The United States is a culinary mash-up of influences from various immigrant groups, indigenous peoples, and new-fangled food concoctions. Ask five different people what our national dish is and you’ll get five different answers: hot dogs, apple pie, hamburgers, roast turkey, barbecue, and the list goes on, especially when you consider regional tastes—fried chicken, jambalaya, Tex-Mex, etc. The New England versus Manhattan clam chowder debate is just as spirited as the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry.
Perhaps it’s our size, perhaps it’s the intense regionalism, perhaps it’s the different climates and growing seasons that all collide together, making it impossible to identify a national dish. However, other countries around the world have a singular dish, one that every kitchen has a recipe for, mostly passed down in a “pinch of this, pinch of that” oral tradition. One thing all these “national” foods have in common is that their places are firmly nestled inside the comfort zone. A bite of such a familiar dish feels like home, whether it’s one county away or two time zones.
Here’s a round-up of a handful of national dishes found in Columbus’s melting pot.
“Old clothes” isn’t the most appetizing name for a dish, but the story is a romantic one. Ropa Vieja, the national dish of Cuba, is said to have originated when a man, in despair because he did not have enough food to feed his family, ripped up some old clothes and, because of the strength
of his love, stewed the shreds into a filling and flavorful meal for his loved ones. While a touching bit of folklore, Ropa Vieja is not a stewed thicket of laundry; it is traditionally flank steak cooked down for hours until tender. At Plantain Café, the dish is made with brisket, a fattier cut of beef that braises in its own salty juices when cooked for a long time, resulting in a tasty, beefy treat. The bright café on Gay Street is the quiet sibling, with fancy Due Amici and hipster Tip Top hogging the hashtags. For an island vibe on a chilly day, the long and thin Cuban outpost with pictures of old-world Havana is welcoming. When ordering, go for the platter version. Sandwiches are great, but the bun gets in the way of experiencing the full flavor. Colorful with peppers and nestled up with plantains, black beans, and rice, the Ropa Vieja is like eating in Havana without having to deal with all the travel hassles. Bonus tip: The plantain chips are on point; the lime and garlic dipping sauce zesty.
Everyone has an ingredient breaking point; mine is raw onion. It’s raisins for some, and if that’s the case, the Kabuli Palaw at Café Kabul is not for you. The national dish of Afghanistan, the lamb and rice meal is your basic brown and white, but shredded carrots pop with color, and plump raisins add sweet tones. Many cultures have their own takes on the universal rice and Afghanistan is no different—the rice is basmati and cooked in chicken broth for optimal flavor. The lamb is presented in tender chunks.The gaminess that sometimes plagues lamb has been cooked away, and it plays nicely with the mild spice that highlights the meal. By now, it should be pretty common knowledge that the best ethnic foods are found in strip malls inside storefronts that may lack a smidge on the décor side of things. One country’s comfort food is another’s exotic adventure, even if it’s in a former Dairy Queen on Olentangy River Road, as this gem is. Bonus tip: Vegetarian in the party? Buranee Bonjon features thick slices of eggplant topped with a yogurt sauce that is easily scooped up with the huge disc of Afghan bread, warm from the oven.
When it comes to Asian foodstuffs, offerings like sushi, dumplings, pad Thai, and eggrolls are fairly commonplace on the American grab-and-go menu. Stretch a little and Columbus has a deeper bench of Asian flavors. On the West Side, out near the casino, is the city’s lone Cambodian outpost, Siem Reap. While not a huge slice of the population, the roughly 1,600 Cambodians that call Columbus home can find the national dish of A Mok inside the pastel restaurant. It’s a fish entree, steamed in banana leaves, served in a coco-creamy curry sauce. Contrary to the expected envelope-like presentation, the chunks of white fish come in a banana leaf pole, held together with wooden skewers. Fragrant steam, a mixture of the sweet coconut and the savory curry, hovers above the ingenious green bowl. It’s one of those feats of food architecture that makes the meal lovely even before the first bite. Siem Reap, with its green roof and calm interior, is a portal to another place. Bonus tip: Stuffed chicken wings, yes please! •