If you thought UNESCO was limited to only man-made and natural structures, think again.
For many travelers, the ultimate travel bucket list would involve more than a handful of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. As of 2021, more than 1,121 monuments are listed as UNESCO sites and scattered over 167 countries, with Italy and China having the most sites at 55. But if you thought UNESCO sites were only limited to physical structures (both man-made and natural), you will be surprised to find out that UNESCO also has a list that celebrates worldly cultures. Known as the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List, the catalog celebrates traditions and “living expressions” passed down from ancestors, including everything from performing arts like tango in Argentina to rituals like the midsummer celebrations in Finland.
These acts or customs are considered fragile heritage practices that should be safeguarded. Cultural identities are heavily rooted in all the UNESCO Intangible Heritage List awardees, and often include experiences or cuisine many travelers seek out when traveling abroad. Earlier this year, the Italian Agriculture Minister confirmed a request for their Italian espresso to be added to the list. Bellissimo! As a self-professed foodie, I hold both my Asian and Western culinary roots close to my heart and celebrate them daily with friends and family— whether it is eating a Spring Festival dinner to celebrate the Lunar New Year or lazing down on a beach and having a traditional Aussie BBQ, which has yet to be added to the list.
With 25 food-focused UNESCO-approved food cultures already on the list, here are my favorites. With COVID-19 putting a slight halt on many travel plans for the last couple of years, what better way to move through a new travel bucket list that breaks away from visiting overtouristed sites. Here are just 11 of our favorite UNESCO Intangible Cultural inductees that allow armchair travelers to indulge. Where would you start?
Top Picks for You
Last year, Haiti’s joumou soup was added to the list alongside the country’s National History Park, which includes the 19th-century complex of the Palace of Sans Souci and Citadel. Joumou soup is also known as giraumon soup and loosely translates to “the land of the mountains.” Haitians eat the soup on January 1st, the anniversary of Haiti’s Liberation Day from France (1804), with the soup symbolizing freedom, resilience, and dignity. The soup is made with the giraumon pumpkin, as well as plantains, meat, and fiery spices making it a hot and spicy dish that friends and family enjoy for unity, peace, and solidarity around a table.
WHERE: Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, and Tunisia
Couscous is heavily rooted in the culture of the people of Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia. Inscribed in 2020, UNESCO believes that couscous is important because of its specialized production and consumption, which feed millions daily in the four countries that eat it most. The traditional way to prepare couscous is ceremonial, from the moment it is planted and grown, to rolling and steaming the tiny pasta by hand with special utensils unique to these African countries. The final preparation is in the cooking with couscous always accompanied by the region’s meat and vegetables. According to Tunisians, couscous is about solidarity, conviviality, and togetherness, but above all—delicious family eats that feed all.
Italy may not have espresso on the list just yet, but the Neapolitan pizza has been a proud inductee since 2017. If you ever bit into an NYC pizza and thought, “this is an art,” you are quite right. Officially, the art of Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo is highly regarded as unique to the Campania region of Italy. There are 3,000 pizzaiuoli in Naples which you can feast on, but many say Starita is one of the best and worth seeking out. There is also an official Association of the Pizzaiuolo in Italy, proving that Italians really are serious about their food.
In 2014, bakers in Germany had a small victory when German bread was added to the UNESCO Intangible Culture List. With more than 3,000 types of bread, bakeries in Germany are hoping this recognition will encourage future generations to carry on the tradition of producing and eating bread beyond just supermarket-bought loaves. Bread is indeed heavily ingrained in Germany’s culture and is more than just an item to feed a growing stomach with bread given as a housewarming gift and eaten on special festivals like Osterbrot for Easter. In the Black Forest, there is a special rye bread called Schwarzwald Brot to rival the world-renown Black Forest cake.
Since 2013, Turkey has proudly had a UNESCO listing celebrating its rich coffee culture. More than just brewing a quick pick-me-up in the morning, Turkish families consider their coffee a communal and traditional treasure that must be safeguarded. All the elements of making a fresh batch of Turkish coffee make it worthy of a UNESCO listing: freshly roasted beans, brewing the coffee in a traditional cezve (pot), and the final serving and sharing of coffee is all seen as a culture worth protecting. The Turkish coffee tradition symbolizes hospitality and friendship and puts our love of instant coffee to shame.
The Gastronomic Meal
Perhaps revered as one of the world’s leaders in fine dining, the French gastronomic meal is also on the UNESCO list and has been since 2010. The gastronomic meal emphasizes togetherness, celebrating French terroir, and also acknowledges the food and wine of the country, which is seen as the backbone of the country’s culinary history. The gastronomic meal is beyond just a rushed dinner with family in front of a TV. This meal involves many courses with a starter, fish, meat, cheese, dessert, and French liqueur at the end for digestion. Rather than crashing your French friend’s family dinner, La Mainaz in Pays De Gex offers seasonal dishes by chef Julien Thomasson that celebrate the fine art of a gastronomic meal. Très bien!
The world has been consumed by fermented food mania in the last decade, and many attribute Korea’s kimchi as the best in the world. Essential to every Korean table, kimchi comes in the form of preserved vegetables in Korean spices, which are left to ferment in cauldrons known as onggi. With regional differences across the country, Koreans see kimchi as part of their identity, highlighting their region and family’s tradition with each unique blend. Recipes of kimchi are considered sacred and only passed down from mother to daughter or daughter-in-law–if you are lucky.
Palov is a traditional dish made throughout rural and urban communities and is the national dish of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Made with rice, meat, spices, and vegetables, the rice-based dish is seen as a gesture of hospitality and is eaten both at simple family dinners and special occasions like weddings. The best known Palov (or Plov, sometimes called Osh) is eaten on New Year’s Day to symbolize unity, friendship, and happiness for the coming year. A meal meant for sharing; Palov is the greatest representative of the Uzbekistan community spirit.
Known as the social practice of preparing food, UNESCO sees Washoku as a celebration of both traditions and also know-how for the Japanese people and considers it important enough to add it to the list. There is a lot of respect for nature and both the social and cultural aspects of Washoku, which is practiced the most during the Japanese New Year celebrations. Rice cakes are pounded to welcome the New Year, and long-life noodles are eaten for longevity, with each dish having its own special meaning. Grandparents share their knowledge with younger generations and encourage all generations to learn, appreciate, and ultimately pass on these activities for many years to come.
Surprisingly, there is only one UNESCO wine listing, and it belongs to Georgia. Qvevri wine-making is only practiced throughout Georgia, with village communities using unique varieties of grapes and utensils to make a very special tipple. The knowledge and expertise of Qvevri wine are passed down from one generation to another, which includes the wine process and maintaining the vineyards through tremendous seasons. Rather than using barrels, a Qvevri, egg-shaped earthenware is used to mature the wine. Wine plays a vital role in everyday life for Georgians, and the cellar is considered one of the holiest places in the family home. I’ll drink to that! Two brands worth seeking out are Teliani Valley Wines and Orgo.
If it is good enough for the Michelin guide, it is good enough for UNESCO. Hawker culture celebrates street food in Singapore and is considered a rarity now, especially after COVID-19, with many hawkers closing up shop post-pandemic. Hawker centers are found all around Singapore and are seen as community dining rooms where the diverse melting pot of Singapore unites cooks, chefs, and foodies from diverse backgrounds, including Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, and Singaporean. Some of the oldest hawkers started in the 1960s and specialize in one dish, but many recommend visiting Singapore Zam Zam for their murtabak—a beef or sardine flatbread for less than $5.