Ultimate eats: the world's top 10 food experiences
The best food in the world is often one which comes with an unforgettable memory; and what better way to experience it than on your travels?
The inextricable link between food and travel is so fascinating (not to mention, delicious!) that we set our community of bloggers, writers and staff the task of trawling the planet for epic foodie adventures. Here are our most delicious food experiences – as ranked by some of the world’s top chefs!
Got an appetite for more? Another 490 mouthwatering morsels await in our book, Ultimate Eatlist.
1. Pinxtos in San Sebastián
If there’s a better way to explore a culture’s cuisine than pintxos in San Sebastián, we’ll eat our shorts. The tiny bites (known as tapas outside of Basque Spain) are best consumed with an accompanying drink, seeing as you’ll be taking this particular culinary journey as a bar-hopping escapade through the streets of San Sebastián. Beginning their existence as small open sandwiches, pintxos can be experienced in many incarnations, from the traditional, piled-high toppings on bread, to molecular gastronomy renditions with flavours that defy what you see.
Needless to say, almost every local ingredient is represented. It’s hard to list favourites, but the simple examples are often the ones that blow your mind – battered white asparagus, a tuna and anchovy tart or maybe mushrooms braised with garlic. To get the full pintxos and San Sebastián experience, have a lazy day in the city and surrounds, take an afternoon nap, and then head out around 9pm. You’ll never be more than a few minutes from your next bar, a whole new menu of tasty treats, and a whole new group of people eating and drinking – just follow their leads.
2. Curry laksa in Kuala Lumpur
Rich and creamy curry laksa is just about as tasty a bowl of food as you will find anywhere on the planet, but it’s in Malaysia, and in particular in Kuala Lumpur, that you’ll find some of the best ways of eating it. Here are fantastic little hawker centres tucked into the shadows of towering skyscrapers, and at Madras Lane, just off Petaling St, you’ll come across competing curry laksa stalls vying for your attention.
Pick the one with the longest queue and when you have the bowl in your hands choose a plastic chair (make sure it’s connected to the stall where you bought your laksa or you’ll be in trouble) and begin the swoon-worthy, sweat-inducing process of eating. Come again the next day to try the neighbouring stall’s version. A heady mix of spices and flavours (such as fresh turmeric, galangal, chilli, candlenut and shrimp paste) go into the curry mix, which, when combined with coconut milk, creates the signature fiery orange appearance of the noodle soup. Two types of noodles (thin rice and thick egg), along with shredded chicken, shrimp, cockles, tofu puffs, bean sprouts, a sprinkling of fresh chilli and mint and a squeeze of lime, make up the rest of the lip-smacking ingredients. It’s an only-in-Malaysia experience.
3. Sushi masterclass in Tokyo
We want to say that if you’re going to eat sushi in Tokyo, go to Sukiyabashi Jiro or Sushi Saito, but the inordinately long waiting lists to get in to either restaurant take the shine off the experience. That said, if your fairy godmother (aka hotel concierge) waves a magic wand, do not miss your chance; the sushi mastery on show at both places is undeniable. In the absence of a fairy godmother, however, there are some superb sushi restaurants in Tokyo that dish up life-changing experiences without the wait. Cases in point include Manten Sushi Marunouchi and Jūzō Sushi.
Most top-end sushi chefs will serve their sushi omakase style, which just means you leave it to them and they will select, prepare and serve your sushi as they see fit. Don’t kick back and relax just yet, though – there are some etiquette rules to abide by. Firstly, when your fresh piece of sushi is placed in front of you, pick it up with your hands, not chopsticks, and don’t dip it in soy sauce or ask for any extra wasabi. The chef has seasoned the offering, so it is something of an insult to modify the flavour. Between courses it’s fine to use chopsticks to pick up pickled ginger and the oshibori (hand towel) to clean your fingers.
Take your time and interact with the chef; it’s such an intimate setting and a perfect opportunity to learn more about this ancient culinary artform. Remember to pay attention to the rice as well as the fish. Sushi masters spend years perfecting their rice and consider it as important as all the other ingredients. Soak it all in – the tradition, the skill, the respect, the service, all amounting to the quintessential Japanese dining experience.
4. Beef brisket in Texas
The folk in Texas know their barbecued meats. So when they line up for four or more hours to get some, it has to be special. That’s the situation at Franklin Barbecue, in Austin, six days a week. Franklin’s menu includes pulled pork, ribs, sausage and more, but the main attraction is its smoked beef brisket. It keeps it simple, rubbing the meat with a mix of salt and black pepper, and cooking it ‘low and slow’ in oakwood smoke until it’s fall-apart tender and encased in a thin, salty crust. It’s a juicy, smoky Texas classic, judged best in class by the Texans themselves.
Plenty of outsiders are fans too, including the late Anthony Bourdain (‘the finest brisket I’ve ever had’), Barack Obama (skipped the line, but paid for everyone behind him) and Kanye West (tried to skip the line, got bumped). You could drive to Lockhart, the state-legislated ‘Barbecue Capital of Texas’, and be back in the time it takes to get into Franklin’s. But the queue is good fun, you can have a beer and meet some friendly Texans while you wait, and damn, that brisket is good.
5. Som tum in Bangkok
Rarely does a salad generate so much hype, but then som tum, or green papaya salad as many of us know it, is no ordinary salad. Som tum is a bang of flavour – it’s sour, salty, sweet and intensely fiery. It’s also texturally extraordinary, combining the crunch of peanuts with cool slivers of pale green papaya and carrot, and small, sweet, juicy shrimps and tomatoes. It’s sold from street vendors all over Thailand, but is particularly beloved in the capital, Bangkok, where it feels like there’s a seller on every corner.
Grabbing a plate of som tum on the street, amid all the traffic chaos and the stifling heat, is a rite of passage for visitors to the city, and the epitome of this is the rambling, streetside shack Jay So. But if you would prefer to revere your salad in relative peace and quiet, the restaurant Somtam Nua, at the Siam Center on Siam Square, has a worthy version – tamed slightly for Western palates but still delicious.
6. Smørrebrød in Copenhagen
Want to know what the best thing is since sliced bread? Danish smørrebrød, that’s what. Take a slice of rye bread, put some butter on it and then heap it with whatever tasty ingredients you like. Actually, it’s not that simple. There are some rules to smørrebrød that help to elevate it to something beyond just a piece of bread with toppings. Firstly, thin toppings go on first, followed by the bulkier kind; secondly, when eating more than one kind of smørrebrød at once (and this is nearly always the case, good luck stopping at one) you start with the slice that features herring, move on to fish, then meat and finish with cheese. This carefully choreographed sequence is designed to gently walk your palate through the flavour combinations, so that one never overpowers the other.
If you’ve never had smørrebrød before there are some classic combinations you’ll see all over Denmark: pickled herring, onion and dill; mayonnaise, boiled egg, shrimp, dill and lemon; roast beef, pickles, onions and horseradish; blue cheese, apples and bacon, for example. But these are just a tiny sample of the almost limitless number of toppings.
At Copenhagen’s smørrebrød institution, Restaurant Schonnemann, which has been serving up the open-faced sandwich since 1877, the presentation is so delicate and refined it resembles sushi in style. Try the following for an ultimate smørrebrød experience, otherwise known as the world’s best sandwich degustation: herring marinated in dill cream with capers, onions and a fried egg; smoked salmon and smoked halibut with a crab and mayonnaise salad, tomato and basil; a breaded cutlet of pork with apples, thyme and onions; and finally, camembert with blackcurrant jam. And to drink? Why, there’s only more than 140 different schnapps, aquavit and genevers to choose from. That should do nicely.
7. Crayfish in New Zealand's South Island
On the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, about two hours’ drive north of Christchurch, is the picturesquely situated town of Kaikoura. Famous for the abundance of marine life present offshore, with sperm whales, dolphins and seals often spotted close to land, the town’s name derives from the Maori words ‘Kai’, meaning food, and ‘Koura’, meaning crayfish.
Trading on its namesake are numerous fresh seafood vans up and down the nearby coastline. Of these, one of the oldest, and best, is Nin’s Bin. A 20-minute drive from the centre of town, this basic blue and white converted caravan has a few wooden picnic tables scattered outside where locals and well-informed travellers hunker over fresh crayfish and mussels with a view over the Pacific Ocean. Nin’s Bin prepares its crayfish with butter, garlic and a sprinkling of parsley, letting the fresh and sweet flesh shine. Add a squeeze of lemon, throw in a cold beer and hope for a sighting of sperm whales, and you’ll have a perfect afternoon.
Quotas on the number of crayfish being caught in this region have been put in place to protect the marine life here and promote sustainable practices. As such, many of the local shacks and restaurants, including Nin’s Bin, have strict seasonal opening hours worth scouting out before your visit.
8. Bibimbap in South Korea
Korea’s meal in a bowl is pretty much flawless food. Beef and sautéed vegetables such as shiitake mushrooms, spinach and courgettes are piled on to warm, white rice and flavoured with spicy chilli paste and an umami fermented soybean paste, topped with either a raw or fried egg. There are two main types of bibimbap – jeonju-style, which comes in a cold bowl, and dolsot, which comes in a piping-hot earthenware bowl – making it the perfect dish for any season.
Whichever one you choose comes to you like a display meal, with all the ingredients fanned out over the rice, so take a moment to admire the pretty culinary spectacle and know that the ingredients are chosen for specific reasons. The red of the chilli pepper represents your heart, the green vegetables are for your liver, the yellow of the egg yolk is for your stomach, black or very dark items (mushrooms or soy sauce) are there for your kidneys, and the white rice is for your lungs. Now dive right in, mix the whole lot up and give your insides a boost.
9. Pizza in Naples
The world is forever indebted to Italy for inventing the pizza. While there are infinite numbers of ways it can be prepared, there’s one version of our worldwide food obsession that will always stand prouder than the rest: the original margherita pizza from Naples. To eat margherita here is reminiscent of a religious experience – you’ll find zealous disciples of specific restaurants. It’s believed the worldwide phenomenon was first created when a local baker prepared dinner for the visiting King Umberto and Queen Margherita in the 19th century. Legend has it he made three pizzas, and the queen was taken with the flavours of the tomato, mozzarella and basil version, in the colours of the Italian flag. From then on it has been named in her honour.
So where to eat it? One of the longest-standing establishments and a true master of the margherita is Di Matteo. The huge cerulean-tiled pizza oven fires out light and stretchy toasted pizzas that fly out of the door to pizza-lovers on their own personal pilgrimage and locals who appreciate the exalted position they find themselves in. If the queue is too long at Di Matteo, stroll the streets and find your own place of worship.
10. Dim sum in Hong Kong
Dim sum (translated as ‘light snack’) is served all over the world, but nowhere does it like Hong Kong. In fact, Hong Kong’s dim sum is a destination in itself. Dim sum (also known as yum cha, which translates as ‘with tea’) has evolved from the traveller ritual of stopping for tea and snacks while on the road into the world’s best brunch.
In Hong Kong you can sample your dim sum as simply or as extravagantly as your predilections go. At multiple locations across town, DimDimSum does its titbits traditionally – you’ll find that the siu mai (steamed pork dumplings), har gow (steamed shrimp dumplings) and char siu bao (BBQ pork steamed buns) are all excellent. The atmosphere is buzzing with students, travellers and lovers of dim sum on a budget. At the other end of the spectrum are the Michelin-starred establishments like Duddell’s and Fook Lam Moon. At the painfully elegant Duddell’s the classics are given an elaborate twist; think pork and shrimp dumpling with scallop and caviar, or a deep-fried pork and shrimp wonton with foie gras. By contrast, Fook Lam Moon’s mood is classic Cantonese but still serves Hong Kong society’s elite with offerings that come with small unexpected flourishes, such as the siu mai with crab roe or the steamed squid with curry sauce.
Whether jostling for elbow room at budget restaurants or sitting in classy surroundings as silent carts glide towards your table, Hong Kong dim sum is the definitive version to try before the proverbial bucket gets kicked.
You might also like:
This article was originally published May 2020 and was updated October 2020.
Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter.