UNESCO Culinary Traditions
Think of the most incredible place you have ever visited in your travels, maybe the ruins of an ancient city or a gorgeous national park. Odds are, this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
UNESCO — aka the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Culture Organization — safeguards over 1,000 outstanding locations, and the list grows every year. But while the program is widely known for its tangible travel elements like landmarks, monuments and historic neighborhoods, it is less celebrated for the intangible members of its esteemed order.
We all know about Venice and the Vatican, but what about traditional Egyptian hand puppetry? Or the tamboradas, Spain’s drum-playing rituals?
Did you know even food can be enshrined by UNESCO?
The Culinary Intangible Heritage list honors the flavors of cultures near and far, annually inscribing food and drink customs that span countless generations. Here are our favorite UNESCO-protected culinary traditions, ranging from Italy’s famous Neapolitan pizza to the Mediterranean diet and Belgian beer.
Traditional Mexican Cuisine
Added to the list in: 2010
Why UNESCO added it: “Their knowledge and techniques express community identity, reinforce social bonds, and build stronger local, regional and national identities.”
What makes the cuisine special: Mexican cuisine is deceptively simple, hinging on three main staples: beans, corn and chili. But these ingredients are used in ingenious ways to create fresh, flavorful dishes — if you don’t love tamales, chiles rellenos, empanadas and the like, we’re not sure what to tell you.
Mexican food is also about so much more than its ingredients. Cultivation processes and cooking rituals are rooted in Mexoamerican practices, adding historical significance to the culinary tradition.
Then there’s the inherent symbolism of the cuisine, especially on display during Día de Los Muertos festivities. This holiday is a blend of Catholic and Mesoamerican beliefs — a bedrock combination of Mexican culture — and sees everyday tamales and tortillas exalted as ofrendas (offerings) to the spirits during the traditional ceremonies.
Best Spot to Enjoy Traditional Mexican Cuisine
Looking to visit places where traditional techniques are utilized? Try the Yucatán Peninsula. Although places like Cancun and Playa del Carmen are overrun with tourists, you can opt for a quieter stay in bohemian Tulum, where authentic Mexican cuisine abounds. From here you are also within a few hours drive to various inland towns and Mayan ruins.
The Mediterranean Diet
Added to the list in: 2013
Why UNESCO added it: “The Mediterranean diet emphasizes values of hospitality, neighbourliness, intercultural dialogue and creativity, and a way of life guided by respect for diversity. It plays a vital role in cultural spaces, festivals and celebrations, bringing together people of all ages, conditions and social classes.”
What makes the Mediterranean diet special: The Mediterranean diet is less a diet than a full-fledged lifestyle. It involves eating lots of vegetables, fruit, fish, legumes, whole grains and oils, while avoiding added sugar and red meat. Oh, and one glass of red wine a day is encouraged. (Sign us up!)
Though relatively simple, the benefits of the Mediterranean diet are impressive: It has been linked to longer life spans around the world. According to U.S. News & World Report, this is the tried-and-true healthiest meal plan to follow.
UNESCO also celebrates the breaking of bread in Mediterranean communities — it is the moment when the cultural identity of the region is transmitted and experienced with all five senses.
Best Spot to Enjoy the Meditteranean Diet
UNESCO recognizes the Mediterranean diet as spanning from Portugal in the west to Cyprus in the east, off the coast of Turkey.
To enjoy this tradition from crop to table, head to Hvar, a pristine island off the coast of Split, Croatia. Travelers will enjoy the full experience of the diet by exploring the island’s UNESCO Heritage site Stari Grad Plain, a precisely organized area of farmlands and olive groves that has been cultivated for 2,400 years.
Hvar’s harbor also boasts dreamy restaurants that dish out freshly-caught fish and local lavender-infused fare.
Beer Culture of Belgium
Added to the list in: 2016
Why UNESCO added it: “Making and appreciating beer is part of the living heritage of a range of communities throughout Belgium. It plays a role in daily life, as well as festive occasions.”
What makes Belgian beer special: Beer is as synonymous to Belgium as tea is to England, and just as culturally significant.
The small nation produces almost 1,500 types of beer. The majority of these beers are craft, made in small batches. Not only do these brews vary by region, but they often vary by individual household — a common pastime among Belgians is to homebrew their own ales.
Belgians are also the only people on earth to use four distinct fermentation processes to produce their popular export.
Best Spot to Enjoy Belgian Beer
A first-time visit to Belgium is not complete without a pub crawl — in the name of cultural immersion, of course!
Bruges — a picturesque village with medieval architecture and charming canals only an hour away from Brussels — is the best place to stay on a brew-focused Belgian vacation. The city houses two major breweries, De Halve Maan and Bourgogne des Flandres. Bars in town serve draughts from all around the country, but a visit to these two local houses guarantees a sip of West Flanders flavor.
Gingerbread Craft from Northern Croatia
Added to the list in: 2010
Why UNESCO added it: “The craft has been passed on from one generation to another for centuries, initially to men, but now to both men and women. Gingerbread has become one of the most recognizable symbols of Croatian identity.”
What makes Northern Croatian gingerbread special: In Northern Croatia, gingerbread is not simply a seasonal treat; it is celebrated year-round as a skilled pursuit and true artform.
The art of gingerbread-making dates back to the Middle Ages and is famously uncomplicated, requiring flour, baking soda, water, sugar and the necessary spices (like ginger and cinnamon).
The hard part comes in decorating and designing each gingerbread, done in painstaking detail. Craftspeople add everything from pictures and small mirrors to verses and messages.
Licitars — red gingerbread hearts — are a common Croatian motif, often decorated with intricate frosting facades. These hearts are served at local festivities and gatherings across the country as tokens of love, and are often used as gifts for weddings (embellished accordingly).
Best Spot to Enjoy Northern Croatian Gingerbread
Travel to the heart of Northern Croatia to the village of Marija Bistrica. A haven of craftspeople, this tiny town is an artisanal mecca — other town exports include honey cakes, mead, hand-crafted pottery and wooden children’s toys.
Art of Neapolitan Pizzaiuoli
Added to the list in: 2017
Why UNESCO added it: “Pizzaiuoli are a living link for the communities concerned.“
What makes Neapolitan pizza special: The preparation of Neapolitan pizza (pizzaiulo) is a sacred practice and a spectacle for others, often involving an entertaining performance of tossing dough.
The process begins with staglio, shaping the dough balls, then proceeds to stesura, spreading the dough after rising; schiatto, topping it with tomato, mozzarella, basil leaves and a thin round of oil; and giro, rotating the pizza for two minutes in the stove while it bakes.
Often overlooked is the sacrifice and hard work that goes into each pie — bakers will spend long hours at the wood-fired oven, rhythmically shoveling pizza.
Like the best traditions, this is also one known for being handed down through the generations, with young apprentices learning the craft from seasoned masters.
Best Spot to Enjoy Neapolitan Pizza
For a true taste of pizzaiuolo in Naples, follow the Associazione Verace Pizza guide; this organization was established by prominent Neapolitan families to certify pizzerias that respect and stringently follow their custom, in both Naples and around the world.
Naples is the perfect place to start a southern Italy odyssey, only a quick jaunt from the archaeologically-enthralling ruins of Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. Enjoy a scenic ride down the shoreline to the craggy Amalfi Coast, home to saturated sunsets, colorful mountainside towns and to-die-for seafood, pasta and, of course, pizza.
Turkish Coffee Culture and Tradition
Added to the list in: 2013
Why UNESCO added it: “Turkish coffee combines special preparation and brewing techniques with a rich communal traditional culture.”
What makes Turkish coffee special: To describe the cultural importance of coffee to the Turkish people, we look to an old Ottoman aphorism: “A cup of coffee has a 40-year memory.”
Consuming the drink is a borderline religious rite imbued with intricacies, from the ornate coffee cups to the centuries-old brewing process. It is a communal experience, an intimate invitation to converse, share life events and enjoy the company of friends.
The process of making Turkish coffee begins with roasting beans over a fire and grinding them into a fine powder. This is then added to a pot with water and sugar, and brewed slowly on a stove to produce the impressively thick drink. The coffee is traditionally served in small cups on a special silver tray.
A glass of water always accompanies Turkish coffee, in order to cleanse the mouth in preparation for the beverage. After a cup of coffee is finished, friends will use the remaining grounds for fortune telling and divination.
Best Spot to Enjoy Turkish Coffee
Istanbul is the cultural focal point of Turkey and a living display of Turkish coffee culture, with hundreds of coffeehouses coloring the city. The Grand Bazaar, a bustling covered marketplace, is home to historic cafes like Ethem Tezçakar Kahveci, along with another 4,000 shops that draw in more than 250,000 daily visitors.
Kimjang, Making and Sharing Kimchi in the Republic of Korea
Added to the list in: 2015
Why UNESCO added it: “Kimchi-making brings to the bearers a sense of joy and pride, as well as respect for the natural environment, encouraging them to lead their lives in harmony with nature.”
What makes kimchi and kimjang special: Kimchi is a Korean dish of vegetables seasoned with spices and fermented seafood, integral to the country’s culinary culture — UNESCO claims 94% of Koreans consume kimchi at least once a day!
Kimjang is the process of preparing and sharing large amounts of kimchi, traditionally before the onset of winter. The process stems from a time when fresh vegetables were scarce in cold season, and although today’s South Koreans can easily access produce all year, it remains an important ritual among families to bond and stay connected to their culture.
The practice of kimjang is traditionally passed down from mother to daughter, or mother-in-law to daughter-in-law, as a way for new brides to adapt to the ways of her husband’s family. Learning her new family’s methods is a customary gesture of respect and love.
Best Spot to Enjoy Kimchi and Kimjang
To experience kimjang firsthand, visit South Korea in November, right before the country plunges into winter. Seoul hosts kimjang festivals at the beginning of the month, drawing over 5,000 locals and visitors alike to come experience this collective piece of Cultural Heritage.
The outside temperature is pivotal to the fermentation process — the ideal weather for kimjang is a high of 40 degrees and a low slightly under freezing.
Arabic Coffee, a Symbol of Generosity
Added to the list in: 2015
Why UNESCO added it: “Serving Arabic coffee is an important aspect of hospitality in Arab societies and considered a ceremonial act of generosity.”
What makes Arabic coffee special: The act of serving Arabic coffee is a ceremonial display of generosity and a pillar of hospitality in this region, primarily in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar.
Coffee in the Arabian Peninsula has been culturally significant for hundreds of years, and very much remains so today. The beverage is traditionally made in front of guests and follows a rigorous brewing process, usually accompanied by the singing of Arabic folk music. The coffee is.
Often mixed with cardamom and other spices, the aromatic concoction is then served piping hot, doled out in a serving pot known as a dallah. A dish of dates is its usual companion.
It is common to only consume one cup of coffee, a symbolic gesture of accepting the host’s hospitality.
Best Spot to Enjoy Arabic Coffee
To fully experience this custom, travel to Sharjah, the UAE’s third largest city and an up-and-coming tourist destination. Arabian Adventures offers desert safaris and overnight stays among the dunes, where your guides will serve traditional Arabic coffee over a campfire.
Fair warning, the air isn’t the only dry element here — alcohol is forbidden in Sharjah. Fret not, though, as the other, non-dry emirates are only a quick ride away.
Flatbread Making and Sharing Culture
Added to the list in: 2016
Why UNESCO added it: “The practice, transmitted by participation within families and from master to apprentice, expresses hospitality, solidarity and certain beliefs that symbolize common cultural roots reinforcing community belonging.”
What makes flatbread making special: UNESCO’s designation honors the communities of Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey.
In these countries, the baking of flatbread is a group effort, involving at least three family members who have a designated role in the rite. Each region has a different name for their flatbread — lavash, katyrma, jupka, yufka — but the process remains consistent across countries as a symbol of family and friendship.
The customary flatbreads are both eaten as part of ordinary meals and elevated for important celebrations such as weddings, births, holidays and prayer. Religion plays an important role in the custom — in Kazakhstan, the katyrma are made only on the holy days of Thursday and Friday. This variety of bread is especially thin and can be made quickly; when the nomadic peoples of the region were often relocated due to the hardships of war, it was developed as a means of sustenance.
There is a Kazakh legend that claims as a man is passing away, he will use these flatbreads as a hat to shield himself from the scorching heat of the sun on the journey into the afterlife.
Best Spot to Enjoy Flatbread
To feast on this intangible heritage, journey to Central Asia’s largest country, Kazakhstan. The Kazakh capital city of Nur-Sultan — renamed from Astana in March — juxtaposes ultramodernist architecture against sprawling steppes.
Underneath the progressive and fantastical facades are many authentic eateries that bake this traditional flatbread, upholding rituals passed down through the generations. In Nur-Sultan, you will taste Kazakh history while marveling at its future.
Nsima, Culinary Tradition of Malawi
Added to the list in: 2017
Why UNESCO added it: “The process of growing, storing, processing and preparing the maize from which Nsima is made is bound up with Malawians’ way of life, and eating Nsima is a communal tradition in families and an opportunity to strengthen bonds.”
What makes Nsima special: The Republic of Malawi is a landlocked country south of Tanzania, lauded as the “warm heart of Africa” for its temperate weather and welcoming people.
Nsima refers to a thick porridge made with ground maize powder. The harvesting, growing and storing of the maize for this dish is integral to the fabric of Malawian daily life. Communities ensure this tradition is safeguarded across generations, traditionally teaching girls at a young age how to prepare Nsima and the boys how to hunt. Nsima is often observed in the late afternoon or evening, at a gathering where each village household brings a dish.
Interestingly, Nsima is also the name used to encompass the entire Malawian culinary tradition.
Best Spot to Enjoy Nsima
Nsima is integral to most daily meals, and is regularly served at restaurants, hotels and in the home. It is best tasted in Malawi’s many lakeside villages, where local meals will pair the Nsima porridge with chambo, a tilapia-like fish prevalent to Lake Malawi.
One of these towns, Mangochi on the southern tip of the lake, features serene beaches, exciting diving and the country’s highest concentration of hotels, so lodging options are varied. Away from the lake, travelers can spot big game at Majete Wildlife Reserve and safari through the steppe.
Malawi sees relatively low levels of tourism, so travelers to this African nation can enjoy a secluded experience.