with corn nuts, banana chips, or lettuce.

Peruvians believe their ceviche is especially special, thanks to the unique flavor and acidity of the nation’s limes — a Persian variety likely introduced by the Spanish. There is some debate regarding where exactly ceviche was invented, since the dish may come from Ecuador. Either way, the dish in Peru is so popular that the country established a national holiday to honor it.

Senegal: Thieboudienne

Thieboudienne, a traditional dish from Senegal made from fish, rice and tomato sauce.
Credit: Fanfo/ Shutterstock

Thieboudienne is a traditional Senegalese dish that varies from kitchen to kitchen and region to region. It may include chicken, beef, or lamb, but fresh or salted fish stuffed with aromatics is generally the centerpiece of the classic version, along with rice, tomato sauce, a blend of regional spices, and local produce that can include cabbage, pumpkin, eggplant, okra, or root vegetables.

Typically, dishes in Senegal were prepared with barley, but a shortage of the grain led Penda Mbaye, a cook in the city of Saint-Louis, to use rice instead. This simple case of substitution became a phenomenon, and variations of thieboudienne accompany nearly every meal. Interestingly, American-Creole specialties like Savannah red rice, jambalaya, and gumbo are said to be influenced by Senegal’s signature dish since many African-Americans in the region were originally from West Africa.

Share this article:

More from the Blog

Related article image

Does Minnesota Really Have 10,000 Lakes?

Related article image

15 Most Intense Amusement Park Rides Around the World

Related article image

What to Know About the Newest National Park: New River Gorge