Following a fever dream at the end of 2018, I decided to embark on a travel project that took me to 12 different countries in the 12 months of 2019. Focusing on the viability of short term, budget travel, and armed with an attitude of “It’s better to go somewhere for the four days you can manage than to never go somewhere,” I am happy to report at the end of 2019 that I visited 12 different countries on five different continents without spending much more than $400 on any given flight.
But enough about that. Let’s talk about the food, which was naturally the ongoing highlight of the year. As an epicurean and food writer, with little time between trips given the frequency of the travel, my approach to pre-planning was mostly to Google “Top 10 Things to Eat in X” on the way to the airport. This resulted in a year of terrific, international delights: some classic, some downright strange, and some…rather unexpected. Here’s a round up of my top eating (and drinking) experiences and honorable mentions from 12 countries around the globe.
Related Reading: Eatwith Food Experiences to Try on Your Travels
1. Guadeloupe: Sauce Chien (“Dog Sauce”)
Colloquially known as “dog sauce” for reasons that remain mysterious (perhaps related to the drool-worthiness of the sauce), this ubiquitous condiment is appropriate for any and all seafood preparations common in the south Caribbean, plus goat, or chicken. Comprised of chopped habanero peppers or scotch bonnets and copious amounts of garlic, then brightened with vinegar, cumin, and lime, frankly I’d happily put this spicy sharp sauce on just about anything.
Honorable Mention: Croissants. Perhaps you will find this a surprising addition for the south Caribbean. Did I mention Guadeloupe is a department of France?
2. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Pickled Herring
As a food-forward traveler I will never not try a local dish of importance to the place, though there are always some that one is less excited about. For this trip, that was pickled herring. Lowering a whole fish into one’s mouth didn’t seem like a terribly appetizing way to enjoy seafood, but I won’t ever forget the clean, bright, downright buttery taste of the herring I had at Zeewater, paired with pickles and onions. And this took first place in a country also known for its cheese! That’s how good it was.
Honorable Mention: Gouda. When I hear “red light district” I will always think of the red, wax-covered wheels of gouda seductively beckoning me from their storefronts.
Amsterdam Food and Markets Tour, $71 on Airbnb
Take a food tasting tour of the city.
Related Reading: Top 10 Tastes of Amsterdam
3. Beijing, China: “Traditional Chinese Spicy Snack”
I wish I could tell you what this was and how to ask for it. I was looking for hot pot. Instead Google maps lead me to a build-your-own soup bar where the owner and I had a charming conversation utilizing Google translate, which resulted in the above description for what I was eating. I’m still trying to figure out what was meant by “instant slice of winter melon pumpkin kiss,” something I ostensibly put in my soup, but the lightly spicy, rich broth studded with the noodles, greens, mushrooms, and proteins of my choosing was one of the tastiest, and most memorable meals of the year. And the total cost, plus a local beer to accompany, was about the equivalent of four dollars.
Honorable Mention: Fried scorpions. It’s not so much the flavor or texture—both of which were milder than one might imagine—but the badass factor of having eaten a scorpion.
Beijing Street Food Safari, $45 on Airbnb
Explore the food scene with a local.
Related Reading: 5 Reasons to Visit Beijing’s Wangfujing Snack Street
4. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale
It’s one of those facts you don’t even bother to confirm, when enough people tell you that Halifax has the most breweries per capita in…the world? Canada? North America? Whatever it is, the hyperbole seems warranted, and a place with that much love of beer must produce some seriously good suds. Plus it’s Canada, eh? And while the actual fact above might never have been confirmed, the beer, brewery tour, and beeramisu served at Alexander Keith’s old, waterfront brewery was all officially confirmed to be worthy of a spot on the list.
Honorable Mention: Vachon Snacks. Yes, this is nepotism, but these snack cakes and I share a name, so…
Vachon Ah Caramel! Cakes, Package of 12 for $11.50 on Amazon
Imagine yourself 12 years old and finding out that a Canadian snack cake is named after you.
Related Reading: Why International Grocery Shopping is the Best Food Tour
5. Glasgow, Scotland: Indian Food
This was one of the biggest surprises, when my typical search for food recommendations turned up mostly Indian cuisine on a top ten list for Glasgow. A friend recommended Mother India’s Cafe in Kelvingrove with the edict that if I were to eat only one meal in Glasgow it should be this one. (To reiterate: if I only have one meal in Scotland it better be this? Intriguing…) And now that I’ve had the brightest, freshest, liveliest Indian cuisine of my life, whose freshly ground spices very well sang to me in their splendor, all other Indian restaurants are now ruined. I guess I’d better line up India for 2020. Thanks, Scotland.
Honorable Mention: Scotch whisky. Because, Scotland. (Haggis? Turns out it’s about as exotic as meatloaf.)
6. Belize: Breakfast Tacos
It’s not that these simple, rolled, chicken and beef tacos are the best tacos I’ve ever eaten, even with savory tortillas right from the press. It’s not even so much that they were even the tastiest morsels I had in Belize; truly, the pillowy pupusas, technically a dish native to El Salvador, are what causes me to dream of San Pedro. But I’m standing on principle here, because BREAKFAST TACOS. This is not a drill. You order them in sets of three. And douse them in gasoline—that is—habanero hot sauce. And eat them for breakfast.
Honorable Mention: Chinese food. I cannot fully explain this. Apparently the Chinese community controls most of the grocery stores in Belize. And I had just been in China two months prior, but this was really damn good Chinese food.
Related Reading: 2 Days in Belize
7. Prague, Czech Republic: Steak Tartare
In a country where not much English is spoken, the bartender who took my order immediately rounded up a server with a little English ability to confirm that I knew what I was doing. My guess is that they’ve dealt with Americans who latched onto the word “steak” and went for it without context, only to be aghast at the very raw nature of the dish. But no, I knew very well what I was getting into, and in fact I was getting into it as my first meal off of the plane, without having even dropped off my luggage at the AirBnb, since I had learned that steak tartare was a THING TO DO in Prague. And thus I was rewarded with a transcendent version: a gooey egg yolk suspended in a generous mound of rosy ribeye, with condiments on the side to mix to my individual taste. Along with mainstays like mustard and onions were staple spices in Czech cuisine: paprika and caraway, rocketing this steak tartare into a thing of legend. Not to mention the accompanying toast: thick slices of brown bread that had been fried in beef fat, along with whole cloves of garlic to rub them with.
Honorable Mention: Pilsner. It’s like you’d think they invented the stuff.
Prague Food Tour, $96 on Airbnb
A four hour eating excursion with local food lovers.
Related Reading: Fairytale Food to Bring Home for a Taste of Prague
8. San Juan, Puerto Rico: Dinner at Vianda
Still reeling from devastation, it is a testament to Puerto Rico and its triumphant spirit that my top choice from this trip was not any of its hearty, humble dishes such as mofongo, but was a meal at a fine dining restaurant that nonetheless sprung up in Hurricane Maria’s wake. Vianda has attracted much attention in its short life for its global, elegant approach to home-grown products and dishes. Menus change seasonally, but standouts from my visit included a melon gazpacho, pig fries (you read that correctly), and “Tom Kha” bacalao.
Honorable Mention: Coquito. In the spirit of full disclosure, this was a coquito frosty, acquired in a moment of needing to find comfort food for a fellow traveler. But sorry/not sorry on this one.
9. Lima, Peru: Suspiro de Limeña
Speaking of fine dining, Lima holds the distinction of having two of the world’s ten best restaurants according to an annual ranking sponsored by San Pellegrino. In spite of this, I was most moved by a local pudding, born of the marriage of a pastry chef and a poet. Suspiro de Limeña, meaning “sigh of the lady,” is basically butterscotch pudding topped with a port-spiked meringue. Need I go further?
Honorable Mention: Ceviche. All the ceviche. All the time. All the variations. And a pisco sour.
Ceviche Cooking Class in Peru, $62 on Airbnb
Learn to make ceviche and pisco sours from a lifelong local.
Related Reading: Chicha Morada: How to Enjoy This Iconic Peruvian Drink
10. Marrakech, Morocco: Mint Tea
Inside the ancient, walled medina of Marrakech is a cacophony of sights, sounds, and smells all competing for your attention at once. So it’s no wonder that its most ubiquitous beverage has a calming effect, even while holding on the alcohol. If you’ve ever steeped a few fresh mint leaves in hot water and colored yourself impressed, Morocco is here to show you what you’re missing, in a sweetened, layered version of events that rightfully requires a bit of showmanship and ceremony to pour.
Honorable Mention: Snails. Listen, if some eight-year-old sitting with his mom can do it, so can I. And…turns out they were garlicky and delicious.
11. Oaxaca, Mexico: Tostada de Insectos
Does that look like it says “insect tostada?” Well, it does. I would like to chalk this one up not as the tastiest thing I ate, but perhaps as the proudest. Many cultures count a variety of insects as delicacies, or even everyday foodstuffs, and not the “I dare you” food challenges that they might be to an unaccustomed American. In Oaxaca, a bowl of fried crickets serves as a crunchy, salty snack; if you weren’t looking, you’d think it was just seasoned, puffed rice. The occasional worm is just another interesting component for texture and flavor in a composed salad, or toasted and ground into spiced salt as a garnish for mezcal.
But just when you think you’re getting the hang of it, along comes this tostada, garnished with every crawly thing all at once. It’s definitely a little mind over matter going in, but you know what? At the end of the day it was just a crunchy, multi-faceted tostada with a hint of a somewhat unfamiliar umami note, but here it is on my best of-list. (And this in another region known for its cheese. Which was also on the tostada.)
Honorable Mention: Mezcal. Especially while enjoyed with a view of agave fields.
12. Lisbon, Portugal: Pasteis de Nata
These rich and delicate custard tarts in puff pastry have slowly but surely been making their way into American bakeries, but I resisted them all year knowing Lisbon was on the itinerary, and I could have them for the first time at the spot that made them famous, Pasteis de Belém, where they were served warm, and with the opportunity for Port. (Pro tip: Get the plate of six.)
Honorable Mention: Goan cuisine. Portugal had a presence on the Indian subcontinent for 450 years, and while colonialism is so last century, sometimes the culinary fusion is still favorable.
Header image courtesy of Getty Images.