The lists of foods labeled “to be tried before you die” on the internet are so many that any appetite could get lost before such abundance.
Some are practically common to all listings: buttered popcorn from the U.S., fries with mayonnaise from Belgium, crisps (potato chips) from Britain, paella from Spain, poutine from Canada, hummus from the Middle East, parma ham or lasagna from Italy, pierogis from Poland…..I could fill this post with delicious foods favored by experts and aficionados.
Essential for survival, food has important social, cultural, bonding and celebratory aspects and is part of ethnic, national, regional, local — and many times — personal identities.
The UNESCO list, which gets periodical new entries, is a trip of the palate through different regions of the globe that includes specific dishes and ways of preparing, festivals and rituals related to preparation, sharing and celebration of a particular food as well as more general food-related cultural traditions, knowledge and practices.
As Euronews explains, “tasting national cuisine and food specialties are one of the most enjoyable ways to discover different cultures.” But Covid-19 restrictions make traveling impossible for the moment.
Until you can travel again, let’s start a culinary trip from the comfort of your kitchen, with the must recent, and some older, UNESCO entries:
Hawker culture from Singapore
Community dining and culinary practices in a multicultural urban context are present throughout Singapore, a multicultural city-state comprised of Chinese, Malay, Indian and other cultures.
Hawkers, as the chefs who create this food are called, draw inspiration from the confluence of these cultures, adapting dishes to local tastes and contexts.
They prepare a variety of dishes for people who have breakfast, lunch or dinner and mingle at hawker centers. These centers serve as ‘community dining rooms’ where people from diverse backgrounds gather, mix and share the experience. Activities such as chess, busking and art-jamming also happen.
As a social space that embraces people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, hawker centers play a crucial role in enhancing community interactions and strengthening the social fabric.
Some of the oldest hawkers started their practices in the 1960s, when the government began regulating street-food vendors and opened these open-air hawker centers. Many specialize in a particular dish, refined over many years, and transmit their recipes, knowledge and skills to younger family members or apprentices.
There are more than 100 of these centers around the country.
Couscous from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania
Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Mauritania submitted a joint application for couscous, an emblematic dish from each of those regions, to join UNESCO’s world heritage. They were successful so that couscous now has joined the list of the world’s Intangible Cultural Heritage not only for the dish itself but as an “example of international cooperation.”
Beyond those countries, couscous, composed of durum wheat, barley or corn and served with vegetables, meat or fish and spices has gained universal dimension and is now eaten around the world.
According to surveys, it appears regularly at the top of the ranking of favorite dishes of the French.
“The knowledge, know-how and practices pertaining to the production and consumption of couscous encompass the methods of preparation, manufacturing conditions and tools, associated artifacts and circumstances of consumption of couscous in the communities concerned,” UNESCO explains.
Preparing couscous is a ceremonial process that start with growing the cereal, after which the seeds are ground to obtain a semolina that is rolled by hand, steamed and then cooked. These practices are associated with a set of exclusive tools, instruments and utensils.
The recipe was not revealed in the registration files when entered in the pantheon of global gastronomy but it’s a very versatile dish and the variety of vegetables and meats can depend on the region, season and occasion and are adapted to different tastes and cultures.
The entire traditional Mexican cuisine as a national cultural practice is acknowledged on the cultural heritage list, like French gastronomy and the Mediterranean diet.
As with hawker food culture and couscous, it’s all about centuries-old cooking techniques passed down through generations and the sharing of food: “farming, ritual practices, age-old skills, culinary techniques and ancestral community customs and manners,” UNESCO says.
From planting and harvesting to cooking and eating, the basis of the system is founded on corn, beans, varieties of tomatoes and chillies, avocado, cocoa, and vanilla.
The characteristics noted by UNESCO include farming methods such as milpas (rotating fields of corn and other crops) and chinampas (man-made farming islets in lake areas) as the chefs who create this food are called; cooking processes such as nixtamalization (lime-hulling maize, which increases its nutritional value); and singular utensils such as grinding stones and stone mortars.
Native ingredients including varieties of tomatoes, squash, avocados, cocoa and vanilla supplement the basic staples.
Even the most ardent fans of Mexican food admit to knowing only a fraction of the many regional foods and preparation styles that raise Mexican national cuisine to the UNESCO list.
Here are 10 top “must-try” meals: chilaquiles, pozole, tacos al pastor, tostadas, chiles en nogada, mole, enchiladas, tamales, guacamole, fajitas.
Gastronomic French cooking
Given the world-renown French art of taking food seriously and the sheer wealth of French cuisine, in this case the recognition as Intangible Cultural Heritage is given to the tradition of the festive meal that brings people together to enjoy the art of good eating and drinking.
The gastronomic meal of the French is a customary social practice for celebrating important moments in the lives of individuals and groups, such as births, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, achievements and reunions.
Meals change from house to house, depending on the season, the traditional family recipes passed from generation to generation and throughout the regions.
“Important elements include the careful selection of dishes from a constantly growing repertoire of recipes; the purchase of good, preferably local products whose flavors go well together; the pairing of food with wine; the setting of a beautiful table; and specific actions during consumption, such as smelling and tasting items at the table,” UNESCO writes.
The gastronomic meal should respect a fixed structure, commencing with an apéritif (drinks before the meal) and ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses — namely a starter, fish and/or meat with vegetables, cheese, dessert and of course wines.
The art of Neapolitan ‘Pizzaiuolo’
‘Pizzaiulos’ are pizza-makers from Naples. They keep the local culinary tradition of making pizza following four different phases relating to the preparation of the dough and its baking in a wood-fired oven and involving a rotating movement by the baker.
UNESCO recognizes pizzaiuolo’s work to be an art passed down in families and through courses organized by the Association of Neapolitan Pizzaiuoli.
It originates in Naples, the capital of the Campania Region, where about 3,000 Pizzaiuoli live and perform. There are three categories of bearers – the Master Pizzaiuolo, the Pizzaiuolo and the baker – as well as the families in Naples that reproduce the art in their own homes.
This art is on spectacular display when the Pizzaiuolo prepare their dish at their ‘bottega’ or even in front of their stores.
The knowledge and skills are primarily transmitted at the ‘bottega’, where young apprentices observe the elements of the craft from their masters.
Oshi Palav from Tajikistan and Palov from Uzbekistan
Known as “the king of meal,” Oshi Palav (pilaf) is a traditional, highly-valued dish of communities in Tajikistan and recognized as a part of their cultural heritage.
It’s closely related to Palov from Uzbekistan, which is also included on the UNESCO list.
Both are based on recipes using rice, vegetables, meat and spices that, aside from the nutritional value and delicious flavor, bear properties to bring families together, secure friendships and resolve arguments.
There are up to 200 varieties of Oshi Palav, which is also known as a ‘dish of peace’ for the role it plays in bringing people from different backgrounds together.
The better-known recipe includes lamb, rice, onions and carrots simmered in a broth. Prepared in vast quantities, they’re intended to be enjoyed at regular mealtimes, as well as at social gatherings, celebrations and rituals.
Whether prepared in private homes or teahouses, cooking is usually accompanied by socializing and singing, which adds to the dish’s food culture. Eating oshi palav with one’s hands from a communal pot is similarly symbolic of kinship and community.
Tajik oshi palav and Uzbek plov are also related to Indian pilau, Persian polow, and even Spanish paella.
Kimjang, the tradition Of making kimchi in Korea
Kimchi is the Korean name for preserved vegetables seasoned with spices and fermented seafood. It forms an essential part of Korean meals, transcending class and regional differences.
An important tradition on the Korean peninsula, where the recipe has been transmitted from mother to daughter for centuries, it’s a collective practice that serves to reaffirm Korean identity and is an excellent opportunity for strengthening family cooperation.
The preparation of kimchi follows a yearly cycle. In spring, households procure shrimp, anchovy and other seafood for salting and fermenting. In summer, they buy sea salt for the brine. In late summer, red chilli peppers are dried and ground into powder. Late autumn is Kimjang season, when communities collectively make and share large quantities of kimchi to ensure that every household has enough to sustain it through the long, harsh winter.
Housewives monitor weather forecasts to determine the most favorable date and temperature for preparing kimchi. Innovative skills and creative ideas are shared and accumulated during the custom of exchanging kimchi among households. There are regional differences, and the specific methods and ingredients used in Kimjang are considered an important family heritage.
In North Korea there are collective farms that still produce kimchi as it was done centuries ago.
Traditions of coffee and bread
UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage has various individual foods that have important cultural meaning in the countries that produce them. The list includes:
- Turkish coffee
- Lavash – traditional flat bread from Armenia which has different versions and names in other countries such as Katyrma, Jupka and Yufka in Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan.
- Dolmas from Azerbaijan
- Il-Ftire, a flattened sourdough bread from Malta.