National dishes and foods can take on a life on their own when they depart local shores for tables overseas. “English Muffins” are big in the US, even though we don’t eat much of them here in the UK and seem to think Americans are referring to breakfast snacks we call Crumpets (even though they’re not). Most people in the UK know waffles as a potato based product cooked from frozen. In the US they are a chewy and super-sweet snack and in the home of their creation, Belgium, they are thicker, crispier and a completely different.
And don’t even get me started on the Tikka Masala, an “Indian” dish that was actually invented in Scotland and somehow became the national dish of England.
But there are even stranger food stories out there as ingredients sourced from far away, or sometimes from their own backyard, are given god-like status.
Spam is a cheap canned meat product designed to provide a protein source when meat was scarce. It was a wartime necessity and in most of modern America it’s frowned upon. It doesn’t taste great, it’s not particularly good for you and at a time when we’re all being told to eat fresh and to avoid preservatives, the high salt and nitrite content of Spam isn’t doing it any favors. It even inspired a Monty Python sketch that would later lead to the word becoming associated with unsolicited emails.
Generally, the culinary world and pop culture hasn’t looked favorably on this canned meat product.
But in Hawaii it’s a different story. The Hawaiians love Spam and purchase 7 million cans a year. You can even buy it in Burger King and it is also added to sushi. It is viewed with similar reverence in Guam, where it has become a delicacy of sorts.
We owe this strange turn in popularity to the US army. During World War II the army bought over 150 million pounds of the product and distributed them throughout their military, including the millions of soldiers stationed throughout the Pacific. The more the Americans ate, the more ingrained in those local cultures it became and by the time they left it was one of the few cheap products that the locals had access to. Within a few years it had become a staple protein for them and the respect they had for it is still felt to this day.
2. Pu-erh Tea in China
Pu-erh is a type of fermented tea that is increasingly becoming available all over the world but has never managed to break out of a niche market. Even in the UK, where all kinds of tea are hugely popular, Pu-erh is relatively unheard of. In China, however, it’s huge. To them it’s the ultimate cure-all, something that can help with everything from digestion to heart disease and more. So many grand and glorious claims are made about it and while most of them are bogus, it’s still a tea, so it’s still very good for you and worth trying for the experience alone.
What makes Pu-erh so special is that it is fermented beyond the normal time and processing required to make black tea. They keep it for weeks, months and even years at a time and the older it is, the more flavourful and more mature it is (or so they say, because it all tastes like dry manure to me). In China there are cakes of Pu-erh tea (compressed tea formed into a sphere, not unlike cheese wheels) that sell for thousands of dollars. And if you don’t have that sort of money to throw around then you can drink them by the cup instead, paying tens or even hundreds of dollars for a single cup of this so-called miraculous tea.
According to a few friends of mine who live over there, the best place to enjoy this tea is in Taiwan. The teas tend to be the real deal (there is an issue with counterfeiting) and they really like their matured Pu-erh over there.
3. Maple Syrup
I hated maple syrup for many years. I could never understand why it seemed to be a staple food in Canada (from what I’d seen on US TV) when it had such a nasty taste. Instead, I opted for Golden Syrup, a highly processed sugar syrup that only seems to be sold in the UK and is a byproduct of the sugar industry.
As I grew-up, I realized that the horrible stuff I had been given was a cheap and nasty substitute made from corn syrup and flavorings and that the genuine maple syrup was one of the most amazing foodstuffs on the planet. Seriously-I would eat it off the spoon lest it be tainted by the pancakes. Yet in the UK and seemingly in most other countries, the most common maple syrup is the cheap rip-off.
It’s cheaper and it’s still sweet, so parents buy it for their kids, restaurants stock it and stores keep adding it to their shelves. It’s common practice and it has watered down the industry over the years. The only country that remains steadfast in the fight against cheap knock-offs is Canada, where this stuff is given the respect it deserves.
They consume more of it than anyone else. It’s cheaper up there, of course, but you’d think that such a cheap product would be looked down upon, much like the nasty carob-crap I was fed as a child, and that’s far from the case. There are maple syrup festivals and awards. You will find it in every shop and every region. In some areas you’ll find that every family has their own supply.
It’s still sugar, so you really shouldn’t consume too much of it, but when you do eat it just think like a Canadian and make sure it’s the real deal.
4. Whiskey in Japan
I live just a stone’s throw from the Scottish border, so I have an extensive variety of Scotch whiskey right on my doorstep. I’ve also been a big fan of the stuff for years (and that’s not code for “I’m an alcoholic”). But as impressive as Scotch whiskey is, it’s Japanese whiskey that’s winning all of the awards lately, and rightly so.
Japan’s obsession with Scotch has gradually built over the years. They would spend millions on the very best Scotch whiskey, so much so that they eventually overtook Scotland itself (and the rest of the world for that matter) in Scotch consumption.
A few years ago Japanese firms jumped onto the bandwagon by creating their own whiskeys and these are winning over lifelong Scotch fans and quickly becoming bestsellers worldwide. In the space of just over a decade, Japan has basically muscled in on a centuries old Scotch Whiskey market and completely taken over. And when you consider just how good of a job they have done, who’s to argue?