After the nineties fusion obsession and Americans' recent dalliance with comfort food, the latest culinary trend is a search for authenticity. From Peruvian to Tunisian, "melting-pot cuisines" are our new fixation: exotic yet homey food that brings together varied ethnic influences. Here, a primer on the five to try—plus great places to sample them at home and abroad. Nothing like an Uzbek shurpa or Korean soondubu to wake up those jaded taste buds.
Standing in the middle of Registan, Samarkand's monumental main square, it's easy to imagine yourself back at the center of the Silk Road, the ancient route from the Far East to Central Asia. Had this once-obscure former Soviet republic not been forced onto the world political stage by recent events (Afghanistan is its neighbor to the south), Uzbekistan's compelling cuisine—blending Persian, Russian, and Chinese influences—might have remained a secret.
Now the adventurous can discover a smoky world of kebabs perfumed with wild cumin and moistened with the fat of the Kurdiuk sheep (it tastes better than butter). Or the joy of manti, enormous steamed dumplings with a minced lamb and sweet-onion filling. At restaurants and bazaars you'll taste chile-laced shredded vegetable salads inherited from the Korean diaspora, round loaves of tandoori-baked breads speckled with black sesame seeds, and hand-pulled Uighur noodles crowded into big bowls of rich meat soup. But the dish not to miss is palov, the pièce de résistance at wedding feasts—a vast mound of spiced lamb and rice steamed together until every grain is infused with flavor. As worshiped here as paella is in Valencia, palov is ideally savored at a choyhona (teahouse) while sitting in the shade of a mulberry tree.
WHERE TO EAT IT
AT HOME Uzbekistan 7077 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles; 323/464-3663; dinner for two $50. An Uzbek émigré version of Arabian Nights, with a Russian clientele hungry for such favorites as palov and shurpa (roasted lamb and noodle soup) as well as such Uzbek delicacies as liver sausage.
ABROAD Beloye Solntse Pustyni 29/14 Neglinnaya St., Moscow; 7-095/209-7525; dinner for two $50. Before you get to Tashkent, try this wildly entertaining Uzbek restaurant in Moscow, named after a popular Russian film (White Sun of the Desert). The grand buffet is a Technicolor vision of Central Asian cuisine.
A chimichurri-spiked Argentinean mixed grill is great—once a year. And as much as you love Salvadoran pupusas (cheese-oozing corn tortillas) and feijoada, that Brazilian bean-and-pork-fest, the prize for South America's most up-and-coming food belongs to Peru. How often do you get to taste a dish that was eaten by the Incas more than 500 years ago?
Rivaling Mexican in its fusion of Indian roots and Iberian inspirations, the Peruvian kitchen is rich in corn and ancient staples like quinoa. Chiles are pounded into creamy sauces called ajies, then added to chowders and stews passed down from the pre-Columbian world. The seafood fostered by the cold Humboldt Current in the Pacific shows up as amazing ceviches at beachside cebicherias. In the highlands, chicha (Andean corn beer) flows freely at indigenous markets where Aymara Indians from Lake Titicaca barter essentials like corn for dehydrated potatoes with vendors from the Central Highlands.
To Lima's cosmopolitan larder, Africans contributed peanut sauces; Italians, pasta. The Chinese created the Sino-Latino urban hybrid called chifa, while Japanese migrant chefs have been responsible for modern-Peruvian raw seafood preparations so pristine, they're practically sashimi. (Lima, after all, is where Nobu Matsuhisa spent his formative years.) And how about a fusion cooking style—blending Andean ingredients with contemporary techniques—called nuevoandino?Or, if you're in the mood for something practically prehistoric, try guinea pig grilled on hot stones.
WHERE TO EAT IT
AT HOME El Perol Mission Market Mall, 2590 Mission St., San Francisco; 415/550-8582; dinner for two $36. Folded into the Mission's Latin market, this simple lunch counter's papas rellenas (stuffed potatoes), daily stews made with beef or chicken, and purple-corn punch will transport you straight to Lima.
ABROAD José Antonio 200 Jirón Bernardo Monteagudo, San Isidro, Lima; 51-1/264-0188; dinner for two $44. A comprehensive introduction to Creole-Peruvian food in a burnished colonial setting. Try the piqueo (a selection of small plates) and Lima's meanest, frothiest pisco sours.
Think of Korean cuisine as a great thrill ride for the palate, the culinary equivalent of extreme sports: the blasts of chiles, the improbable juxtapositions of pungent and sweet, the fermented intensity of it all. In Korea, the food culture is so complex and so specialized that whole streets—even neighborhoods—are devoted to one particular item, such as octopus sashimi, soondubu (fresh, unpressed tofu), or goat hot pot with shiso leaves. Here multi-story grill houses rise like barbecue theme parks. Order a dish—any dish—and your table overflows with tiny plates of panchan, Korea's no-charge answer to tapas: kimchi by the dozen, marinated raw crab, mountain roots in sweet, gingery soy sauce, fish roe glistening with sesame oil.
In the U.S., scores of nouvelle-Korean boîtes are popping up, and familiar favorites as bulgogi (grilled beef) and bibimbop (rice with marinated vegetables) are just the beginning. Sit at a smoky tabletop grill and sizzle a sugary ribbon of butterflied short rib. Wrap it in a crisp, cooling lettuce leaf, dab on some chile paste, and pop the whole thing in your mouth. Pair it with a shot of soju, a mellow vodka-like spirit made from rice, barley, wheat, millet, and sweet potatoes, and a bite of sinus-clearing kimchi—nirvana for your palate.
WHERE TO EAT IT
AT HOME Soju 1745 W. North Ave., Chicago; 773/782-9000; dinner for two $48. Authentic kimchi pancakes, tofu-filled mandu (dumplings), and mixed vegetable chap chai (sautéed vermicelli) at a hip Wicker Park restaurant.
ABROAD Hanilkwan 119-1 Cheong Jin-dong, Seoul; 82-2/732-3735; dinner for two $70. On the edge of the artsy neighborhood of Insadong, you'll find delicious grilled meats, pine nut—stuffed cabbage kimchi, and ginseng salad—all with cold plum tea.
The rose-scented, spice-tinged cuisine of Tunisia is a tapestry woven of Berber, French, Andalusian, and Ottoman flavors. It's the next Moroccan (but with a kick).
At coastal restaurants around Tunis, sparkling Mediterranean sea bass costs a fraction of the price it fetches on the French or Italian Riviera. In the Casbah, you dine at old palaces, surrounded by marble and mosaic tiles. You'll be served mechoui, grilled vegetables blended into a savory jam; shorba frik, a soup thick with meat, green wheat, and pasta; and clay-baked lamb with rosemary and cumin. Dipping bread into just-pressed green oil, you might think of the Phoenicians, who planted olive trees here in the ninth century b.c.
If the Moroccan tagine is a hearty-sweet casserole, here it appears as a quiche-like concoction of vegetables and morsels of meat bound with eggs. Your couscous will be spicier and more moist than it is in Morocco, likely to include fish, chiles, and delicate fennel fronds. Eat it with a glass of tart buttermilk and a dab of harissa, the fiery epitome of local gastronomy. Then try the ubiquitous brik à l'oeuf, a deep-fried triangle of pastry around a (still runny) egg. Nibbling on makhroud, semolina and date confections, between sips of mint tea, you're thrilled to have arrived at the final frontier of Mediterranean cooking.
WHERE TO EAT IT
AT HOME Jamila's Café 7808 Maple St., New Orleans; 504/866-4366; dinner for two $60. Cosmopolitan and warm, with authentic renditions of brik (deep-fried pastry) with shrimp, lamb on saffron rice, stuffed calamari with rose tomato sauce and house-made merguez sausage.
ABROAD Dar El Jeld 5 Rue Dar El Jeld, The Casbah, Tunis; 216-1/560-916; dinner for two $60. A kitchenful of female chefs prepare exalted fish couscous, stuffed lamb shoulder, fragrant tagines, and briks in a grand medina house in the center of town.
Food is to the Basques what soccer is to the Brazilians or shopping to the Japanese—an obsession that borders on mania. Their rabid enthusiasm has carried over to French chefs, who are flocking to northern Spain's avant-garde kitchens to learn their secrets. American restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow (China Grill, Asia de Cuba) is also contemplating a designer Basque showpiece in New York. "We Basques have an almost mystical devotion to our land and our culinary culture," says Martin Berasategui, one of San Sebastián's preeminent chefs.
While husbands indulge at txocos, those uniquely Basque gastronomic societies where men gather to cook for one another, wives spend every penny at food markets on kokotxas (hake cheeks) and baby eels. If families aren't eating at home, they make pilgrimages to cordero (roast lamb) houses by old mill streams, to rambling grilled-pollo shacks on vine-covered hillsides, and to village seafood hideaways with Europe's best grilled turbot and rock lobster, and baby squid gently stewed in its own ink. Then away to cider houses for fizzy apple brew and thick, charred chuletas (steaks).
Between meals, everyone packs into pintxos (tapas) bars, comparing the merits of roasted piquillo peppers and gleaming anchovies from one place to the next. And while Basques do admire their Michelin redoubts—and there are a lot of them—their hearts really belong to countryside citadels of solid bourgeois cuisine. If you love haute home-cooking, Basque standbys may become your new steak frites.
WHERE TO EAT IT
AT HOME Marichu 342 E. 46th St., New York; 212/370-1866; dinner for two $76. The most authentic Basque restaurant in America, with lovingly prepared squid in its ink and red piquillo peppers stuffed with codfish in vizcaina sauce from Teresa Barrenechea, author of The Basque Table.
ABROAD Alberdi 5 Euskalduna, Bilbao; 34-94/443-6939; dinner for two $72. Bilbao's newest temple of traditional cooking, with delicious house-cured foie gras and salt cod done six ways. One of the classic preparations is with pil-pil, an emulsion of fruity olive oil and garlic.