Food can say a lot about a country and its people. National dishes in particular can tell us about a country’s staple foods, how it’s been influenced by different cultures and even how important food is to its people. Unlike national birds, plants or animals, national dishes usually aren’t official in the sense that they’ve been endorsed by the state. Any one country can have several meals that are considered their national dish – it’s all to do with how the dish and its ingredients relate to local culture and the nation’s people. Often national dishes are of a more rustic nature, the sort of food any ordinary person would eat, with many regional, familial and personal variations.
Here are four examples of the role national dishes play in country and culture.
Jamaica: Ackee and Saltfish
Ackee and saltfish gives us insight into Jamaica’s history and its people’s tragic slave past. The ackee fruit was brought to Jamaica from West Africa in the eighteenth century. Although apparently very tasty, ackee fruit is dangerous if prepared incorrectly, as parts of it are toxic! Salt cod also harks back to times of slavery, when packing cod with salt meant it could be transported long distances without going off. Today, Jamaicans have reclaimed ackee and saltfish as their own and prepare the dish by sautéing boiled ackee, saltfish, onions and tomatoes.
Empanadas are a pastry, a little like an English pastie, which are either baked or fried and can be filled with a variety of things, from meat to cheese. Recipes for empanadas will vary from region to region and from family to family, so one person’s beef empanada may be completely different to another’s. There is a way to tell what’s inside without looking though; the empanada is crimped around the edge in different ways, depending on the filling. For example, a simple pattern made by pressing a fork around the seam of the pastry denotes that it’s a cheese empanada. Everyone is sure to bring out their own take on empanadas at any gathering in Argentina.
Ethiopia: Doro Wet
This chicken stew has been hailed as the most popular traditional dish in Ethiopia. Spices and flavours are extremely important in the Ethiopian home, as is eating as a group and sharing food. Apparently spices are so important in Ethiopia that you can insult someone by telling them ‘Ya wen alecha’, which translates loosely to ‘You have no pepper’. Doro wett is often shared in a communal bowl, with a basket of injera, a traditional flat-bread, which is also considered a national food. This national dish highlights the role of food and eating socially in Ethiopia and its name comes from one of the country’s several languages, Amharic.
Goulash is well known for being a symbol of Hungary and became a national dish in the late 1800s. The word goulash comes from the Hungarian gulyá, meaning ‘herdsman’; from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, when driving their cattle to Europe’s biggest markets, herdsmen would slaughter the weakest animal to make their gulyáshús (goulash meat). There are many variations of goulash, but it is generally a soup or stew made with meat and vegetables and seasoned with paprika and other spices. Fun fact: the communism practised in Hungary during the Cold War was known as ‘Goulash Communism’.
What is your national dish and what does it say about your country?