A delicious shawarma from Israel or Turkey’s flavoursome kofte should not merely satiate your hunger, but instead broaden your horizons, providing a fascinating insight into different lifestyles and leaving you curious about what to try next.
Authentic local food is a vital ingredient of any holiday and can have a lasting impact on your diet and eating habits. Of course, the UK is home to excellent international cuisine, but a pizza in Camden Town won’t match up to the authentic culinary experience you’d be served in Naples.
To get the best overseas dining experience, authenticity is key and, with this in mind, here are the dishes you can’t miss for a flavour of your host country.
Try Israel’s take on the wrap – the flavourful shawarma
Israel was only established in 1948, but what its national cuisine lacks in age it makes up for in diversity, with imaginative dishes blending together unique tastes from the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean.
Recipes are constantly evolving as chefs find increasingly creative ways of putting their own spin on traditional recipes, but the shawarma reigns as one of the country’s iconic dishes.
Every national dish has a story and the shawarma is no exception. Originating among communities who migrated from elsewhere in the Middle East, it is made up of slow-roasted spiced meat served in a laffa wrap alongside a variety of sauces and vegetables. It looks similar to a gyro, another popular dish in Israel, but has a spicier taste and features authentic Middle Eastern ingredients such as chummus (what we know as hummus) and techina.
Vegetarian/vegan alternative: Despite its name, The Vegan Shawarma in Tel Aviv specialises in more than just Israel’s signature dish. The restaurant’s fresh and crispy schnitzels are perfect for vegans and vegetarians alike and represent a fantastic alternative to the shawarma.
Gluten-free alternative: Roasted eggplant with Tahini is naturally gluten-free (though be sure to check with the waiter before ordering) and delivers a scrumptiously crunchy taste. Falafel Hakosem in Tel Aviv serves the dish along with several other options.
Recommended restaurants: Since its opening in 1952, Keter Mizrach in Tel Aviv has served up outstanding shawarmas and create its own distinctive flavour by adding pistachios. The Shipudei Eilat in EIlat is another option, cooking up tasty and enormous portions to suit all manner of tastebuds.
Turkey: Home of the kofte – a dish you need to meat
After initially being popularised in Iran and other areas of the Middle East, kofte was reimagined by the Turkish, who introduced a mix of tasty new ingredients, renamed it from kofta to kofte and produced hundreds of variants.
The dish itself is even open to interpretation. All the term kofte refers to are the meatballs, meaning chefs let their imaginations run wild with different spices and ingredients. A signature kofte dish is a badge of honour for many restaurants, so be sure to look around to find a type that suits you, or eat around and sample the succulent and creative takes on a staple meal of Turkey.
The Dalyan kofte, which is served in a large loaf with carrots, peas and eggs is perfect for those wanting a hearty meal, while the Sulu kofte is prepared with minced meat, rice and parsley to offer a lighter soup-like dish, perfect for lunch!
There are simply too many variants of the recipe to list here, but be sure to get stuck into different versions from the many authentic eateries throughout Turkey.
Vegetarian/vegan alternative: Gozleme is a fantastic alternative for both vegans and vegetarians. Despite looking like a pancake, this dish is actually hand-rolled dough containing delicious potatoes and vegetables.
The Rokka Restaurant in Antalya proudly specialises in vegetarian and vegan versions of traditional Turkish food and is happy to create custom dishes for specific diets and allergies.
Gluten-free alternative: The pilav is a more-than-worthy replacement for kofte. Featuring a delicious mix of rice, spices and vegetables, it’s a shining example of Turkish cuisine and is served in most restaurants.
Recommended restaurants: Zaruri in Antalya serves up a wonderfully spicy kofte, whereas Antik Akdeniz puts together a deliciously juicy alternative in Bodrum.
Paella: Part of the tapas-try in Spain!
Indisputably the signature dish of Spain, you will be more than familiar with paella, but did you know it was historically a lunchtime meal for farmers?
Farmers from Valencia were the first people to introduce the meal to the world and, even now, a 100 per cent authentic paella Valenciana is a mix of chicken, rabbit, snails and green and white beans. It was only years later that other ingredients were brought to the mix, creating those inventive and mouth-watering recipes you see today.
As paella is typically shared between two or more people, it is one of the most sociable foods in the world. Now that rabbit and snails are no longer essential ingredients, the dish can contain almost anything. The key ingredients are simply rice, red and green peppers and saffron – a bitter spice vital to the cuisine’s multi-layered taste and distinctive colour.
Along with paella Valenciana, paella mixta (featuring meat, chicken and seafood), paella de marisco (seafood only), paella vegetariana (entirely meat-free) and paella negra (cooked with squid ink) make up the five types of this iconic taste of Spain.
Vegetarian/vegan alternative: Even though it sounds suspiciously like a certain fish dish, calamares del campo is completely animal-free. Comprised of breaded and fried onions and peppers, it’s a perfect representation of Spanish cuisine. If you’re visiting Barcelona, be sure to try Vegetalia for a wide assortment of suitable meals.
Gluten-free alternative: Cordero asado, a roasted lamb dish filled with spice and flavour, is a fantastic option for those with a gluten intolerance. It is often served with roast potatoes, garlic and herbs.
Recommended restaurants: As the home of Spain’s number one dish, restaurants in Valencia cook up outstanding paella, with La Pepica on Valencia’s seafront promenade offering authentic options cooked in traditional ways. The eatery was even a favourite of seminal novelist Ernest Hemingway. Over in Barcelona, Arrosseria Xativa should not be missed, serving up 28 separate types of paella!
Greece: Home of the eggcellent moussaka!
It may look like a lasagne, but an authentic moussaka owes nothing to the Italians – this dish is deeply entrenched in Greek culture and is sure to to whet the appetites of tourists from across the world.
Though it is typically made up of layers of eggplant, meat and white sauce, this stomach-filler is served in a number of different ways. Whether you’re interested in chicken, turkey or pork, restaurants pride themselves on cooking up many versions of this timeless recipe.
Some chefs add courgettes, potatoes and mushrooms, while the papoutsakia variant is a smaller take on moussaka. When it is cooked this way, eggplant is stuffed with ground beef and tomatoes and finished off with the classic white sauce topping.
Vegetarian/vegan alternative: For both vegetarians and vegans, dolmades is a perfect substitute for moussaka. Made up of vine leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables, there are many varieties available. George and Maria Art of Falafel in Rhodes is a fantastic restaurant for meat and dairy-free customers, with a welcoming atmosphere and stunning art.
Gluten-free alternative: While salads in the UK are often small and underwhelming, the Greeks do the dish justice with generous portions, creative recipes and plenty of flavour. Whether you’re looking to taste the country’s delicious seafood, grilled meat or something completely different, expect to have a host of gluten-free options to choose from.
Recommended restaurants: The Kerasma Restaurant in Rhodes Town offers a wonderfully traditional Greek dining experience, with authentic moussaka and a charming atmosphere. Elsewhere in Lardos, Valentina’s sizeable take on the classic meal cannot be overlooked if you’re in the area.
Portugal: Don’t miss bacalhau – there is a recipe using this ingredient for every day of the year!
We all know countries tend to be extremely proud of their signature cuisine, but Portugal takes it one step further with more than 365 dishes of bacalhau!
Yes, you can indeed eat a different version of this salted-cod dish for every day of the year. The total number of ways to prepare this meal is unknown and the Portuguese love it so much that it’s become a part of the traditional Christmas dinner!
Bacalhau can be grilled, boiled, fried, braised or eaten raw, and chefs have incorporated it into some delectable meals. Expect it alongside potatoes, carrots and chickpeas, or shredded in the bras style with eggs, parsley, olives, onions and potatoes.
Just don’t be put off by the fish’s pungent smell if you see it drying on the harbour – it’s rich, nutritious and delicious!
Vegetarian/vegan alternative: Acorda is a magnificent and authentic meat-free Portuguese dish. This mix of bread, garlic, coriander and white wine served with beans and vegetables offers a deliciously doughy taste and is sure to boost your energy levels. Caldo verde is often served to accommodate vegans, with the meat replaced with potatoes and crunchy vegetables.
There are several vegan restaurants across Lisbon, too, with AO26 serving up an incredible menu of local and international cuisine.
Gluten-free alternative: Cozido à portuguesa, a stew of fresh meats and vegetables, is a highly popular meal across Portugal and is often gluten-free. Just be sure to check with the waiter before ordering, as it can be cooked using contaminated ingredients.
Recommended restaurants: The eatery Bacalhau in Porto is unsurprisingly a phenomenal option for trying Portugal’s national cuisine, with a wide assortment of mouth-watering dishes based around the salty fish. Frade dos Mares in Lisbon is another stunning establishment, where guests can devour many tasty and unique takes on the classic recipe.
Croatia: Be sure to try brodet – a dish with an ever-evolving list of ingredients!
Croatia has always had a fondness for seafood and its meals have developed over time to include flavours from all over the world and tell tales of the communities that invented them.
The brodet, one of the country’s flagship dishes, was originally introduced as a stew featuring any fish that could be caught, alongside olive oil, salt and pepper and vegetables. This resulted in a variety of recipes from all over the coast, containing locally-sourced ingredients and sprinkled with a strong sense of local pride.
To this day, the fundamentals of the meal largely remain the same, with chefs taking inspiration from other cultures and their own imagination to put their own stamp on a tried-and-tested formula. As a result, two brodets almost always taste differently and many chefs serve the same recipe as their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers.
While the texture and flavour will vary, with a brodet you are guaranteed a proudly-presented dish with a wide spectrum of flavours and a rich history.
Vegetarian/vegan alternative: The prevailing influence of Italian culture across Croatia means there are plenty of pizzerias to choose from, serving meat and dairy-free pizza, pasta and more. Vita Bella in Dubrovnik plates up vegan and vegetarian pizzas in the city’s stunning Old Town.
Gluten-free alternative: Dalmatian-style rib steak is a tasty alternative to brodet. Grilled in the trademark Croatian style and served with a selection of vegetables and boiled potatoes, it’s served across the country. Just be sure to ask about any potential contaminants before ordering.
Recommended restaurants: Nautika in Dubrovnik cooks up a wonderful, locally-sourced brodet and a host of other delightful seafood, whereas Gostionica Marenda cooks up a brodet with delicious homemade bread.
Italy: Eat a pizza Italian culture one slice at a time
Pizza began life in Naples in the 1700s, where the dish was a favourite of the working class and eventually grew into the national dish of Italy.
Italians who moved over to the US in the 1940s then introduced the meal to the rest of the world. It then wasn’t long until Chicago’s deep dish style and New York’s thin and crispy variants sparked debates all over the world.
However, Italy (and Naples in particular) is the birthplace of the dish and Neapolitan pizzas are prepared with care and pride in order to do the classic dish justice. The recipe simply calls for dough, raw tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cheese, basil and olive oil.
There are pizzerias all over the country, but to make sure the slices you’re tucking into are 100 per cent authentic, look for the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN) symbol. The non-profit organisation exists to maintain the historic traditions and cooking techniques of Neapolitan pizza.
Vegetarian/vegan alternative: A staple of Sicilian cuisine, Sicilian Panelle shows a different side of Italy’s food culture. Although viewed by some as a street food, these fried chickpea fritters can be turned into a main and are usually served with a selection of vegetables. Confraternita Dell’Uva in Rome prepares it for both vegans and vegetarians along with an assortment of other meals.
Gluten-free alternative: Knowledge of celiac disease has grown across Italy in recent years and, as a result, visitors can look forward to gluten-free lasagne in many restaurants, including Pantha Rei in Rome.
Recommended restaurants: Trattoria e Pizzeria ‘O Vesuvio cooks up a divine Neapolitan pizza in Naples with charmingly homely decor. Pizzeria Nerone should not be missed if you’re in Rome, where pizza dishes deviate from the classic formula to incorporate different dough, toppings and styles but are just as tasty.
Cyprus: A delicious pick and mix from the Mediterranean coast
Perfectly designed for social situations, meze is a selection of delicious foods served in small plates, ranging from meatballs and sausages to octopus and eggplant salad.
Traditionally, the dish is served in Greek restaurants as an appetiser to accompany drinks, but Cyprus has reinvented the meal as a main in its own right. With the ingredients customisable to suit your own tastes, it’s perfect for a whole host of diets.
However, be sure to try some of the the island’s delicacies as part of a meze. Souvla, large chunks of skewered lamb or pork, is a favourite of locals and goes perfectly with fresh vegetables. The more adventurous could give karaoli yahni a try, which is made up of tiny snails prepared in delicious herbs and tomato sauce.
Vegetarian/vegan alternative: Cypriot food is heavily influenced by the Lebanese, making tabbouleh an excellent alternative to Meze. Made of tomatoes, mint, onion and olive seasoning, it’s the perfect dish for those wanting to sample local cuisine without the meat and dairy.
Gluten-free alternative: Another one of Cyprus’ classic dishes, Louvi can be prepared without using gluten-containing ingredients. It traditionally contains black-eyed beans and vegetables served with oil, salt and lemon, though chefs often put their own spin on the recipe.
Recommended restaurants: For food that will leave you salivating, and a breathtaking sea view, Saint George Fish Tavern in Paphos is the place to be, while the menu at Atlas in Ayia Napa includes a luscious meze and a selection of other local favourites.