Explore the intersection of food and culture with this round-up of culinary traditions around the world. This post unpacks all 17 food-related rituals on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, and offers tips for experiencing them as a traveller.
Most people are familiar with UNESCO World Heritage Sites—but did you know that the United Nations also recognises ‘intangible culture’ as something to celebrate and safeguard? Cultural elements that lack a physical form but are instead expressed through knowledge, skill or ritual are equally important to shaping living culture. These include artistic performances, festivals, social practices, oral heritage, craftsmanship—and of course, gastronomic traditions.
Food and culture are interwoven. The processes involved in preparing, serving and sharing certain foods and drinks might appear simple, but they often carry important social and cultural significance. Recipes and dietary practices can be used to transmit knowledge from one generation to the next. Making and eating certain foods as part of a celebration can solidify social bonds. For travellers, getting to know the local food scene and joining in with culinary traditions is one of the best ways to deepen your knowledge and enrich your experience.
UNESCO currently recognises 17 food and drink-related traditions as part of its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. To inspire you to learn more and maybe even try them for yourself, I asked a group of travel writers to share their insights into food traditions around the world.
In This Post:
- Food culture: Culinary traditions recognised by UNESCO
- Lavash, Armenia
- Washoku, Japan
- The Mediterranean Diet, Mediterranean Region
- Turkish Coffee, Turkey
- Traditional Mexican Cuisine, Mexico
- Dolma, Azerbaijan
- Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo, Italy
- Nsima, Malawi
- Flatbread, Iran, Azerbaijan, Central Asia & Turkey
- Ceremonial Keşkek, Turkey
- Kimjang, South Korea
- Kimchi, North Korea
- Beer Culture, Belgium
- Gastronomic Meal of the French, France
- Gingerbread Craft (Licitars), Northern Croatia
- Palov, Uzbekistan
- Oshi Palav, Tajikistan
Food culture: Culinary traditions recognised by UNESCO
Here are the 17 food and drink-related traditions currently recognised by UNESCO and its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. As new culinary traditions are inscribed each year, they’ll be added to the list.
Armenian lavash holds a special place in the country’s food culture and social life. The skill and coordination required to knead and cook lavash, as well as the social exchange that takes place among women when preparing it, prompted UNESCO to inscribe Armenian lavash in 2014.
Lavash dough is a simple mix of wheat flour and water. Once kneaded and rolled, the it’s pulled and stretched over a special cushion that’s stuffed with hay or wool. Still on the cushion, the bread is then transferred to a conical clay oven (called a tonir) by ‘slapping’ it onto the side. It only takes between 30 and 60 seconds for the delicate bread to bubble up and cook through. Finished lavash sheets have different colours and textures depending on the type of flour used and the duration of the bake.
Try it for yourself: Lavash plays an important ceremonial role in Armenian weddings, where sheets of the bread are draped over the bride and groom’s shoulders to signal future prosperity. It’s also eaten on a daily basis, often with cheese or meat, and can be found on restaurant menus around the country. To see how lavash is prepared, head to the GUM Market in Yerevan, where vendors bake fresh sheets every morning.
Japanese food is so damn good that it was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013. It was added as a way to preserve it, as traditional dietary habits are starting to die out across the country, but also because the food is fresh, simple and produced with such incredible attention to detail.
Japanese food is collectively referred to as Washoku. At its essence, it reflects a deep respect for nature, using natural, locally sourced ingredients such as rice, fish, vegetables and edible wild plants. Every little detail about Japanese food—from the way it’s prepared and presented to the way it’s eaten—stems from a historical cultural tradition that is passed down through the generations. Washoku is traditionally comprised of four elements: Cooked rice (the staple dish), soups, side dishes that give flavour to the rice, and tsukemono (Japanese pickles).
Try it for yourself: The best way to get a feel for Washoku is to try out traditional Japanese dishes as a local would. For example, try okonomiyaki (Japanese omelette/pizza) in Hiroshima or Osaka, or fresh sushi at the world-famous Toyosu Fish Market in Tokyo (formally the Tsukiji).
By Stefan & Sebastien, Nomadic Boys
The Mediterranean Diet, Mediterranean Region
In 2013, the Mediterranean diet of Spain (and six other countries including Italy, Portugal, Morocco, Croatia, Cyprus, and Greece) was inscribed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage and Humanity. Though the Mediterranean diet has certainly become something of a fad in many countries, UNESCO has concentrated more on celebrating the rituals and processes that make this diet an important part of Spanish culture.
Some of the strongholds of the Mediterranean diet in Spain include using few ingredients to make flavourful dishes while eliminating food waste as much as possible; eating many small dishes with an emphasis on sharing; and viewing food and diet as a social ritual. One of the greatest examples of food being used socially would be tapas culture. Throughout Spain, it is incredibly common to go out in the evenings with groups of friends, have a drink and share small plates of food.
Another major factor in this important facet of cultural identity is the role of markets. There are large, central markets in most Spanish cities, each featuring stalls with local vendors selling their family’s specialty. Many markets in Spain will also include a small cafe-bar where shoppers can enjoy a beverage and a snack while catching up with friends.
Try it for yourself: One of the best places to experience both the tapas and market culture aspects of Spain’s Mediterranean diet would be to spend a couple of days in Seville. The city is famous for its thriving restaurant and bar culture and has many historic, local markets that are very much worth exploring.
By Maggie, The World Was Here First
Other places you can experience the Mediterranean diet:
Turkish Coffee, Turkey
Turkey has no fewer than three food-related listings on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Turkish coffee is perhaps its best-known and most recognisable.
Coffee was first introduced to the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. It was an instant hit. From that point on, the Ottomans controlled coffee trading routes and were responsible for spreading coffee throughout the Empire. This explains why countries and territories previously conquered by the Ottomans, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, have their own coffee traditions that are closely related to Turkish coffee.
To make Turkish coffee, roasted beans are ground to a super-fine power and brewed slowly with water and sugar until a foam forms on the top. Turkish coffee pots, or cezve, are integral to the ritual. Miniature bronze pots for one or larger cezve that hold enough coffee for a large group are presented to the drinker on an intricate coffee tray. Sugar cubes and a square of Turkish delight is usually served on the side.
Brewing and drinking Turkish coffee reflects the country’s communal culture and was recognised by UNESCO in 2013.
Try it for yourself: Traditionally prepared coffee is ubiquitous all over Turkey. The most authentic coffee-drinking experiences can be found at coffee houses (known as kaveh kanes) in Istanbul and beyond. Turkish coffee is usually sipped slowly as an accompaniment to conversation. Since coffee is a symbol of hospitality and friendship, a Turkish coffee house is the perfect place to meet someone new over a brew.
Traditional Mexican Cuisine, Mexico
It’s not surprising that Mexican cuisine has attained UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity status. The country is so diverse from state to state and province to province—the result being a full spectrum of flavour, contrasts, and olfactory sensations.
One of the main drivers of Mexican cuisine was the interaction between Spanish conquistadors and Aztec culture. Most of the Mexican food we eat today is a delicious combination of ancient traditions, Aztec, Mayan and Spanish. The French also played their part in the story of Mexican cuisine, adding baked goods such as sweet breads and the bolillo to the mix. Contemporary Mexican cuisine is more a mix of modern ingredients from European, North American and even Asian influences. Like anywhere else in the world, it’s hard to replicate true Mexican food outside of Mexico.
Food is one of the main ingredients of Mexican culture. Food is essential to every social gathering—one of the reasons why the food is so great!
Try it for yourself: If you want to taste authentic Mexican food, try chilaquiles for breakfast, tacos for lunch, elote for a street snack, and mole enchiladas for dinner, followed by a Mexican hot chocolate. If you’re brave enough, you should definitely try out the lime chilli fried crickets (chapulines). They’re actually quite good!
By Henry & Zory, This Life Of Travel
Dolma is one of the most popular menu items that you’ll find at restaurants in Baku and the rest of Azerbaijan. Delicious dolma is a pre-cooked grape leaf stuffed with minced meat, rice, onion, and sometimes other ingredients such as peas.
The word ‘dolma’ is of Turkic origin and technically is a shortened version of doldurma, which translates to ‘stuffed’. Recipes and methods of dolma-making are passed down from generation to generation.
One of the greatest things about dolma is that the food is used as a way to celebrate guests and mark special occasions. Azeri people are extremely hospitable and love teaching their traditions. Most are welcoming of foreigners to become a part of their society through learning the local traditions and ways of life, including making and eating dolma.
Try it for yourself: There are so many places you can find dolma in Azerbaijan, and the best will almost always be in the homes of Azeri people. You can also find some extremely tasty versions in Baku at the many traditional restaurants in and around the old town and even at on-site restaurants in hotels in Baku. Head to Shirvanshah Museum Restaurant, the best place I ate dolma in the capital city, or to restaurant Dolma near Fountain Square, where you are sure to find some of the city’s tastiest food.
By Megan, Megan Starr
Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo, Italy
Through the centuries, the art of making Neapolitan pizza has been based on a few key elements—namely water, flour, salt and yeast. Traditionally, raw ingredients are produced in the Campania countryside. It’s in the hands, heart and soul of the pizzaiuolo (Pizza Chef) that the magic really happens! And that’s why UNESCO has declared Naples’ trademark technique of pizza making part of the world’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.
There are three primary categories of pizzaiuolo: The Master Pizzaiuolo, the Pizzaiuolo, and the baker. The knowledge and skills for making pizza is primarily transmitted in the bottega or in homes, where young apprentices observe masters at work.
The art of making a Neapolitan pizza is a culinary practice comprising four different phases: The shaping of dough balls (the so-called Staglio); spreading the dough (called ammaccatura), where the pizzaiuolo forms the famous raised rim called cornicione with a skillful motion known as schiaffo. Next, the dough is topped, starting from the centre and spiraling in a clockwise motion. Finally, the pizza is baked in a wood-oven with a rotating movement (‘half turn’).
Try it for yourself: We enjoyed the handiwork of pizzaiuolos during our stay in Sorrento on our Amalfi Coast drive. The best Neapolitan pizza is made from simple and fresh ingredients: A basic dough, raw tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cheese, fresh basil, and olive oil—no fancy toppings here. More sauce than cheese, it’s quite soggy in the centre but yummy! Pizza is best enjoyed with some house wine and finished with Limoncello, a lemon-infused liquor that’s popular on the Amalfi Coast.
By Priya, Outside Suburbia
Nsima is a thick porridge made by mixing white cornmeal with water. This is an elaborate process that involves pulling the paste against the side of a pot with a wooden spoon as it simmers. Nsima is eaten in many parts of Africa, and goes by different names in other African countries.
In Malawi, it’s normally eaten with two accompaniments: A protein-heavy dish, and a vegetable dish. The protein dish can be meat, fish or beans, while the vegetable dish is usually a type of dark leafy green, such as mustard or pumpkin leaves.
Young children are taught to pound maize and sift flour to make nsima from an early age, and eating communal meals of nsima is an important way of strengthening family bonds. Nsima‘s cultural significance in Malawi is why UNESCO has listed it as a form of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Try it for yourself: Since nsima is the most common staple food in Malawi, it’s available all over the country— though it’s not always served in tourist restaurants. Thomas’s Restaurant, Grocery and Bar in Cape Maclear on Lake Malawi caters to a mix of tourists and locals and serves nsima with beans and salad.
By Wendy, The Nomadic Vegan
Flatbread, Iran, Azerbaijan, Central Asia & Turkey
The flatbread has a long history on the Eurasian continent and each region and country has its own variation. The making and sharing culture surrounding flatbread was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2015.
The humble flatbread is hugely important to Iranian, Azerbaijani, Turkish, Kazhakstani and Kyrgyzstani food culture. Flatbread, including lavash, katyrma, jupka and yufka are typically prepared by households and community members on a daily basis. Besides being eaten as a staple food, flatbread plays an important role in weddings, births, funerals and religious gatherings.
Depending on the region, flatbread is either cooked in a stone or earth-ground oven, on a metal plate, or in a cauldron. Flatbread dough is always prepared from simple ingredients: Wheat flour, water and salt. Once mixed, flatbread dough is left to rest before it is rolled out and cooked/baked. Some villages still operate an oven for the whole community where each household can bring their bread to be baked.
Try it for yourself: You can watch locals make soft lavash flatbread in the main market in Baku—and since you’re there, how about a freshly prepared lavash kebab wrap. Or you can try to make a Turkish yufka at home using the flat sheets in a savory layered borek pie. I love dipping my lavash in narsharab, a sweet and sour sauce made from pomegranate. I suggest you also check out other flatbread from the region, such as Lebanese manakish and Iranian sangak.
By Helene, Masala Herb
Ceremonial Keşkek, Turkey
Made with meat or chicken, keşkek is a stew found in Turkish, Iranian and Greek cuisines. The dish is usually associated with a ceremonial or religious occasion and is cooked by groups of men and women together in the community. Keşkek was inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2011 because of its role as a Turkish ceremonial dish.
After the wheat or barley is washed and prayed over the previous day, music from both drums and pipes is played as the grains are poured into a large cauldron. The mix is then beaten with wooden hammers until a fine consistency is achieved. The dish is cooked outdoors over an open fire and, through the course of the night, the meat and spices are added and left to simmer.
From beating the ingredients to the music performance and the thickening and stirring of the dish, the local community all gather together to take part in keşkek preparation.
Try it for yourself: Keşkek is served at Turkish wedding ceremonies and circumcisions as well as on religious holidays. If you’re lucky enough to chance upon a local village in advance of these celebrations, you will likely see the dish being prepared and have the chance to taste it. Keşkek is also relatively easy to source in traditional restaurants in cities including Istanbul.
By Elaine & David, Show Them The Globe
Kimjang, South Korea
Anyone who has ever tried Korean food has also sampled the famous pickled side dish called kimchi.
Basically, kimchi is some type of vegetable—most frequently napa cabbage—that has been fermented in a spicy red paste that may include red chilli powder, garlic, ginger, salt, sugar, fish sauce and green onions. People tend to have strong opinions about kimchi—they either love it or hate it. But there’s no denying that it’s a required part of any Korean meal.
In November each year, Korean families gather for gimjang (kimjang), the traditional process of making kimchi. Historically, it was done after the harvest and was a way to store enough kimchi to sustain a family through the winter season. The finished product was stored in clay jars, or hangari, that were then buried in the ground. Written records show that kimchi has been around since the fourteenth century, but the tradition of gimjang was established during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897).
Try it for yourself: Participating in gimjang usually requires knowing a Korean family located in South Korea. If that’s not possible, a visit to the Museum Kimchikan in Seoul is a great alternative. This unique museum has exhibits about the history of kimchi, but also offers kimchi making demonstrations and cooking classes.
By Wendy, Empty Nesters Hit The Road
Kimchi, North Korea
Kimchi is the Korean name for preserved vegetables seasoned with spices and fermented seafood. It’s an important tradition on the Korean peninsula, where the recipe has been transmitted from mother to daughter for centuries.
In the old days, it was a collective practice. This is still the case if you visit North Korea. Here, collective farms still produce kimchi as Koreans would have centuries ago. Cabbage is harvested, fermented and salted, and chili and seafood is added. Once fermented, it can be kept for the full year after which the cycle starts over again. Late autumn is Kimjang season, when everyone shares the kimchi equally for the harsh winter.
Because it’s a unique dish, centuries old and with the unique kimjang sharing component, it’s listed by UNESCO as part of North Korea’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Try it for yourself: To really experience traditional kimchi, one had best visit North Korea on a pre-arranged tour. Depending on the season, you will visit collective farms and see how kimchi is made. During the trip, you’ll have plenty of time to taste North Korean kimchi as it’s served at breakfast, lunch, and dinner as a side dish. It’s delicious!
By Chris, CTB Global
Beer Culture, Belgium
Beer is big in Belgium and has been brewed in the country for centuries.
Containing water, barley, hops and yeast, beer was originally made by monks and nuns in the Middle Ages as a replacement for water. (Drinking water was often unclean and made people ill, so a brew of weak beer was preferable—even for children.) The brewing process killed off any germs and the addition of hops acted as a preservative. Thus, a vital culinary part of the country’s history, culture and tradition was created. Today, there are over 1500 different types of Belgian beer with a variety of flavours, colours and alcohol percentages.
Belgian beer was inscribed by UNESCO in 2016 because it is part of the living heritage of many communities throughout Belgium. Today, beer plays a major role in daily life as well as festive occasions.
Try it for yourself: Although most restaurants, cafes and bars in Belgium serve beer, I’d recommend visiting a brewery to get a real taste for this Belgian tradition. You’ll learn about the brewing process and taste a variety of different beers before deciding on your favourite. To see how beer is made in Bruges, visit the only active family brewery in the city, De Halve Maan (The Half Moon), where the Maes family has been brewing Belgian beer since 1856. There’s also a restaurant and outdoor seating overlooking the canals.
By Suzanne, The Travelbunny
Gastronomic Meal of the French, France
The gastronomic meal of the French isn’t a particular food but more of a culinary element of important family traditions. For big family celebrations such as a birthdays, weddings or anniversaries, a large meal is prepared to bring everyone together. Like everything in France, food is a central part of the experience.
Each meal differs from house to house, depending on the season, the traditional family recipes passed from generation to generation, and what region of France you’re in. For example, while in Normandy a dish may include incredible cheese and cider, in the Mediterranean, a family’s prized ratatouille recipe is more common. Dinner is very formal, often beginning with a cocktail or wine, and contains at least four decadent courses. The meal can last for hours.
Because it is so integral to maintaining the family fabric and the heart of French culture, the gastronomic meal of the French was designated part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010.
Try it for yourself: It’s not an easy tradition to experience as a tourist if you don’t know anyone in France. The best opportunity is to ask around through community boards such as Couchsurfing or companies such as Withlocals, which provide opportunities to connect with locals.
By Ayngelina, Bacon is Magic
Gingerbread Craft (Licitars), Northern Croatia
Gingerbread baked goods have become a symbol of Croatia. They were brought to the country by the church in the Middle Ages, but quickly became the work of local craftspeople. The tradition has been handed down through families of gingerbread makers, who developed their own decorating styles.
The heart, known as the Licitar Heart, is the most famous shape. These are given as gifts for special occasions, including birthdays, weddings and holidays. Licitar cookies are typically covered in red opaque icing with white icing designs, though the decorations can also used coloured icing. It’s popular for a mirror to be placed in the middle.
While the cookies are edible, remember to remove the mirrors before eating.
Try it for yourself: If you are hosted by anyone in Zagreb or stay with local friends, you may find they give you a small licitar as a welcome gift. Otherwise, you can find them all over the city. For a true local shopping experience, head to Dolac Market, where you can find licitar and other local Croatian souvenirs. If you plan to buy some as a gift for someone back home, you can go the extra step of getting a custom design with their name on the cookie in icing.
By Stephanie & Allison, Sofia Adventures
It’s hard to experience Central Asia without coming across the traditional delicacy of plov (palov). In Uzbekistan, plov is served at any and all occasions and is available in every city and every tiny village. The dish consists of pilau rice with spices, vegetables, meat and sometimes raisins and berries cooked in a large pan, sometimes big enough to feed hundreds of people at weddings or funerals.
No two plovs are the same. The delicate mix of ingredients used is unique to each cook—although they can start to feel quite similar after plov for breakfast, lunch and dinner during your time in Uzbekistan! But this is how it was intended. The legend of plov says that Alexander the Great invented it himself as a way for his troops to cut back on meal times and eat the same thing three times a day!
Plov was given Heritage Status in 2016 when it was recognised for its cultural significance in Uzbekistan. While it is specific to Uzbekistan, there are very similar variations available in neighbouring countries.
Try it for yourself: Undoubtedly the best place to experience plov is at the Plov Centre in Tashkent. The entrance to this large dining hall is flanked by huge pans. The quantity of plov is so vast, hundreds of people turn up every day to sit down for a meal or simply fill a pot to take home.
By Rohan & Max, Travels Of A Bookpacker
Oshi Palav, Tajikistan
Tajikistan’s oshi palav is closely related to Uzbekistan’s plov—in fact, both rice-based dishes were inscribed by UNESCO in the same year. In Tajikistan, oshi palav is known as a ‘dish of peace’ for the role it plays in bringing people from different backgrounds together.
Up to 200 varieties of oshi palav are thought to exist. The most basic rendition is made with lamb, rice, onions and carrots simmered in a broth. Prepared in vast quantities ahead of social gatherings, oshi palav is traditionally eaten at events that mark significant life milestones, such as weddings and funerals. Whether it’s prepared in private homes or teahouses, cooking is usually accompanied by socialising and singing, which adds to the dish’s food culture. Eating oshi palav with one’s hands from a communal pot is similarly symbolic of kinship and community.
The techniques involved in making oshi palav are passed down through the generations. According to UNESCO, once an apprentice masters the art, he or she is given a special skimmer utensil, while the master who trained them is invited to don a ceremonial skullcap. Tajik oshi palav and Uzbek plov share common attributes with Indian pilau, Persian polow, and even Spanish paella.
Try it for yourself: Home-style oshi palav is available in restaurants in Danshube. If you want a large serving for a group, you might have to order in advance. For a traditional version, try Restaurant Sim-Sim or Toqi Restaurant, where oshi palav is served alongside other Tajik specialities including mantu (dumplings) and qurutob (bread and onions served in a yogurt sauce).
Have you experienced any of the food culture rituals on this list? What are your favourite culinary traditions around the world?