Food & Drink

UNESCO’S 8 Gastronomical Capitals of the World

UNESCO stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. It is best known for its World Heritage Site designations, places both natural and man-made that ‘certain places on Earth are of outstanding universal value and should form part of the common heritage of humankind’. 190 countries signed the 1972 treaty to conserve and protect almost a thousand sites around the world. But UNESCO has another intriguing initiative called the Creative City Network, which identifies cities at the forefront of using creative endeavors in the cause of sustainable urban development. UNESCO has identified some 70 cities for their traditions in the realms of Music, Film, Literature, Folk art and Gastronomy. Eight places have been singled out for their fidelity to locally, sustainable sourcing of ingredients for outstanding historic cuisines. The list is surprising and full of places most have never heard of who applied for the designation, vowing to practice and advocate for preservation and innovation in the realm of cooking. This is no tourist advisory on where to get the best pizza in a resort town. These are the cradles of unique cuisines nurtured over the years, whose survival has now been assured by following the cardinal rules of local and sustainable.

8. Zahlé, Lebanon

Zahlé is a true foodie paradise. Lonely Planet guidebook says that aside from being a base to explore the Beqaa Valley, there are no real tourist attractions.  All the better we say, to concentrate on the exceptional traditional food and wine and maybe the occasional tumbler of arak, the anise-flavored spirit that is served for breakfast lunch and dinner, similar to the French pastis and the Greek ouzo. Birthplace to many writers, it is known as “The City of Wine and Poetry” and what more sublime combination could there be? Zahle is said to have invented the mezze experience, the now globally fashionable array of small plates that make a feast. To the well-known Lebanese standards of shish taouk, tabbouleh, kishk (fermented bulgur and milk by-products), manouche. Zahle adds local delicacies of wild pork and famous locally farmed trout. Then there is this goat’s milk ice cream with rose water, musk and sahlab stambouli with its overtones of sugar and cinnamon. It may or may not be traditional Lebanese but with that flavor profile, how much do you care??

7. Tsuruoka, Japan

Not many people get to Tsuruoka either. The town of 140,000 is 300 miles due north of Tokyo on the west coast and the Sea of Japan. UNESCO says that “farmers, cooks and chefs are true creators and artists” here. The region is famous for soba noodles, but the locals are crazy about moso (pronounced mowsow), bamboo shoots used to make soup with the lees (dregs) of sake and shitakes. They take rice from the plains, dadacha beans called the King of Edamame, the bounty of the nearby sea especially the Cherry Salmon native to the Western Pacific and Japanese Gurnard. And from nearby sacred mountains, they harvest and serve ferns and bracken. They take pride in their ingenuity with more than 50 kinds of indigenous crops to create a singular, sustainable cuisine as they have been doing long before the word sustainable was invented.

6. Shunde, China

No other cuisine in the world has a more delicate touch than Cantonese. Still the range and variety of flavors found in Shunde astounds. While abiding by the characteristics of Cantonese you think you know, ‘light, fresh, crispy, tender, smooth and genuine” the chefs of Shunde push the envelope, not with the blazing heat of its cousin, Szechuan, but rather with innovative flavors of sun dried tangerine peel and dates. Local delicacies include pan-fried lotus root stuffed with locally-farmed carp. Buffalo milk mixed with egg whites and sautéed forms an omelet like dish. It’s highly likely the stellar culinary reputation of nearby Hong Kong owes much to its lesser-known neighbor. It is traditional humble home-cooking raised to an artistic level. As well, even something exotic and outside-the-box like Japanese pork loin and goose liver costs about US$17.

5. Papayán Colombia

A beautiful small city in Colombia’s southwest known as La Ciudad Blanco for the stark white colonial architecture of the historic city center. The distinctive cuisine’s style is called Mestiazaje, mixing an intriguing combination of Spanish, African and native Colombian. There are over a hundred indigenous groups in Colombia and though they account for 3% of the population, they have had a deep and outsized influence on culture and cooking traditions. Papayan council has promised UNESCO to safeguard that culinary knowledge which has been passed down through generations. THE local specialty are empanadas de pipian, fried corn dough stuffed with potatoes and peanuts. There is the ubiquitous Hogoa; a tomato-based sauce with Creole origins, Salpicon is a salsa made with local fruits and coconut milk is part of signature dishes, especially Arroz con Leche de Coco. The restaurant at the Camino Real Hotel, a proponent of local traditions, claims its seafood soup has been called the best in the world. The signature dessert is called Eduardo Santos, an ice cream confection similar to Italian cassata named for a former Colombian President.

4. Östersund, Sweden

After Chengdu it’s a mere 6000 miles to Östersund, a town of 60,000 in the middle of Sweden. There is lots of history here and it even has the Swedish version of the Loch Ness Monster; Storsjöodjuret, first ‘sighted’ in 1635. UNESCO had the right idea when singling out Östersund for its ‘local sustainable food inspired from longstanding culinary traditions’. A quick check of modern, minimalist restaurants shows a meeting of traditional food with contemporary creativity. There is local trout, bleak roe and cold water cod. Mushroom soup comes with sea buckthorn syrup and smoked reindeer hearts. Or you can just have the hearts straight up with cream cheese on crispbread. The region is on the cutting edge of artisanal production in a daunting climate with a passionate devotion to a kind of Nordic fusion, using locally sourced ingredients and pairing them with the world classics. Like Schnapps made from birch syrup and herbs, smoked local char with Jerusalem artichokes and local beef with porcini and beurre noisette. Kolballen, a fatty bacon pancake was once the simple snack of lumberjacks, but is now an old fashioned yet chic comfort food paired with lingonberries.

3. Jeonju, South Korea

It is called Taste City. The quintessential Korean dish, bibimbap, was born in this ancient city 20 miles south of Seoul. In fact, Visit Korea calls it ‘Jeonju bimbimbap’, a spectacular mix of bean sprouts, spinach, Chinese bellflower, gochujang chili paste, sesame oil, and rice topped with a fried egg. Also renowned is the local traditional multi-course feast called ‘Hanjeongsik’, featuring a kind of Korean tapas called ‘Banchan’. Like most great cuisines, it excels at the simplest dishes like the bean sprout and rice soup called ‘Kongnamul Gukbap’. Chefs work with what’s local including wild greens from the mountains, fresh fish from the Yellow Sea and rice and beef from nearby plains. In the spirit of the advocacy UNESCO favors, the city founded the Creative Culinary Institute of Korea and the Bibimbap Globalization Foundation.

2. Florianopolis, Brazil

Way off the beaten track Florianopolis is on the coast of Brazil some 500 miles south of Rio de Janiero. It has an eclectic heritage  of Portuguese, Italian, German, Polish and Ukrainian so there is an international flavor so to speak. The city of 1.5 million people has perfect beaches and interesting old architecture. It has been called the best place to live in Brazil which is quite a complement but is renowned for its seafood, hence it is also known as the Oyster Capital of Brazil. They are farmed on the Ilha da Magia, yes ‘Magical Island’ and are served right out of the water, raw, baked, stuffed and or smoked. The other signature seafood feast is called the sequencia de camarão consisting of a constant stream of shrimp dishes begun for some reason by casquinha de siri (baked crabmeat) and ended by baked fish filet with shrimp sauce. In between comes steamed shrimp, breaded shrimp, garlic shrimp, and sometimes giant prawns. Their UNESCO mandate goes beyond great traditional cooking with the Brazilian Design Biennial to be held in 2015, a workshop with experts on the theme of creative cooperation linking design, crafts, gastronomy and tourism, combining quality local ingredients with the Brazilian flair for creative design and presentation.

1. Chengdu, China

It is said that: “the best cuisine is from China, while the richest flavor is from Chengdu”.  It has become China’s fourth largest city with a total population of 14 million, also famous for its panda research and breeding center. One big clue that cooking is a serious industry here: they have more people working in catering (250,000) than other cities on the list have in their total population. It is the capital of Sichuan province, and UNESCO also calls it the cradle of spicy Sichuan cooking. Most of it begins with the ever-present combination of ginger, garlic and scallions to which hot chilies and or Sichuan peppercorns are liberally added. The heat that makes a diner start to sweat whatever the temperature is call la in Mandarin. The spicy aftertaste that can burn the tongue is called ma, the classic Sichuan one-two punch. Sichuan chefs would be insulted at the thought their cuisine is known only for its incendiary qualities. Their virtuosity is in balancing a complex pallet of flavors: spicy, citrus, salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and smoky into a single harmonious dish.