Robert is self-proclaimed "foodie" and an unrepentant carnivore.
One of the great pleasures of International travel is discovering unique and delicious regional specialties. Sadly, these wonderful local foods are often hard to find when you return home. Three favorite dishes stand out in my memory. If you’re lucky enough to find them where you live, give them a try!
My Three Favorite Regional Dishes
- Pav Bhaji
- Cochinita pibil
Sometimes called German pizza, this dish is actually a speciality of the Alsace-Lorraine region. In France the dish is called tarte flambée.
It consists of a thin and crispy rectangular crust, a sour cream (rather than tomato) based sauce, thinly sliced caramelized onions, and other toppings such as cheese, mushrooms, and sometimes ham or bacon. It is traditionally baked in a wood-fired oven.
It is sometimes served as a sweet dessert, topped with apples (or other fruit) and cinnamon.
According to stories, flammkuchen was originally a way for bakers to test the heat of their ovens. If the thin crust crisped quickly, the oven was hot enough. I suspect it was actually a way for bakers to make an easy and tasty lunch!
I first sampled flammkuchen in the 1980s, while visiting a friend who was working in the German city of Böblingen. He took me on a two-hour drive into the Alsatian region of France just to sample his favorite dish!
I have since found flammkuchen in a few restaurants in the United States, and I have even seen flammkuchen ovens advertised for sale, although a pizza oven will serve just as well. There are many recipes for this dish online, so if you can’t find a local place that serves it, make it yourself! It’s well worth trying.
2. Pav Bhaji
Pav bhaji originated as a fast lunchtime dish for textile mill workers in Mumbai, India. Think of it as a kind of street food, often served from handcarts of food trucks (although the popular dish has also found its way into many restaurants).
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It is a vegetarian dish: a thick curry made with tomatoes, peas, potatoes, cauliflower, onions, peppers, or other vegetables, and a distinctive blend spices (bhaji). Every cook has their own favorite spice blend. Ingredients may include coriander seeds, black cardamom, green cardamom, cumin, peppercorn, cinnamon, fennel seeds, turmeric, and cloves. Ideally, the spice ingredients should be freshly ground.
Bhaji is served with soft, buttery bread rolls (pav).
The bhaji is traditionally cooked on a flat circular grilling surface called a tawa. Large, heavy tawa that heat evenly and hold the heat are prized by cooks.
This is one dish that I actually did not discover on my travels. Rather, I first tried it in a Silicon Valley restaurant catering to Indian immigrants working in the surrounding high-tech companies.
Just as with flammkuchen, if you can’t find pav bhaji nearby, you can make it at home. I’ve even seen tawas for sale at Walmart!
3. Cochinita Pibil
Cochinita pibil is found throughout the state of Yucatan, in Mexico. It consists of a pork shoulder or similar cut that is rubbed with a paste made from achiote seed and other spices, and then slow-cooked. Traditionally a sucking pig (cochinita) was wrapped in banana leaves and baked in a stone oven (pibil).
When done, the meat falls apart easily, similar to “pulled pork” in the United States.
It is served with red onions pickled in sour orange juice; the acidity of the pickled onions balances the fat of the pork. The sour oranges used to pickle the onions are not common in many areas, so cooks may substitute a blend of sweet orange juice and lemon juice or vinegar.
Cochinita pibil is usually served with warm corn tortillas. My favorite way to enjoy it is to wrap the pork and onion together in a tortilla and eat it by hand.
I first tried this dish in a restaurant in Merida, the capital of Yucatan, but the dish is found on almost every local restaurant menu throughout Yucatán and the neighboring states of Quintana Roo and Campeche.
Explore and Enjoy!
All three of these dishs—flammkuchen, pav bhaji, and cochinita pibil—are slowly finding their way into restaurants in the United States. But if you can’t find them, you can make them yourself at home!
© 2022 Robert Nicholson