Paris, Tokyo and Rome — the same places have long dominated lists of culinary powerhouse destinations.
But what about other cities and countries that deserve a share of the spotlight? These are the places that hover under the radar because of misconceptions, a small diaspora or a global lack of familiarity with a particular cuisine.
Cooking website Chef’s Pencil sought to highlight these locations when it asked 250 chefs and food enthusiasts to name the most underrated food destinations in the world.
The world’s most underrated food cities
The results from the Chef’s Pencil survey were released in November. It named these locations as the 10 most underappreciated food cities in the world:
1. Cape Town
5. Mexico City
6. San Sebastian
7. Bergen (Norway)
8. Hong Kong
Several cities on the list — most notably San Sebastian — are well-known gastronomic destinations, which signified voters “felt they … lack the international recognition they truly deserve,” according to Chef Pencil’s website.
The Australian food mecca of Melbourne is another. The city has developed a reputation in recent years for its robust culinary scene, with exports such as “flat white” coffee and “avocado toast” taking off around the world. Neither has roots that trace back to Melbourne, but the city’s thriving café scene is credited with popularizing both outside of the continent.
Both are part of Melbourne’s “third wave” coffee scene, which elevated the morning drink from afterthought to an artisanal beverage to be studied, scrutinized and sipped throughout the day. From food menus to interior aesthetics, Melbourne-style cafes are now popping up around the world and are common in places such as Singapore and Hong Kong.
A quick guide to the three “waves” of coffee
First wave – what your grandfather drank; think Folgers.
Second wave – the rise of specialty drinks; think Starbucks.
Third wave – coffee morphs into a study of beans, blends and roasting techniques with independent cafes leading the way.
The city’s culinary scene is more than its coffee, said Mark Dundon, who has been called “the godfather of Melbourne coffee.” He said the people of Melbourne are what’s behind its rise in international gastronomic prominence.
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“The city has … strong European and diverse international heritages,” he said. “We are well versed in what’s happening around the world, and we are more than happy to let those experiences influence our own take on what we want in hospitality,” he told CNBC.
Melbourne’s food scene, which emerged from the city’s “beautiful multicultural background,” said Dundon, is evident in lists of its top places to eat, from buttery pastries at Lune Croissanterie and New England lobster rolls at Supernormal, to Xiao Long Bao (dumplings) at Hutong and upscale “bush food” at Attica, one of Australia’s most celebrated fine dining restaurants.
“Australia is really becoming more and more confident of its individuality,” said Dundon. “I think recognition takes time, and it’s happening.”
The most underrated food countries
Chef’s Pencil also released the countries most cited as having underappreciated food scenes. The list included:
Asian food can, of course, be found throughout the world, with Thai, Chinese, Japanese and Indian cuisine leading the way. The foods of the Philippines and Vietnam, however, have failed to make as big of a global splash.
A 2019 YouGov survey of more than 25,000 people ranked Filipino food near the bottom of a list of 34 cuisines, tied with Saudi Arabian food and beating only Finnish and Peruvian cuisine in terms of popularity. Though Filipino food has long been dogged as being oily and bland, its top-ranking score on the Chef’s Pencil survey implies food specialists may know something about the cuisine that regular travelers do not.
Anais Martinez, a culinary tour guide and founder of The Curious Mexican food website, believes negative connotations have damaged Mexico City’s food standing as well.
“I think that people only thought of Mexico City as a place full of crime, kidnapping and pollution,” she told CNBC. “It only became famous a few years ago when they realized we are an amazing food hub with some of the best food in the country.”
A common misperception that there is only one kind of Mexican food hasn’t helped, she said.
“Mexico is such a huge country — the food, ingredients, techniques and traditions vary immensely from one place to another, which makes regional food incredibly different and interesting to discover,” said Martinez.
Though Mexico is now famous for high-end restaurants as well as its street food, people still confuse the cuisine with adulterated versions.
Anyone eating a “hard shell taco with shredded cheese, iceberg lettuce and taco seasoning” isn’t eating real Mexican food, said Martinez. Tacos al pastor is however; nearly 42% of polled residents named it as Mexico City’s most iconic dish in a Time Out survey released this week.
She advises travelers in Mexico City go to a mercado, or market, for “a fresh juice and a tlacoyo,” a popular street food of corn masa topped with cactus, cheese and salsa.
“If … a restaurant, I’d go to Fonda Margarita, where you can find the best stews and scrambled eggs with refried beans cooked over [a] wood fire in the most traditional atmosphere,” said Martinez.
For fine dining Mexican food, two of the world’s 50 best restaurants are in Mexico City: No. 12 Pujol, named the best restaurant in North America in 2019, and No. 24 Quintonil, opened by chef Jorge Vallejo who previously worked at Pujol and Copenhagen’s Noma (No. 2 on the list).
After living in the U.K. and Italy, Martinez started conducting food tours in 2012. She introduces travelers to traditional foods they may not associate with Mexico, such as coffee and chocolate, as well as the baristas, mezcal connoisseurs and other experts behind the items.
“[People] leave wanting to know more about [Mexico City’s] amazing food scene,” she said.