I may be a little biased when talking about different cuisines. Food has always been an integral part of our day in a Greek household. I love to try food from other cultures, but truth be told, I always come back to Greek food. That is not to say that other countries don’t have noteworthy cuisines. On the contrary, many countries have thousands of years of cooking history. So that offers the question for today – whose cuisine reigns supreme?
Most countries have their own cuisine with different cooking practices, local ingredients, and spices. Conquering nations heavily influenced many of these countries, and trade helped develop their food offerings further. Even Greece was influenced by the Ottoman Empire during its rule in the mid-15th century. Regardless of the country, all cuisines have one thing in common. They all connect to ancient dishes, whether by influence or ingredient. It is important to look at some of the oldest dishes and their origin before deciding which cuisine takes the top spot.
The Oldest Recipes
Stew: Stew is a popular dish in many countries, especially in the colder winter months. Made with various ingredients depending on the region, it usually includes a combination of vegetables, herbs, spices, and some meat cooked slowly over a gentle heat. This recipe dates back 7,000 to 8,000 years ago. Archaeological finds indicate that many Amazonian tribes used hard exterior shells of mollusks as utensils to make a stew. The Ancient Greeks prepared a similar dish during the 8th to 4th centuries BC, as described by the Greek philosopher Herodotus in his writings “put the flesh into an animal’s paunch, mix water with it, and boil it like that over the bone fire. The bones burn very well, and the paunch easily contains all the meat once it has been stripped off.” Today, countries like Ireland and Hungary have become famous for their hearty versions of stew.
Tamales: Mexican cuisine is one of the most popular in the world, with a variety of spicy dishes like tamales. This dish was first prepared sometime between 8,000 and 5,000 BC and was made from corn dough and filled with fruits, meats, and/or vegetables. Today, tamales have become a fast-food staple, with approximately 100 million eaten every year in Mexico alone. Mexican food has also become one of the most popular take-out cuisines around the world. Packed full of flavor, they incorporate crunchy, spicy, and sweet in many of their dishes. Their flavorful cuisine, however, was not their own. It was greatly influenced by the Spaniards after the Spanish Conquest of the Aztec empire and the rest of Mesoamerica.
Pancakes: I bet you never thought that pancakes were that old – or Greek! Around the world, pancakes are a top choice for breakfast. Ancient Greeks knew that as well. The 5th-century Greek poet, Magnes, wrote about teganites (flat, thin cakes) cooked on a clay grill over an open fire and served with honey. However, even though Greece is the first to mention pancakes, it cannot fully take credit as its creator. This answer is still a mystery to foodies and historians everywhere.
Curry: When one hears curry, one automatically thinks of Indian food. Did you know, however, that the preparation of this dish goes back more than 4,000 years? The Indus Valley civilization used stone mortar and pestles to grind the spices that make the basis of curry finely. Excavations have also unearthed pottery fragments with traces of turmeric and ginger, two key ingredients in curry. In addition, historians often point out that people in this region often ate curry with rice, an item already cultivated in India.
Cheesecake: Our look at the world’s cuisines would not be complete without adding something sweet. So, as we look at this delicious dessert, we return to Greece. That’s right – another Greek invention. Ancient Greeks used honey, flour, and soft cheese to make a light cake often served during festivities. Historians believe that the first “cheesecakes” were prepared in Samos more than 5,000 years ago for the athletes participating in the first Olympic games of 776 BC. Nowadays, cheesecakes are famous worldwide, with franchises like The Cheesecake Factory making million-dollar businesses from this sweet treat.
Pilaf: This ancient food recipe includes rice, vegetables, and meat in a broth seasoned with different herbs and spices. Its origin is a result of a few cultures colliding. Rice, first domesticated in China over 13,000 years ago, is at the heart of the recipe. Then, ancient Persians added local ingredients and spices, and pilaf was born. In 328 BC, Alexander the Great conquered the Persian empire in what is now Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. After tasting this dish, he brought the recipe back to Macedonia and throughout other parts of Europe that he had conquered. As a result, pilaf remains a dish reminiscent of the Mediterranean, with each country preparing it a little bit differently.
Kheer: We are again back in India with what historians believe is one of the world’s oldest food items. The earliest mentions of this pudding-like dish date as far back as 400 BC. Its preparation includes cooking rice, vermicelli, or broken wheat with sweetened milk, ghee, and cardamom and then garnishing with nuts like pistachios. Kheer has influenced the creation of such dishes as rice pudding.
Fish Sauce: Fish sauce was prepared by fermenting fish (usually an oily fish, like anchovy) with large amounts of salt. You’ll be surprised to learn that this flavorful ingredient often used in Asian cuisine was prepared initially by Ancient Greeks around the 3rd and 4th centuries. When the Roman Empire conquered Greece, they brought this sauce throughout Europe. Today, fish sauce can be found in cuisines from countries such as Thailand, Korea, and Japan.
Burgers: Mcdonald’s may have put burgers on the map, but they certainly weren’t the first to make them. Ancient Romans would combine minced meat, pine nuts, white wine, and the fish sauce invented by Ancient Greeks into patties. They would then cook these patties over an open fire. Food historians found evidence of this recipe in the cookbook “Apicius: De Re Coquinaria” written by Italian chef Franceso Leonardi around 1,500 years ago. Today, burgers have become a go-to fast food for many cultures around the world.
Bread: Our list would not be complete without the oldest known food. Historians say the earliest bread was made around 8,000 BC in the Middle East, specifically in Egypt. Scientists discovered evidence of bread-making devices called querns in ancient 14,000-year-old dig sites. Since then, every culture and every cuisine has adopted bread into hundreds of different recipes.
Noodles: Noodles are one of the oldest traditional Chinese foods, with Chinese people first eating them about 4,000 years ago. Explorers, like Marco Polo, introduced them to the rest of Europe. The rest, as they say, is history.
We can discuss many more dishes, but the important thing to remember is that most of these recipes and ingredients have been adapted and used in various cuisines worldwide to create new and exciting variations. Creating a seasoning like a fish sauce to flavor foods or a sweet dish like kheer, cheesecake, and even pancakes has paved the way for future generations of global culinary adaptations.
So, Which Cuisine is Best?
How do you narrow it down with so many countries to choose from and so many different cuisines? If we want to decide who has the best food, let’s look at some countries with the most significant impact and innovation.
France: Many people regard French cuisine as one of the best cuisines in the world. How could you go wrong with ingredients like butter, cream, and wine? In truth, France has contributed significantly to the world’s cuisines – their cooking methods are unsurpassed; however, the surrounding cultures of Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Belgium have all played a part in the creation of dishes. France’s most famous food, the baguette, was first imported from Vienna. We can thank the French, though, for a few things. For one, today’s modern restaurants. During the 1760s, locations opened in Paris featuring ornate tableware and reasonable prices that served food at all times of the day. Haute cuisine (high-quality cooking) also has its foundations in 17th-century France. During that time, La Varenne authored the first authentic French cookbook outlining classic methods. Finally, thank you France for introducing us to Soupe à l’Oignon, Coq au Vin, cassoulet, chocolate soufflé, and Salade Niçoise, to name a few of the many mouth-watering and famous recipes you have introduced the world to.
Italy: Our next stop is Italy, home of pasta. No, wait. Pasta was introduced to Italy after Marco Polo traveled to the Far East in the late 13th century. That is not to say that Italy has not contributed. They are the inventors of such things as pizza (invented in Naples in the late 18th century) and gelato (first made in Florence in the 16th century.) Italy is also famous for risotto, although its main component, rice, was introduced to them by another culture. Regardless, Italy also has a place in my heart for some genuinely delicious recipe additions.
China: Chinese cuisine is one of the oldest in the world, with two staples of modern cooking originating there – rice and pasta. They are also responsible for the invention of sushi, ketchup, ice cream, and alcohol. (The oldest alcohol ever unearthed was the residue of a 9,000-year-old fermented beverage made of rice, honey, and fruit in, you guessed it, China.) Who knew? I suppose you discover a thing or two with that many years of cooking behind you. Today, Chinese cuisine provides world-famous dishes like roasted duck, dim sum, and dumplings. Furthermore, Chinese take-out is the second most popular in the world, only preceded by pizza.
Spain: Our next stop on the world tour of foods is in Spain. Spain has made it to this list because while exploring new lands, it introduced its cuisine, ultimately creating another different cuisine – what is now modern-day Mexican. Spain also introduced tomatoes, potatoes, bell peppers, spicy peppers, paprika, and vanilla into the Americas. In addition, they brought churros, a dish invented by nomadic Spanish shepherds with a sweet tooth and no easy way to bake a cake. (Voilà – fried dough tossed in cinnamon and sugar.) Most importantly, they were the first to mix chocolate with sugar to remove its natural bitterness. Without them, where would Hershey and Cadbury be today? Today, one of Spain’s most famous dishes is paella, a rice dish full of flavor with a combination of poultry, meat, and seafood. Originally a farmers’ and farm laborers’ food, it would be cooked over a wood fire at lunchtime and often included whatever available ingredients mixed with rice. Finally, we can also thank Spain for tapas, small savory dishes eaten as snacks or appetizers. Consisting usually of olives, some cold cut, and cheese, they are the forefather of today’s charcuterie platters.
Middle East: The Middle Eastern countries make it to our list thanks to the first Persian Empire (ca. 550-530 BCE). They laid the foundation for modern-day Middle-Eastern food, and more importantly, as they conquered lands, they introduced these countries to their cuisines and incorporated some of what they found into theirs. Ingredients such as figs, dates, and nuts made their way through Europe thanks to the Persian empire. Today, two of the best-known Middle Eastern dishes are hummus, a chickpea puree flavored with garlic, lemon, and tahini, and falafel, a fried ball made from chickpeas. Over the years, Middle-Eastern cuisine has gained popularity in many countries as it is one of the healthiest. Not only does it incorporate lean meats and healthy fats, but it also uses vegetables and grains in almost every dish. In addition, rich and fragrant spices add a unique taste that sets this cuisine apart from others.
India: Perhaps the most significant contribution India has made to the world of cooking is its use of spices. Indian cuisine is over 5,000 years old, and it was the first to use spices and herbs such as black pepper, cinnamon, turmeric, and cardamom. Furthermore, they cultivated many of these spices as early as the 8th century BC in the gardens of Babylon. Today we know that these spices support immunity, inflammation, brain function, and several other functions of the body. Indian cuisine has influenced many different cuisines worldwide, especially those from Europe and the Middle East. As trade opened between these nations, so did their culinary knowledge. Today, you will have undoubtedly heard of butter chicken, tandoori, biryani, and samosas – all classic Indian dishes. And since India is a predominantly vegetarian nation, you could also consider it the country that invented vegan-style eating.
Greece: I certainly could not finish this list without adding Greece to it. Greece is often referred to as the cradle of Western civilization and the birthplace of democracy, but I am proud to say that it can boast many other great inventions. We can thank the Ancient Greeks for theater and the Olympic games. They created technical inventions like the lever and crane – ideas still used today. They created weapons for war like the catapult and “Greek fire” (an incendiary weapon that used a petroleum-based mixture to make flaming arrows). They developed the astrolabe (an instrument used to make astronomical measurements) and the water screw (a machine to transfer water from a low-lying area into irrigation ditches.) The list is vast, and included in it are innovations in cooking. The Greeks were the first to develop fish sauces and to make cheesecake. Lentil soup, bean soup, and retsina (a white wine) can also be traced back to ancient Greece. They developed varietals of wine and used clay vessels to mark them with the year and origin and store them for consumption at a later date, making Greece the birthplace of the first vintners. Today, Greece is famous for its seafood, like grilled octopus, and rich dishes like moussaka. It can also boast about its cheese pies (tiropita and spanakopita), the delicious garlic tzatziki dip that is served with souvlaki, and sugary, sweet desserts like baklava.
Whose Cuisine Reigns Supreme?
After looking at the various cuisines around the world, I have concluded that there is no clear winner in this race. All the countries mentioned above had influenced each other at one point. One county would conquer or explore another, introduce new ideas, and then the cuisine evolved. Each has invented some foods that are still popular and used in cooking today. Each has unique dishes, and there are still so many other unmentioned countries with amazing recipes. So how does one decide on a winner? It simply comes down to individual taste. I like to try a bit of everything – whether it is Italian pizza on a Friday, homemade Chinese food as a special treat, or our go-to meal of souvlakia. Because of this, I honestly cannot crown a winner, although I lean towards Greek food more than any other cuisine. Perhaps if I were Italian, it would be veering towards Italy. Or, if I were French, I would say Viva la France! For now, what I will say is that every cuisine reigns supreme. Kali orexi, bon appetit, buon appetite, buen provencho, Xiǎngshòu nǐ de shíwù, apane bhojan ka aanand lijiye, shahiat tayiba, and enjoy your meal – whichever country you call home.