What entrées are representative of a country’s national cuisine? A sporting event underway among 16 Asian countries offers some intriguing selections — and food for thought for the USA.
What would you consider to be the “national dish” of the United States?
That’s a question few of us bother pondering, I realize, but if we did, one thing is certain: It wouldn’t be tofurkey. Or soy patties. Or cashew cheese. Or any of the “delicacies” veggies always tout as staples of their purist lifestyle.
Other countries have considered that question, however, and it’s interesting to break down their selections.
Those choices are on record with the advent of the Asian Cup taking place this month in Australia, the participating countries having all listed a specific entrée that best represents their unique culture and heritage.
What’s the Asian Cup, you ask? Kind of a mini-World Cup, a soccer tournament featuring 16 Asian nations, including some it would be hard to imagine being welcomed onto U.S. soil — Iran, Palestine and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, otherwise known as North Korea, to name a few.
The guest list is less of a problem for the Asian Cup’s hosts, however, since those countries happen to be trading partners with the Land Down Under.
In conjunction with the event (and in an attempt to de-politicize the proceedings), the Australian organizers posted each country’s national dish in recognition of “the vast array of cultures and delicious foods” native to the 16 participating nations.
For Australia, they chose the meat pie — “Just $4 in a servo,” as the website of the Sydney Morning Herald phrased it. “Golden crust on the outside, minced beef on the inside and a huge dollop of tomato sauce on top. Can’t go to the footy without having a pie.”
That description requires some Aussie-to-English translation: “Servo” refers to a gas station. “Tomato sauce” is ketchup. “Minced beef” is simply ground beef, and “footy,” of course, refers to Aussie Rules, a hybrid of rugby, football and some other previously unknown event, given the sport’s inscrutable rules, positions and scoring system.
But back to the meat pie. Although thoroughly British in origin, they’ve been widely adopted as the quintessential Australian snack. It’s estimated that Aussies eat an average of 12 meat pies per person per year, the equivalent of 270 million pies annually.
Having downed dozens of them over the years while on journalistic assignments and/or visiting in-laws Down Under, I can testify that the flavor, quality and value of meat pies varies almost exactly in parallel to the hamburger here in The States. There are delicious, savory pies that are of gourmet quality, and there are soggy, greasy ones even stray dogs won’t touch.
Of course, whenever some group tries to designate a “national anything,” critics come crawling out of the woodwork, to go old school on you. Many Aussies on social media took issue with the meat pie itself. “Meat pies are British, you twits,” one commenter wrote.
Others offered alternatives, including kangaroo, vegemite, roast lamb, steak-and-chips, garlic prawns, and “burger with the works” — consisting of a burger patty with “a runny egg, fried onions, pineapple and beetroot.”
Which is about as palatable as Aussie Rules is understandable.
But more interesting to me are the national dishes other Asian Cup nations offered, ranging from sushi (Japan) to bulgogi, a marinated beef dish from South Korea, to shuwa, the national dish of Oman, a spicy marinated meat wrapped in dry banana leaves then baked in an underground sand oven for 24 hours.
Not something likely to make an appearance — even for a limited time only — on any American fast-food menuboards.
For the record, North Korea’s national dish is “naengmyeon,” described as “long, thin handmade noodles served cold.”
Which sounds about as appealing as that country’s politics and by all accounts, about all the nourishment the populace there appears to receive.
So what would our national dish be, if such a designation were required for, say, the Pan-American Games?
I would hope it might be something upscale, like maybe barbecued brisket, a New York Strip or even a big ol’ slice of country-cured ham.
Given its popularity, though, it would probably be the hamburger.
But could we at least get it with real cheese, an edible bun and some condiments other than “secret sauce?”
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.