How Do Certain Foods Become National Dishes? (2024)


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A new book digs into the histories of some of the world’s most iconic fare.

How Do Certain Foods Become National Dishes? (1)

By Irina Dumitrescu

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NATIONAL DISH: Around the World in Search of Food, History, and the Meaning of Home, by Anya von Bremzen

“We have a compulsion to tie food to place,” Anya von Bremzen writes in her new book, but that compulsion, it turns out, has more to do with myth and marketing than with historical fact. “National Dish” is the story of her quest to understand why certain foods, like pizza, ramen and tapas, are adopted as symbols of their places of origin.

Von Bremzen’s journey takes her through six cities — Paris, Naples, Tokyo, Seville, Oaxaca and Istanbul — and countless restaurants, kitchens and bars as she nibbles her way to an answer. Along the way, she talks to star chefs, food bloggers, agricultural scientists and culinary historians. The result is a fast-paced, entertaining travelogue, peppered with compact history lessons that reveal the surprising ways dishes become iconic.

The author of six cookbooks and “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking,” a memoir of living, eating and rationing in the U.S.S.R., von Bremzen is ideally suited to this undertaking. Having exchanged Soviet propaganda for the American promise of the multicultural melting pot, she has a deep-seated skepticism for the stories nations tell to create unified identities. She is also a curious eater, keen on digging out the rich cultural background of, say, Iberian ham or pasta puttanesca — before wolfing them down. Reading this book is like traveling with someone who knows the best places to eat and the right people to meet, but who can still find joy in humble, improvised meals.

In Naples, Italy, von Bremzen settles into a flat in the still ungentrified Spanish Quarter. Somewhere here, between hanging laundry, loose pit bulls and the beatific presence of Diego Maradona, is the secret to a true pizza margherita. The legend goes like this: In 1889, Naples receives a visit from King Umberto and his beautiful, charismatic queen, Margherita. The situation is tense. Italian unification has not been good for the southern economy, and is seen as a Piedmontese scheme. The royal couple from the north need to sell Naples on the idea of the nation. Margherita invites a local chef, Raffaele Esposito, to bring her pizza, a cheap street food that keeps this poor city going. He invents a version with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, the colors of the new Italian flag. The queen loves this patriotic pie, and gives it her name.

Of course, none of this is true. Neapolitans had been eating that combination of toppings for ages, and there is no evidence in state papers of a royal pizza tasting. Pizza margherita was a clever marketing idea cooked up by an enterprising pizzaiolo in the 1930s, complete with a fake letter from the queen to hang in his restaurant. The idea of the one authentic pizza margherita, which only Neapolitan chefs knew how to make properly, became even more useful as a symbol of Italy in the late 20th century, when globalization was threatening local cuisines. “Authenticity,” muses von Bremzen, is “such a monster marketing tool.”

The myth busting doesn’t stop there. In Tokyo, von Bremzen chases down another convenient starch with an international reputation. Accompanied by an impossibly hip American ramen influencer — “let’s go crush some bowls,” he says gamely — von Bremzen slurps seafood ramen with scallops and delicate slices of raw chicken, and develops an addiction to high-end instant noodles.

However gourmet it is now, ramen, like pizza, has roots in necessity. Originally a Chinese import to Japan, the dish owes its popularity to the United States’ occupation of Japan after World War II. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, worried that famine could push Japan toward communism, had excess American wheat sent in. The Japanese Health Ministry encouraged the populace to replace rice with wheat, warning parents that rice could doom their children to “a life of idiocy.” Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant ramen, received funding as part of this effort.


Von Bremzen decides to explore the art of preparing white rice, which “has zero millennial-hipster glamour” and is a powerful symbol of Japanese culture. Even that, it turns out, wasn’t always as central to the Japanese table, which used to include more barley and beans. In the late-19th-century Meiji era, government authorities promoted rice as part of their policy of nostalgic nation building.

Things get more dispiriting in Seville, Spain, where von Bremzen learns that foods like Catalan sausage and Andalusian gazpacho were not regional specialties but dishes historically cooked by families across the country. It was La Sección Femenina, the women’s branch of Spain’s fascist movement, that assigned these recipes to regions, as part of its effort to foster “a sanitized, politically acceptable form of cultural diversity.”

Around now, the reader might grow antsy. If so many dishes considered iconic expressions of place and history are really the result of clever marketing or nationalist propaganda, does this mean each plate is a lie? Is eating authentically even possible?

The answer is yes, but it comes at a cost. In Oaxaca, Mexico, von Bremzen learns how to make black mole, laboriously roasting rare local chili peppers and layering them with spices that first came to Mexico on Spanish trading ships. The result is a blend of Indigenous agricultural and culinary knowledge and colonial conquest, with all the violence that came with it: mestizaje, or cultural mixing, on a plate.

Corn is even more profoundly linked to a sense of Mexicanness, she finds, as one person after another tells her: “Somos gente de maíz. We’re people of corn.” Domesticated 9,000 years ago in the Balsas River valley, corn was stigmatized by Spanish colonizers, who associated wheat with racial superiority. Now, the farmers who produce corn are threatened by NAFTA, industrial production and climate change. The men and women who hold on to traditional methods of corn preparation perform the backbreaking work of shucking, soaking and grinding to produce their meals.

It is true that if you look into any dish or ingredient deeply enough, you might discover a gloomy history. The unctuous jamón served at tapas bars recalls the suppression of Jews and Muslims in Spain: Inquisitors served pork to Christian converts to test their faith. Armenian and Greek meze dishes served up at an Istanbul restaurant reveal the culinary legacies of peoples who were killed or exiled and then forgotten. But this is an incomplete picture. “National Dish” begins with the connection between food and place, but it is ultimately about the intimate, transitory communities people make when they eat together.

At a potluck dinner in Istanbul, guests bring their favorite dishes from their cultures. They argue about culinary origins while drinking raki, smoking on the balcony and singing so loudly the neighbors call the police. In Oaxaca, the Zapotec chef Abigail Mendoza and her sisters spend days making chocolate atole, an elaborate celebration drink with pre-Hispanic roots. Back in Queens, von Bremzen prepares borsch (the “t” in “borscht” is a Yiddish addition, she notes) for two Ukrainian friends still reeling from the invasion of their home country. Our beloved dishes may not always tell a happy story about who we are, but they tell us what we have to give.

Irina Dumitrescu teaches medieval literature at the University of Bonn, and is writing a book about perfectionism.

NATIONAL DISH: Around the World in Search of Food, History, and the Meaning of Home | By Anya von Bremzen | 340 pp. | Penguin Press | $30

A correction was made on

June 16, 2023


An earlier version of this review misstated where the author Anya von Bremzen prepares borsch for two Ukrainian friends. The meal takes place in Queens, not Brooklyn.

How we handle corrections


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How Do Certain Foods Become National Dishes? (2024)


How does a food become a national dish? ›

A dish can be considered a national dish for a variety of reasons: It is a staple food, made from a selection of locally available foodstuffs that can be prepared in a distinctive way, such as fruits de mer, served along the west coast of France.

What is a national dish or food? ›

India - Khichdi

Khichdi is a very popular Indian dish, so much so that it is considered to be the 'national dish of India'.

Why doesn't the US have a national dish? ›

The USA is a huge country, a melting pot of different cultures, histories and heritage. So it makes sense that there is no single national dish, or 'traditional American food' but several state foods celebrating the diversity of the 50 states. American food culture is as rich and exciting as the country itself.

What would be America's national dish? ›

United States. The national dish of USA is your favourite – Hamburger. Its a popular sandwich made of bun or sliced bread rolls stuffed with veggies, sauces and of course beef patties, and then grilled to perfection.

How does food represent national identity? ›

Although it is adaptable, food is also tightly linked to people's cultural identities, or the ways they define and distinguish themselves from other groups of people. As part of these cultural identities, the term cuisine is used to refer to specific cultural traditions of cooking, preparing, and consuming food.

How do most national food guides classify foods? ›

Most countries categorize foods into "food groups" quite similarly. The groupings of foods typically seen in a food guide include grains, vegetables, fruits, meat, milk/dairy products and fats and sugar. One concern about grouping foods into broad categories is that not all foods within a food group are created equal.

What's Italy's national dish? ›

Italy. Commonly known around the world as spaghetti bolognese, in its authentic form 'Ragu alla Bolognese' is recognised as the national dish of Italy.

What is the most delicious national food? ›

10 National Dishes to Try and the Best Places to Find Them
  • Asado, Argentina. Asado gets its name from the technique used to cook meat on a grill known as asador. ( ...
  • Salt and pepper squid, Australia. ...
  • Ceviche, Peru. ...
  • Smørrebrød, Denmark. ...
  • Fondue, Switzerland. ...
  • Irish Stew, Ireland. ...
  • Kibbeh, Lebanon and Syria. ...
  • Pot-au-Feu, France.
Feb 27, 2021

What is the #1 dish in America? ›

Most popular American dishes in the U.S. Q3 2022

As of Q3 2022, hamburgers, mashed potatoes, and cheeseburgers were the most popular American dishes in the United States.

What is the most American dish ever? ›

1. Apple Pie. The saying is "American as apple pie" for a reason: this sweet treat is a national institution.

Which country has no national dish? ›

Austria, the Country without a National Anthem | Der Erste Weltkrieg.

What is China's national dish? ›

China: National Dish – Peking Duck (in Chinese 北京烤鸭)

World famous, this dish is known for its super crispy awesome skin with the flesh remaining both tender and succulent. The most popular way of serving peking duck is in a thin pancake with plum dipping sauce as an accompaniment…….

Does every country have a national food? ›

There are some countries that do not have a national dish because the country is so large. India for example is a region that has several national dishes because of the diversity of the area. There are countries such as Spain and Mexico along with several Central and Latin American countries that share a cuisine.

What factors have an impact on a country's cuisine? ›

The major factors shaping a cuisine are climate, which in large measure determines the raw materials that are available to the cook; economic conditions, which regulate trade in delicacies and imported foodstuffs; and religious or sumptuary laws, under which certain foods are required or proscribed.

How does food shape our cultural identity? ›

Food plays a significant role in shaping cultures. It reflects personal beliefs, values, and customs. For instance, some believe certain foods are sacred or that certain dishes can only be eaten under particular circumstances or holidays.

What country has the best food guide? ›

Brazil, where "eating is a natural part of social life"
  • On whole foods: "Make natural or minimally processed foods the basis of your diet. ...
  • On salt, sugar and fat: "Use oils, fats, salt, and sugar in small amounts for seasoning and cooking foods and to create culinary preparations.
Feb 20, 2015

What are the 5 groups of food? ›

Now that the back-to-school season is settling down, the nutritionists at MyPlate are offering a back-to-basics refresher lesson on the food groups. As the MyPlate icon shows, the five food groups are Fruits, Vegetables, Grains, Protein Foods, and Dairy.

What is the least popular food in the world? ›

10 Most Hated Foods In The World
  • 8 Brussel Sprouts.
  • 7 Okra.
  • 6 Turnips.
  • 5 Raisins.
  • 4 Blue Cheese.
  • 3 Anchovies.
  • 2 Olives.
  • 1 Candy Corn.
Oct 13, 2021

What is the most eaten dish in the world? ›

1. Rice. It may not come as that much of a surprise to learn that rice takes the top spot in this list, after all, it is one of the most common food items across the whole of Asia. And Asia is the world's largest continent.

What is the Irish national dish? ›

Irish Stew

An easy and flexible meal that's commonly considered the national dish of Ireland, says Amy Lawless, an Irish American and co-owner of The Dearborn in Chicago. Though generally made with mutton, onions, carrots, celery, and potatoes, Irish stew can also be created with beef or chicken, she explains.

Which country's national dish is pasta? ›

Italy. Pasta – One of the most famous national dishes, pasta is regularly eaten in countries around the world.

What is the national dish of Switzerland? ›

Rosti. The Swiss answer to potato lakes or hash browns, rosti is the national dish of Switzerland. Thinly slices potatoes are fried in oil. The classic rosti is only potato, but you'll also find eggs, bacon, apple, and cheese mixed in.

What country is #1 for food? ›

China is the place to go to get food shock a dozen times a day. “You can eat that?” will become the intrepid food traveler's daily refrain. China's regional cuisines are so varied it's hard to believe they're from the same nation.

What is the most liked food in us? ›

25 Most Popular American Foods and Dishes
  • Hot Dogs.
  • French Fries.
  • Chicken Tenders.
  • Pizza.
  • Burgers Apple Pie.
  • Meatloaf.
  • Macaroni and Cheese.
  • Grilled Cheese Sandwiches.
Jan 23, 2023

What is the most food eaten for dinner in USA? ›

Here are some of the most common:
  • baked/mashed potatoes.
  • rice.
  • macaroni and cheese.
  • beans.
  • corn on the cob.
  • grilled vegetables.
  • side salad.
  • coleslaw.
Jun 5, 2018

What is typical American breakfast? ›

In the United States, breakfast often consists of either a cereal or an egg-based dish. However, pancakes, waffles, toast, and variants of the full breakfast and continental breakfast are also prevalent.

Which country has the unhealthiest cuisine? ›

It found that Uzbekistan was the worst for diet-related deaths - with around one in five deaths being from poor diet (mostly from too much salt and too few whole grains and fruits - strange as there are many fresh fruits in the country). This study upset the Uzbekistanis as many are proud of their national cuisines.

Which country always eat rice? ›

Here is a list of the Top 10 Most Rice Consuming Countries Worldwide in 2022-2023 –
  • China. 154,946.
  • India. 108,500.
  • Bangladesh. 37,300.
  • Indonesia. 35,200.
  • Vietnam. 21,500.
  • Philippines. 15,750.
  • Thailand. 13,000.
  • Burma. 10,300.

Does Japan have a national dish? ›


What is the most famous dish in Italy? ›

Number one on our list of the best traditional foods in Italy has to be pizza. Everyone knows what pizza is, it needs no introduction, but what you probably know as pizza isn't quite the same as in Italy.

Is rice eaten in every meal in China? ›

Rice is a major staple food in China. It is mainly grown in southern China. Chinese people eat rice almost every day for meals. People also use rice to produce wine and beer.

What country has the healthiest food? ›

1/ Okinawan diet – Japan

Widely considered to be one of the healthiest diets in the world, the Okinawan diet has numerous health benefits. So much so that Japan has the lowest obesity rates and second longest life expectancy of any developed country.

Who is the #1 chef in the world? ›

Gordon Ramsay – 7 Michelin stars

Known for his volatile kitchen demeanour and exceptional British cuisine, Gordon Ramsay is arguably the most famous chef in the world. Although he's been awarded 16 Michelin stars throughout his career, he currently holds seven.

What food is USA famous for? ›

This list explores 27 of the most quintessential American dishes.
  • Apple Pie. ...
  • Cheeseburgers. ...
  • Pizza. ...
  • Nashville Hot Chicken. ...
  • Biscuits and Gravy. ...
  • Cornbread. ...
  • Jambalaya. ...
  • Country Fried Steak.
Jan 25, 2022

Why is American food so different? ›

As technology advances and populations change, food culture in America has adapted as well. With this wide variety of cuisines, American food culture often combines food from different countries, regions, and ethnicities to create entirely new dishes that are unique to the US.

What is USA famous for? ›

The United States is by far the most famous country in the world. It's famous for its attractions, such as the Grand Canyon, tech innovation, sports, and it has a large imprint on the global culture thanks to famous movies, television shows, and music.

Does the US have a national food policy? ›

Federal Food Policy: The Farm Bill and The Child Nutrition Reauthorization. As described on our Farm Bill page, the omnibus farm bill is a cornerstone of US food policy and gets reauthorized by Congress every five years.

What makes a dish traditional? ›

Traditional foods are foods and dishes that are passed on through generations or which have been consumed for many generations. Traditional foods and dishes are traditional in nature, and may have a historic precedent in a national dish, regional cuisine or local cuisine.

How does food become culture? ›


As foods represent our cultures, they come to become core parts of our identities. Recipes are passed down through generations, the tastes, smells and sights of meals connect us with our ancestral heritage.

What is considered an ethnic dish? ›

Broadly speaking, ethnic foods are defined by others outside of the respective ethnic groups as cuisines originating from the heritage and culture of specific ethnic groups. For example, Chinese food, Mexican food, Italian food, etc., are only considered to be ethnic foods outside of their respective countries.

Who controls the food in America? ›

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Does the U.S. give food to other countries? ›

Over 60+ years, USAID's food assistance programs and activities have operated in more than 150 countries. Through USAID's Office of Food for Peace, USAID is the largest provider of food assistance in the world using both food grown in the U.S. and cash for more flexible programming abroad.

When did the U.S. start regulating food? ›

Regulation of food in the United States dates from early colonial times. Federal controls over the drug supply began with inspection of imported drugs in 1848, although the first federal biologics law, which addressed the provision of reliable smallpox vaccine to citizens, was passed in 1813.

What is the world's most delicious dish? ›

Rendang, Indonesia. Source Often called "the world's most delicious dish," Rendang is prepared by simmering beef with coconut milk with a mixture of the best of spices including turmeric, garlic, lemongrass, ginger, chillies, and galangal.

What is the most eaten food in the world? ›

Rice is a food staple for more than 3.5 billion people around the world, particularly in Asia, Latin America, and parts of Africa. Rice has been cultivated in Asia for thousands of years. Scientists believe people first domesticated rice in India or Southeast Asia.

What's the most delicious food in the world? ›

For now, feast your eyes and control your drooling, as we reveal some of the world's best foods that can help inspire your travel plans:
  1. Massaman curry, Thailand.
  2. Neapolitan pizza, Italy. ...
  3. Chocolate, Mexico. ...
  4. Sushi, Japan. ...
  5. Peking duck, China. ...
  6. Hamburger, Germany. ...
  7. Penang assam laksa, Malaysia. ...
  8. Tom yum goong, Thailand. ...
Apr 13, 2021

What is the unhealthiest ethnic food? ›

The following are ethnic cuisines that have the least nutritious options.
  1. Chinese. ...
  2. American. ...
  3. Indian. ...
  4. Italian.

What are the 5 main types of cuisines? ›

Below are 5 of our favorite types of cuisine for cooking and eating.
  • Caribbean. ...
  • Vietnamese. ...
  • Korean. ...
  • German. ...
  • Indian. ...
  • Explore Culinary Styles and Cuisines at The Art Institutes.
Jul 19, 2017


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