One of the best parts about traveling is sampling the unique flavors and ingredients of traditional cuisine in the place you’re visiting. But just as important as the ingredients are the unique methods that different cultures have developed to cook their signature dishes.
Rice-stuffed bamboo stalks and a whole pig roasted underground are only some of the unique ways people cook food around the world. Here are six unique culinary techniques used across the globe; let your taste buds decide which country to discover next!
Māori Hāngī, New Zealand
The Māori hāngī, or “earth oven,” was invented centuries ago and is still used in Māori communities in New Zealand today. Fish and sweet potatoes were traditionally cooked in the hāngī, but today a full feast includes pork, lamb, potatoes, pumpkin, and cabbage. Cooking in a Māori hāngī makes it easy to serve a large crowd and turns an ordinary meal into a community event.
First, a pit is dug in the ground and lined with hot stones. The food is packed into wire baskets, cloth bags, or tin foil and put on top of the hot stones. A damp cloth covers the food and then dirt is packed on top to trap the heat. The entire cooking process can take hours, but baking the food in the underground oven results in tender meat and vegetables. The best place to experience this traditional style of cooking is in Rotorua, a city on the North Island renowned for its Māori culture and heritage.
Bamboo Baking, Thailand
Cooking in bamboo shoots is an ancient Thai custom that is still prominent today — turning out feasts by Indigenous tribes in the hills of northern Thailand and sold in the busy markets of Bangkok. A hollowed-out bamboo shoot is the perfect vessel to bake anything from savory fish to a delectable dessert. One of the most famous bamboo-baked foods is khao lam, a glutinous mixture made of rice and coconut cream stuffed into a bamboo tube, sealed with a banana leaf, and roasted over an open flame. The sticky-sweet treat is a hit across Thailand with locals and tourists. Look for khao nam at night markets and street stalls.
Salt Crusting, Europe and Asia
Salt has long been used as a preservative, but salt crusting (or salt baking) is also a method used to cook chicken and fish in different parts of the world. The first mention of salt crusting traces back to a recipe written by Archestratus, a Greek poet living in Sicily in the 4th century BCE. Salt baking is mentioned again in China during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and is popular within the Hakka culture, an ethnic group settled in present-day Guangdong Province.
Regardless of its origins, salt crusting or salt baking is used to ensure that meat is evenly cooked, tender, and flavorful. Methods vary from entirely covering the fish or chicken in salt and baking it, to combining the salt with egg-whites to make a grainy paste before packing the mixture around the meat prior to baking. The salt’s purpose is to insulate the chicken or fish and allow it to steam in its own juices. To eat the meat, the salt crust is cracked away, revealing a tasty, perfectly cooked meal.
Kalua, Hawaii, U.S.
The star of a traditional Hawaiian lū’au is the kalua pork, a pig that’s been cooked in an underground oven called an imu. The word kalua literally means “cooked underground” and it requires a lot of preparation. Polynesians have cooked with an imu for centuries, but women were forbidden to enjoy kalua pork until King Kamehameha II lifted the restriction in 1819, making the modern-day lū’au possible for everyone.
Prepping the kalua pork starts roughly 11 hours before the actual feast is scheduled. First, a pit up to five feet deep is dug into the earth. A strong fire is lit in the bottom of the pit and covered with stones. When the rocks turn white-hot, a few are taken out of the pit and stuffed into the pig. A bed of damp banana leaves are then laid on top of the rocks. The pig is wrapped in chicken wire and lowered into the imu for cooking (approximately one hour for every eight pounds), covered with another layer of damp banana leaves, then a damp tarp, and finally sealed with a layer of dirt.
Then, the long wait begins — cooking can last up to nine hours! The result is a perfectly roasted pig with succulent meat that falls off the bone. Find an authentic lū’au and feast on traditional kalua pork at the Polynesian Cultural Center in the town of Laie on the island of Oahu or at a number of hotels and resorts across the state.
This rotisserie-style method of cooking beef, lamb, and chicken is famous throughout Turkey. The word döner, which literally means “turn” or “rotate” in Turkish, refers to the metal skewer that rotates past the red-hot spit that cooks the giant, cone-shaped slab of meat. Döner kebab shops are commonly found along city streets and are easily recognized by the massive chunk of meat (traditionally a combination of beef and lamb) slowly spinning behind a glass window. Thin pieces are shaved off and served in a wrap or over pita bread and ladled with melted butter.
Banana Leaves, Mexico and Guatemala
Many countries around the world use banana leaves to steam food (fish amok in Cambodia and abará in Brazil). The best-known street food in Mexico and Guatemala also owes its scrumptious flavor and convenient to-go packaging to the tropical leaves. Tamales start as a corn paste mixed with meat or vegetables and are then wrapped in banana leaves before being steamed to perfection.
The banana leaf not only lends a rich flavor to the dish, it doubles as a portable and eco-friendly container so you can take your tamales on the go. Tamales date back to Aztec and Mayan civilizations when hunters, travelers, and warriors often carried the banana-wrapped meal with them on long journeys. Today, tamales are a staple food found at street stalls, bakeries, and cafés throughout Mexico and Guatemala.