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  • Writer's pictureMargaret Nelson

Food From Around the World

Have you ever stopped to think about how important food is? We often don’t. Most of the time, we grab whatever is quickest and inhale it as we race from activity to activity. It seems like experts come out with new guidelines every week about which foods are healthy and which are not.

Food is one of our most basic needs, but it provides more than just nourishment. Sharing a meal is a powerful experience. Not only does food satisfy our physical needs, but it also helps us to experience what it is like to be human. Food is traditions and stories passed down through the generations. Food connects a group of people and strengthens their bonds. Food can even connect people of different races and cultures.

At ReDefiners World Languages, we strive to create multicultural, multilingual global citizens. We do this by providing language lessons, as well as educating about different cultures. The best way to fully understand a new culture is to immerse yourself in it. Ideally, this would mean traveling to another country and experiencing the culture firsthand. However, because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic downturn, traveling is not an option right now.

Language and food are two of the most important aspects of a culture because they satisfy our two most basic needs: nourishment and communication. If you want to understand a culture, the two best ways to do so are to take a language course and try new foods. Today, we wanted to highlight some popular dishes from around the world. Most of these dishes can be made at home using ingredients that you already have. Worst case, you can find all of these ingredients at your local grocery store.

  • Pan Dulce. Pan Dulce is a variety of Mexican desserts that include pastries, sweetbreads, and cookies. Pan Dulce was adopted into Mexican cuisine more recently. The Spanish conquistadors introduced wheat to what is now modern-day Mexico in the early 16th century. Pan Dulce rose in popularity centuries later, thanks to the French occupation of Mexico. This occupation profoundly influenced Mexican cuisine, and it caused a demand for sweetbreads. As a result, Mexicans adopted French baking techniques and created unique takes on the desserts. Scholars estimate that there may be as many as 2,000 different types of pan dulce in Mexico.

Out of all of the Pan Dulces, my favorite is the Concha. Conchas are light, airy, lightly-sweetened bread with a crust made from flour, sugar, and shortening. The baker places the crust on top of the pan dulce, and they score lines into the crust, which helps them to look like seashells. Traditionally, the crusts were either white or brown (because of the addition of cocoa powder). However, Conchas now come in a variety of colors. I like the pink ones the best!

I live in a state with many Mexican immigrants, and there are several panaderías (or bakeries) near where I live. Even though my neighborhood grocery store sells Pan Dulce, I find it is worth it to locate a panadería because they’re often fresher and better-tasting. Pan Dulces are relatively inexpensive, so try out several and see which ones you like the best. If you can’t find a panadería near you, consider making your own.

  • Gelato. Gelato is a frozen Italian dessert that resembles ice cream. It comes in a variety of flavors, which include chocolate, vanilla, hazelnut, and pistachio. In recent years, fruit-flavored gelatos, such as strawberry, have become popular. Although Gelato and Ice Cream are similar, chefs prepare them in different ways. Unlike ice cream, gelato uses milk instead of cream, and it also sometimes uses egg yolks for stabilization.

Gelato dates back to the 1700s. Although there is some confusion about who invented the dessert, the credit typically goes to Bernardo Buontalenti, a native of Florence, Italy. However, Sicilian-born Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli was the first one to sell it to the public. He opened a cafe called “Cafe Procope,” where he sold the dessert. From there, it spread to the rest of Europe.

Chefs typically prepare the dessert in one of the following ways: the hot process, the cold process, and the sprint process. In the Hot process, the ingredients are heated to 185 degrees for pasteurization, and they are then placed in a batch freezer. In the cold process, the ingredients are mixed and placed into a batch freezer. In the sprint process, milk or water is added to pre-packaged dry ingredients; after the ingredients are mixed, the gelato is placed in a batch freezer. In all of these methods, the mixture is churned much more slowly than American ice cream. Because of the quick mixing, this method incorporates air into the ice cream, which results in a fluffy texture. Because gelato is slowly mixed, it eliminates most of the air, resulting in a dense, smooth, richly-flavored dessert.

In my city, there’s an Italian restaurant and bakery that sells fresh gelato. As a result, I’ve had it many times, and it’s an excellent dessert option for a hot day. Like ice cream, gelato comes in a variety of flavors. If you can find authentic gelato near you, I recommend trying it since it’s an inexpensive way to experience another culture. If you can’t find it at a nearby restaurant, you can buy some from your local grocery store or make your own.

Several varieties of gelato in containers in a display case
Doesn't this look tasty?

  • Shish Kebabs. A shish kebab is a dish that consists of grilled meat and vegetables on a skewer. The addition of a marinade gives the meat a delicious flavor and an irresistible texture. Marinades can be as simple or complex as you want. An example of a basic marinade would be olive oil, lemon juice, and onions. A more complex marinade would include other ingredients, such as marjoram, crumbled bay leaves, cinnamon, and allspice. Shish kebabs also include vegetables, such as tomatoes, onion wedges, and green bell peppers. The vegetables separate the pieces of meat and provide color, which makes the dish more visually appealing.

They originated in Turkey, but there are variations in almost every country and culture. For example, a dish called chicken satay or sate, a shish kebab with only meat, is found in Thai, Indonesian, Singaporean, and Malaysian cuisine.

It’s believed that Turkish soldiers invented shish kebabs after they used their swords to grill meat during their invasion of Anatolia. This situation was likely not the first instance of meat cooking over an open fire, but this is how the name stuck. There’s also evidence that the Greeks of the Byzantine era cooked them, and Homer’s Odyssey mentions them as well.

Kebabs are a tasty, simple, and inexpensive dish. If you’re on a budget, you can use less expensive meat, like chicken breasts. To save time, you can prepare the marinade the night before and marinate the meat in the fridge until you’re ready to cook. Feel free to experiment and find your favorite combination of meat, vegetables, and marinade.

This is a picture of a plate with shish kebabs and a salad. The shish kebabs have grilled chicken, tomatoes, and onions.
Shish Kebabs include vegetables and marinated meats.

  • Butter Chicken. Butter Chicken is an Indian dish consisting of pieces of tandoori chicken cooked in a tomato cream sauce. Like other Indian dishes, Butter Chicken includes many spices, including Cardamom, Cumin, cinnamon, coriander, pepper, fenugreek, and chili powder.

It’s believed that Kundan Lal Gujral invented Butter Chicken and Tandoori Chicken. He found that the chicken dried out over time if left unsold. One day, he improvised a plan to avoid wasting the chicken. They would serve it in tomato gravy with butter and cream. The sauce infused the dish with moisture and made the spices more subtle. From there, its popularity took off, and it spread throughout India and the world.

Butter chicken is simple to make since it does not require any special kitchen appliances. With the right tips, you can elevate your dish from good to great. If you need a dairy-free substitution, try using coconut milk instead of heavy cream. Do not substitute the butter since it gives the sauce its texture and flavors the chicken. Lastly, while you can make butter chicken without marinating the chicken first, this is not advised. Marinating the chicken will give it a better texture.

  • Shawarma. Shawarma is a Middle Eastern dish consisting of thinly cut slices of meat, such as chicken, beef, goat, lamb, and turkey. It can be served alone or in a large piece of steamed or heated flatbread or pita. Foods often found inside the pita include hummus, tahini, pickles, vegetables, and even french fries. Sides include fries, salads, or falafel.

To make Shawarma, the chef puts raw meat on large, rotating cones. As it spins, a heat source behind the cone slow cooks it. Depending on the preparation, it either slowly falls off or is thinly sliced with a large knife.

Authentic Shawarma is a labor of love. It takes special equipment and several hours to create true Shawarma. Because of this, authentic Shawarma is beyond the scope of most home cooks. For authentic Shawarma, see if you can find some at a restaurant near you. If not, you can try making a simple Shawarma recipe.

This is a picture of cooked Shawarma on a rotating cone. There are a pair of hands that are cutting the Shawarma, and they hands are wearing red disposable gloves.
Authentic shawarma is difficult to replicate at home, but it's very tasty.

  • Jollof Rice. Jollof rice is a popular dish in West and Sub-Saharan Africa. Although the ingredients vary across different countries, they typically include long-grain rice, tomatoes, onions, spices, and vegetables, all of which cook together in a single pot.

Some believe that Jollof originates from the Senegambia region of West Africa among the Wolof people, where the dish is known as Benachin. It then traveled throughout the area due to cultural exchanges. As a result, the dish has variations tied to specific countries and cultures.

The dish is so revered that many people argue about where it originated and whose version is best. These ideas have fueled many heated arguments online, especially between Nigerians and Ghanaians; these arguments are called the “Jollof Wars.” The devotion to this dish is so intense that when chef Jamie Oliver published his recipe back in 2014, West Africans universally criticized it.

Jollof rice is relatively simple and straightforward. You can find the ingredients at your local grocery store, and it doesn’t require any special equipment. To serve it as a meal, consider adding meat or fish.

  • Rolex. Rolex is a Ugandan food that resembles a breakfast burrito. It combines a chapati (an unleavened flatbread) with seasoned scrambled eggs, cabbage, and tomatoes inside, all of which are rolled together. It bears no relation to the Rolex wristwatches. Instead, the name is a play on the phrase “rolled eggs.” Street vendors would call out “rolled eggs.” However, to the visitors, “rolled eggs” would sound a lot like “Rolex.” Gradually, the name stuck.

The origins are unclear. However, one story claims that it can be traced back to a chapati seller from eastern Uganda. It was likely that he was the first person to put scrambled eggs in chapati. The dish eventually made its way to Makerere University in Kampala. Because it was quick to eat and inexpensive, it became popular among the students.

Chapatis and Rolexes are easy to make, and you can find the ingredients in any grocery store. To save time, consider making the Chapatis ahead of time. Once you make the Chapatis, all you have to do is cook the eggs and vegetables.

  • Kimchi. Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish. The ingredients can vary, but it usually includes a combination of vegetables, garlic, ginger, chili peppers, salt, and fish sauce. The ingredients are mixed, which is then pickled and fermented. Cabbage is the most common vegetable used, but other vegetables can be used, such as carrots, radishes, cucumbers, and scallions.

Kimchi can have a variety of flavor profiles, including sour, spicy, sweet, and umami. However, since Kimchi is fermented, it’s going to have a sour taste. The fermentation process often creates a flavor similar to sauerkraut.

Kimchi is easy to make at home, and it’s inexpensive to purchase. Due to its rising popularity, you can find it in many places, including your local supermarket. If you can’t find any to buy, consider making some at home. All you have to do is combine the ingredients and wait a few days for the mixture to ferment.

  • Mole. Mole (pro. MOH-lay) is Mexico’s national dish. It’s a sauce served with nachos, tostadas, enchiladas, and tacos. Although Mole can vary in ingredients, consistency, and color, it typically includes nuts, fruit, tomatoes or tomatillos, a blend of spices, and a blend of chili peppers.

The exact origins of Mole are unknown. Some believe a legend that the dish started in the 16th century. According to this legend, nuns from the Convent of Santa Rosa in Puebla created a mole while preparing a meal for a visiting archbishop. They used all of the ingredients they had, and it resulted in the creation of Mole.

Some believe another popular legend that the dish has been around since before the pre-Spanish conquest. According to the legend, the Aztec King Montezuma served the Spanish conquistadors a chocolate-spiced version because he believed that they were gods. However, many believe that no one would have used chocolate at that point, since it was considered a reverent ingredient. As a result, this version is not as widely trusted.

Mole can be tricky to make. Traditional versions can have anywhere from 30 to more than 100 ingredients. Recipes also require mortars and pestles to grind the roasted ingredients. Finally, Mole requires hours to complete. Once you add the ingredients to the stock, it has to cook on low heat for several hours.

If you’re up for the challenge, try making it yourself. You can also try Mole at an authentic Mexican restaurant or buy a premade Mole from a grocery store.

  • Ropa Vieja. Ropa Vieja is a popular Latin American dish, and it’s considered the national dish of Cuba. Typical ingredients include shredded beef, onions, peppers, and salsa de tomate. Rice and beans often accompany the meal.

Ropa Vieja, or “old clothes” in Spanish, is more than 500 years old, and it originated with the Sephardic Jews in the Iberian peninsula of Spain. They could not cook on the Sabbath. As a result, they would slow cook stew the night before. The dish followed Spanish Conquistadors to the Americas, where it stuck around. From there, Ropa Vieja traveled to the Caribbean and across Latin America.

The dish hasn’t been as prevalent in Cuba in recent decades. In 1963, because of a declining Cow population, the government made it illegal for Cubans to eat or sell cattle without government permission. The law did not address the plunging Cow population, and the deficit is still an issue.

Ropa Vieja is easy and affordable to make, and your local grocery store has all of the ingredients. Because the dish cooks at a low temperature, it takes several hours to finish. If you need an easy weeknight meal, consider making this in a slow cooker.

As you can see, there are plenty of recipes for home cooks to try. Cooking international dishes doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. Your local grocery store even carries most of the ingredients. Try the ones that sound the most appealing to you. By doing so, you can connect with your loved ones, gain a better understanding of other cultures, and celebrate what makes us human.

If you’re interested in learning more about other cultures, consider taking a class with ReDefiners World Languages! We offer online and in-person courses in English, Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin. You’ll have the opportunity to learn the language, as well as learn about the language’s cultural influences. For more information, please visit our website or email us at

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