For someone in my generation or younger, it strains the imagination to think that yogurt, bagels and pizza were once weird ethnic foods. My mother has a story about seeing her first bagel when she went off to college and there was a line in a Muppet Show episodes were Sam the American eagle refers to yogurt as that “weird spoiled milk stuff.” It’s hard to imagine our lives without foods like these, especially pizza.
Early forms of pizza were most likely a flatbread called focaccia, with one or two toppings. The word pizza was first documented in 997 AD in use in Central and Southern Italy. There was no tomato sauce, since tomatoes are a new world food that wouldn’t reach Italy until the 16th century. The addition of mozzarella cheese did not come about until the 19th century. Proper mozzarella is made from buffalo milk; that’s the cape buffalo, which looks more like a water buffalo and nothing like a bison.
According to legend, these ingredients were first combined when King Umberto I and Queen Margherita visited Naples in 1889. Chef Raffaele Esposito combines tomato sauce, mozzarella slices and basil leaves, in honor of the red, white, and green of the Italian flag and named it pizza Margherita. It was lucky for him and all of us that the queen enjoyed his pizza most of all the ones she tried.
Italian immigrants would bring pizza to the United States, but it mostly stayed in ethnic neighborhoods in the Northeast. The first documented United States pizzeria was G. Lombardi’s on Spring Street in Manhattan, licensed to sell pizza in 1905. (Don’t get involved in the debate of which NYC pizzeria was the first, but I have it on good authority that there is no Original Ray’s. We’re also steering clear of the New York vs Chicago fight. Eat what you like, even if it’s sauce casserole.) Pizza did not gain widespread popularity until soldiers returning from World War II tours in Italy brought back a hankering for the pizza they enjoyed in Naples. In the 1940’s, sales of oregano increased by 5,200 percent over 8 years due to the surge in popularity of pizza and other Italian foods. In 1957, the Celentano Brothers marketed the first frozen pizzas.
Today, pizza can be found in nearly every corner of the globe, even though globes are round and don’t have corners. You could tour the world eating only pizza and not eat it the same way twice. Every country and culture modified this disc of deliciousness to their own tastes. Those of you who get nauseous or angry when you think about pineapple on pizza, which was invented in Canada by a Greek man, you may want to jump-30 a few times. Australia does not only pineapple, but they also like to add shrimp. That’s actually my favorite to make at home, though I add green onions and siracha. Brazilians top their pies with hard boiled eggs and peas. Germany likes their pizza eggs sunny side up. Why not, it works on burgers and hash? Costa Rica likes coconut. People in China have a penchant for thousand island dressing and eel, though not necessarily together. India tops theirs with chicken tikka, which is not a native food; it was created in the UK. Reindeer is a common meat for Finnish pies. Koreans top theirs with sweet potatoes and crab. It’s worth mentioning that pizza changed the most when exported to Asian countries where tomatoes were not common and most people are lactose-intolerant. Spicy sausages and cured meats are major players in Turkey. Venezuela goes elotes-style, by adding corn and goat cheese. Japan favors squid and Mayo Jaga, a combination of mayonnaise, potatoes and bacon that is a street food staple. The major pizza chains are trying to get a foothold in sub-Saharan African nations, but my research failed to find any pizza preferences, even for such a broad region. Russian like mockba, a blend of sardines, tuna, salmon, mackerel and onions. There is one country whose preference I don’t think I could bring myself to try. Our friends in Sweden top theirs with ham, curry powder, and …. Bananas. Just the thought of mushy hot bananas….
A bonus fact to cleanse the palate: In December, 2009 – The European Union established a ruling to protect Naples’ Neapolitan pizzas. Neapolitan pizza was declared part of Europe’s food heritage, and that all pizzerias aspiring to supply and make the real Neapolitan pizzas must comply to strict traditional standards regarding ingredients and preparation, including using only San Marzano tomatoes and fresh buffalo mozzarella cheese. This protected status will enable producers to not only boast about their exclusivity, but also charge a premium for the pizza.
The list of pizza preferences goes on and on, of course, and that’s sticking strictly to what could be defined as pizza. You’d be hard-pressed to find a culture in the world without a flat-bread, whether plain or topped. Georgian khackapuri is often stuffed with cheese, then topped with an egg and a generous dollop of butter. Manakish in Lebanon is dough with a spicy mixture containing thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac called za’atar. Chepati is a whole wheat flatbread native to South Asia and parts of Africa, used to pick up bits of meat and vegetables, or to sop up soups, stews, and curries. Frybread is a Native American flatbread that is fried in oil or lard. This is a relatively new tradition, having started in 1864 with the provisions given to the Navajo people by the United States Government. Frybread is eaten as a side dish, wrapped like a taco, or smothered with honey or jam. The Czech side of my family cherishes our pagachi, a flatbread with mashed potatoes inside and brown butter and chives on top. Only six of us know how to make it and only two are any good at it. Lavash is a large unleavened Armenian flatbread that is cooked against the hot walls of a clay oven, similar to the way Indian naan is cooked in a tandoori. These breads are soft and flexible when fresh but dry to a brittle state, at which point they can be stored for many months. Ethiopia uses an ancient grain called teft to make a spongy flatbread called injera. Somalia has sabaayad and Morocco has r’gafe. And of course there are a number of familiar friends, like matzoh and pita.
What about Asian countries where yeasted wheat isn’t a staple? You don’t have to broaden the definition of flat-bread by much to see that everyone is invited to the party. Russia has blintzes, China has wontons, Mexico has tortillas. If you wrap those unleavened flatbreads around something, you get another universal foods, the dumpling. Savory offerings could be xioalongbao in China, gyoza in Japan, pierogies in Poland, ravioli and tortellini in Italy, kartoffelknoedel in Germany, empanadas in Mexico, pitepalt from Sweden, pasties from Cornwall in the UK, pastelles in Trinidad and Tobago, papas rellena in Cuba, knish of eastern Europe’s Ashkenazi Jews, mandu in Korea, tiropitakia in Greece, balhinas de carne in Brazil, momo in Nepal, samosas in India, khinkali in Georgia, and pelmini, cheburek, and piroski from Russia. That’s only confining ourselves to filled dumplings. Dropped or rolled dumplings include manti in Khazakstan, bryndzové halušky in Slovakia, spetzle in Germany, gnocchi in Italy, and of course the dumplings of chicken & dumplings fame. And that would lead us into pasta and noodles, but I think you’re getting the point.
Then there are foods that are not universal. In fact, you’d probably have a hard time convincing your neighbor to try one. These are the traditional foods only a mother could love, or cook, or eat. But different strokes. An extreme food challenge in one country is an after-school snack in another. Do you think Americans are more likely to be grossed out by foods from other countries than those people who be by ours? We almost never eat organ meat, for example, and our cheeses rarely stink. Me, I’ve only had brain once, but I liked it. I was like a nice piece of fat from the side of a juicy steak. We’ll skip over some of the better-known unusual foods, like haggis, deep-fried testicles and toasted grubs, as well as the eating of animals we call pets.
Fermented foods are world-wide staples, but shark? When their Viking forebears settled Iceland, the Greeland shark, which is abundant in the icy waters of the North Atlantic, became the main staple of the island. There was one small problem: their meat is toxic to humans. At the time, it was one of the only sources of nourishment available, so people had to get resourceful and creative. Kæstur Hákarl, or hákarl for short, is prepared much the same way it always has been. The shark is beheaded and the body is buried in the sand for 6-12 weeks. This gives time for compounds like trimethylamine oxide and uric acid to dissipate. After this, the fermented shark, which are about 24 ft/7m long, is dug up, cut into long pieces and hung up to dry for several months, until a dry, brown crust forms and it smells just right. What just right means, I don’t know. The pieces are taken down, the crust is removed and the meat is cut into slices and served. Because of its remote nature and small population, Iceland has become something of a novelty in the minds of outsiders and this concept is no different in the perception of Icelandic cuisine which, along with hákarl, features a variety of other unheard of delicacies such as Brennivín, a schnapps made from potatoes and caraway, Svið, the meat from a sheep’s head but not the brain, Slátur, which is made with sheep intestines, blood and fat, and Hangikjöt, lamb smokes with hay, both fresh and…already processed.
Escamoles, is a dish native to Central Mexico, once considered a delicacy by the Aztecs, like caviar, but made with the eggs of ants instead of sturgeon. The name derives from the word azcamolli, a portmanteau of the Nahuatl words for ant and stew. This prized egg is produced by the Liometopum apiculatum, or the velvety tree ant. However, the odor of their nests has earned the insect another nickname. Locals refer to them as la hormiga pedorra, “the farty ant.”The light-colored eggs, harvested from maguey plants, resemble white-corn kernels or pine nuts. They have a poppy texture (more crunchy if fried) and a slightly nutty taste. Often pan-fried with butter and spices, escamoles can be found in tacos and omelets or served alone, accompanied by guacamole and tortillas. It’s indigenous, tasty, and memorable, without the gross-out factor (for some of us) of those fried maguey worms, another common pre-Hispanic insect food.
If you don’t like Aztec caviar, how about Mexican truffle? Huitlacoche *is a fungus, but not one that grows on the ground. It’s corn smut, a fungus that develops on the corn ears as they ripen after the rainy season or an errant rainstorm. Huitlacoche will consume the corn kernels and push itself out through the corn shucks, where you can see it. It is not pretty. I don’t want to gross you out — well, not much more — but they kind of look like engorged ticks. It can destroy 10% of a corn crop and gum up harvesting equipment, but on the plus side, it sells for more than the corn does. An ear of huitlacoche can make an 80-cent profit, while sweet corn profits only a few cents per ear. You can use huitlacoche wherever you might use a mushroom; choose the fresh white ones to eat raw, as in a salad. As they are heated an inky liquid emerges, turning them black in color. Fresh huitlacoche is soft and velvety, where the canned version is black and more liquid. The flavor is smoky and earthy, with a taste like mushrooms mixed with corn. Another plus is that the fungus actually forces the corn to create new and healthier nutrients! For instance, corn has hardly any lysine (which builds muscle, and keeps skin looking young) yet huitlacoche is packed full of this important amino acid that the body requires but cannot manufacture.
If corn smut makes you think of ergot, a grain fungus with psychoactive effects, Google around for theories that the Salem witch trials may have been caused or at least exacerbated by ergot madness.
Balut sa puti (“wrapped in white”) sounds like a cliché describing a bride on her wedding day. In actuality, it’s the Tagalog phrase that gives balut—a hard-boiled egg housing a duck embryo—its name. Fertilized eggs are a late-night snack in the Philippines. Workers and partiers alike turn to this protein-dense, cheap, salty snack for prime recovery fuel. Some even say it’s an aphrodisiac. To eat balut, start by cracking off the narrow end of the shell. Then peel a small hole in the membrane and sip the warm, gamey amniotic fluid. Add a little salt and vinegar, then peel and eat the bulbous yolk and delicate bird inside. The younger the egg, the more tender its contents—which some fans opt to shoot back like a raw oyster. Older eggs contain more pronounced ducklings, with palpable bones and beaks and a tougher egg white, though that really feels like the least of my problems. Vendors know how developed the egg is because they buy the eggs on the day they’re laid, then incubate them for two to three weeks.
If you’re looking for fresh food, you can’t get much fresher than Korean sannakji (asterisk), the still-wriggling tentacles of an octopus. The flavor is mild, but it’s the slimy and chewy texture that attracts culinary daredevils. Traditionally, the legs are served with sesame oil and seeds to complement the dish’s ocean-fresh aroma. A little soy sauce or anything containing salt will make the tentacles writhe even more. The most important thing to remember is to chew quickly and chew hard. The suction cups can still suck and will latch right on to your teeth and even your throat. Half a dozen people choke to death on sannajki every year. The asterisk was for three different foods I found where the fish or crustacean is alive when it’s butchered and cooked. Though as I say that out loud, I remember back to boiling lobster and decided not to try to spill tea here.
After that, I need a drink, and what’s a drink without a nosh? Who else gets hungry when they’ve been drinking? Good, then let’s go around the world again! When those hallmarks of beer-making have tied one on, Germans enjoy currywurst and fries, fried pork sausage that’s smothered in a spiced ketchup or tomato sauce. In Thailand, it’s khao phat, fried rice with meat, egg, onions, garlic, and tomatoes, and refreshing slices of cucumber. Mexico knows what’s going on with their love of tacos, especially barbacoa, lingua or tongue, and tripe tacos. Tripe, cow’s stomach, also features in their hangover cure, a soup called menudo. North of us in Canada, it’s poutine, french fries doused with gravy and cheese curds to soak up the booze. Across the pond, it’s kebabs, pita stuffed with thinly sliced meat, salad, veggies, and various sauces. Bonus fact: kebab refers to the meat, shish refers to the skewer and doner means it was cooked on a rotisserie. In the Philippines, people go for sisig, a sweet and spicy dish that’s made with pig’s head and liver, chili peppers, and calamansi fruit. Discerning even when drunk, Italians love a fatty herbaceous pork roast sliced into pieces and stuffed between thick, buttery slices of bread. In India in general and Mumbai specifically, the drunk food of choice is Bhurji-Pav, a spiced scrambled egg with bread. Mandazi is a popular drunk dish in Kenya. Otherwise known as a Swahili coconut doughnut, this fried dough is popular because it can go down either the savory or sweet route. Sri Lanka favors kottu, a mixture of chopped vegetables, stir-fried egg, spices, and shredded godamba roti (thin, fried bread). Jianbing, a Chinese-style savory crepe, is not only a popular breakfast food in China, but also a late-night snack. My distant cousins in the land formerly known as Czechoslovakia enjoy smažený sýr, a thick slice of Emmental or other cheese that is breaded and fried, and often accompanied by tartar sauce. South Korea chows down on tteokbokki and odeng. Tteokbokki is a spicy stir-fried rice cake dish and odeng is a type of fish cake. Rame in the drunk food of choice in Japan. Not the plain bowl of noodles we usually eat, but with all the toppings like you see in anime. Acarajé is a traditional street food found in Brazil. The black-eyed pea fritters are distinct in flavor, often served with a shrimp paste center. While all of these foods sound great, the award for kings of drunk food has to go to Scotland for creating the Munchy Box. A “Munchy Box” is a pizza box filled with an assortment of fried, greasy drunk foods, like fried chicken, pizza, kebab meat, onion rings, fries, and garlic bread.
After a on the town, you’re going to need something to keep body and soul together the next morning. You can load up on protein with an English Breakfast, also known as a fry-up or full English. Stumbled over to a huge plate of bacon, sausage, eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes, and baked beans. It may not be the healthiest meal, but it’s got a lot of the nutrients you need, as well as the grease you’re craving. Bonus fact: the light fare of pastries and fruit is called a continental breakfast because it’s the opposite of the English breakfast. If soup feels more your speed, try Korean haejangguk. Haejangguk is a catch-all term for Korean soups, or guk, eaten to cure a hangover. The most common variety is comprised of beef broth with pork, congealed ox blood, and an array of veggies mixed in. Yes, congealed blood, in little cubes. Maybe we’ll stick to pho in Vietnam, a hearty, spicy soup filled with beef, noodles, lime, basil, and bean sprouts. Pho is thought to be an effective hangover cure because it’s primarily made up of liquid broth, which helps to fight dehydration, and beef, which is protein-rich. Having a monosyllabic name while your brain is barely functional doesn’t hurt either. In Senegal, the traditional dish to kick a massive hangover is jassa, a citrusy chicken stew. Most recipes for poulet yassa emphasize the importance of letting the chicken marinade in a variety of spices before cooking the yassa. The spiciness is what’s going to perk you up, but this does mean you should make it before you go out. Levanta muertos is the pork stew Bolivians use to bounce back from a brutal hangover. Its name means “raising from the dead.” Made with pork, cumin, garlic, and potato, this stew follows the pattern of hearty and spicy dishes. Another good name is tiger toast. This Australian hangover grilled cheese puts regular grilled cheese to shame with its stripes of cheese and, of course, Vegemite. If you’re suffering in Turkey, get some kokoreç, grilled sheep intestines, chopped up with tomatoes and peppers. The Japanese answer to hangovers is miso soup with shijimi clams. These clams contain ornithine, which is an amino acid that helps to remove liver toxins and helps liver function. When Russians are faced with a hangover, they reach for rassol, a pungent juice that comes from pickled sauerkraut and helps to replenish electrolytes and fluids lost from over-imbibing. According to this Food 52, rassol is often made into a soup, rassolnik, that adds in beef, barley, and herbs to play down the pickle-y flavor.
A number of these foods make great drunk or hangover foods because they are also favorite comfort foods. Spanish tortilla are distinctly different from Mexican tortillas. Not quite an omelet per se, tortilla Española consists of sautéed potato and onion baked into eggs. The classic dish is served warm or at room temperature. Mexican chilaquiles are lightly fried corn tortillas that are quartered, cooked with salsa or mole and topped with pulled chicken, Mexican crema, queso fresco, eggs and refried beans. Spicy, crunchy and creamy all in one bite, it’s a comforting dish that’s as satisfying as it is versatile. Oden is a Japanese winter dish that typically consists of boiled eggs, radish, konjac, fish cakes and broth. Different households and regions make their own variations by adding fish, beef vegetables or tofu to the hearty hot-pot meal. Pão de Queijo, aka Brazilian cheese bread, are small, baked rolls, served as snacks and breakfast foods. Very starchy dough baked with milk, eggs and cheese gives the bread its unique texture–crispy on the outside and tender and chewy on the inside. Cha siu bao, or barbecue pork buns, are a common dish served in Cantonese dim sum. The dense yet soft dough is filled with slow-roasted pork tenderloin and marinated in a mixture of oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, sesame oil and soy sauce. Do not try making them if you don’t have the right ingredients. Trust me. Khichdi, a risotto-like Indian dish made from rice and lentils, is light, filling and nutritious. This one-pot meal is often flavored with vegetables and spices like curry, turmeric and cumin. I’ve gotta agree with Poland’s preference for pierogis, dumplings stuffed with onions, mashed potatoes, sauerkraut, ground meat, cheese or even fruit, then boiled, baked or fried. Often described as Greek lasagna, moussaka is commonly prepared with eggplant or potato and served casserole-style. Layers of eggplant are sautéed, cooked separately and topped with minced lamb, chopped tomatoes, onion, garlic and spices.
And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. I’ll leave you with one more WTF food, casa marzu. It’s a traditional Sardinian cheese that is left uncovered, so a specific kind of fly will lay eggs on it. Those eggs hatch and eat into the cheese, promoting an advanced level of fermentation, breaking down of the cheese’s fats, and making it very soft. The cheese is considered unsafe to eat if the maggots have died. If you choose to eat the cheese but not the maggots, you can put your piece in a paper bag and they will start launching themselves out of the cheese as they run out of air. You just wait for the noise to die down, like microwave popcorn. Thanks for spending part of your day with me.