UNESCO’S Food Capitals of the World

Typical Brazilian food buffet displayed at Uai di Minas
Sopa Images / Getty Images

You might not think of this organization when it comes to food. You’re likely to think of Michelin stars, Eater awards, and Tripadvisor reviews. UNESCO stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and is best known for its World Heritage Site designations, which are given to places both natural and man-made. But UNESCO has another lesser-known project called the City of Gastronomy, an initiative that is part of the Creative City Network, recognized creativity as a major factor in their urban development.. There are 36 cities in total, many of which aren’t widely known or visited by tourists. There are a number of criteria a city must meet in order to be considered, all related to traditional foods, culinary practices, foods markets, and so on. So while we might not be here with a guide on where to get the best pizza, these are some of the food capitals of the world with delicious and unique cuisines that we highly suggest visiting if you get the chance.

Popayán, Colombia

This beautiful small city in Colombia’s southwest known as La Ciudad Blanco (for the stark white colonial architecture of the city center) was the first to receive the UNESCO designation in 2005. The distinctive cuisine’s style is called Mestiazaje, mixing an intriguing combination of Spanish, African and native Colombian. There are over a hundred indigenous groups in Colombia and though they account for only 3% of the population, they have had a deep and critical influence on the culture and cooking traditions. Papayan council has promised UNESCO to safeguard that culinary knowledge which has been passed down through generations. The local specialty is empanadas de pipian – fried corn dough stuffed with potatoes and peanuts. There is the ubiquitous Hogoa, a tomato-based sauce with Creole origins; Salpicon – a salsa made with local fruits; and coconut milk is part of signature dishes, especially Arroz con Leche de Coco. The restaurant at the Camino Real Hotel, a proponent of local traditions, claims its seafood soup has been called the best in the world. The signature dessert is called Eduardo Santos, an ice cream confection similar to Italian cassata named for a former Colombian President.

Florianopolis, Brazil

Way off the beaten track on the coast of Brazil some 500 miles south of Rio de Janeiro is Florianopolis. It has an eclectic heritage of Portuguese, Italian, German, Polish and Ukrainian so there is an international flavor. The city of 1.5 million has beautiful sandy beaches and interesting old architecture. It has been called the best place to live in Brazil and is renowned for its seafood, hence why it’s called the Oyster Capital of Brazil. They are farmed on the Ilha da Magia or “Magical Island” and are served right out of the water, raw, baked, stuffed, or smoked. The other signature seafood feast is called the sequencia de camarão which consists of a constant stream of shrimp dishes beginning with casquinha de siri (baked crabmeat) and ending with baked fish filet with shrimp sauce. In between guests can feast on steamed shrimp, breaded shrimp, garlic shrimp, and sometimes giant prawns. You’ll be stuffed, but any time spent in this food capital of the world is time well spent.

Tsuruoka, Japan

Not many people make it out to Tsuruoka in the country of Japan. The town of 140,000 is 300 miles north of Tokyo on the west coast of the Sea of Japan. UNESCO says that “farmers, cooks and chefs are true creators and artists” here. The region is famous for soba noodles, but the locals are crazy about moso (pronounced mowsow), which are bamboo shoots used to make soup with the lees (dregs) of sake and shiitake mushrooms. They take rice from the plains, dadacha beans called the King of Edamame, and seafood from nearby sea (especially the Cherry Salmon native to the Western Pacific and Japanese Gurnard). And from the nearby sacred mountains, locals harvest and serve ferns and bracken. They take pride in their ingenuity with more than 50 kinds of indigenous crops that come together to create a singular, sustainable cuisine – something they’ve been doing long before the word sustainable was a buzzword.

Östersund, Sweden

After Chengdu, it’s another 6000 miles to Östersund, a town of 60,000 with deep history in the middle of Sweden. UNESCO had the right idea when singling out Östersund for its “local sustainable food inspired from long standing culinary traditions.” Modern, minimalist restaurants in the area show a fusion of traditional food and contemporary creativity. There is local trout, bleak roe, and cold water cod. Mushroom soup comes with sea buckthorn syrup and smoked reindeer hearts. Or you can just have the hearts straight up with cream cheese on crispbread. This region is on the cutting edge of agriculture, in a daunting climate no less, with a passionate devotion to a kind of Nordic fusion, using locally sourced ingredients and pairing them with classics. Other examples of culinary genius in Östersund include Schnapps made from birch syrup and herbs, smoked local char with Jerusalem artichokes, and local beef with porcini and beurre noisette, while Kolballen, a fatty bacon pancake that was once the simple snack of lumberjacks, is now an old fashioned comfort food paired with lingonberries.

Zahlé, Lebanon

Zahlé is a true foodie paradise and another food capital of the world. Lonely Planet’s guidebook says that aside from being a base to explore the Beqaa Valley, there are no real tourist attractions.  All the better we say, to concentrate on the exceptional traditional food and wine and maybe the occasional tumbler of arak, the anise-flavored spirit that is served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, similar to the French pastis and Greek ouzo. The birthplace to many writers, it’s known as “The City of Wine and Poetry” and what more sublime combination could exist? Zahle is said to have invented the mezze experience, the now globally fashionable array of small plates that make up a feast. To the well-known Lebanese standards of shish taouk, tabbouleh, kishk (fermented bulgur and milk by-products), manouche, Zahle adds local delicacies of wild pork and famous locally farmed trout. Then there’s goat’s milk ice cream with rose water, musk, and sahlab stambouli with overtones of sugar and cinnamon, which is popular in the region. Interesting flavors are center stage in this Lebanese town, beckoning tourists who are willing to travel off the beaten path.

Chengdu, China

It is said that “the best cuisine is from China, while the richest flavor is from Chengdu.” It has become China’s fifth largest city with a population around 9.1 million, famous for its panda research and breeding center. One big clue that cooking is a serious industry here: they have more people working in catering than other cities on the list have in their total population. It’s both the capital of the Sichuan province and called the cradle of spicy Sichuan cooking, according to UNESCO. Most dishes begin with the popular combination of ginger, garlic, and scallions to which hot chilies or Sichuan peppercorns are liberally added. Sichuan chefs would be insulted by the thought that their cuisine is known only for its incendiary qualities and their virtuosity is in their ability to balance a complex pallet of flavors – spicy, citrus, salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and smoky – into a single harmonious dish.

Jeonju, South Korea

This South Korean town is called Taste City. And for good reason! The quintessential Korean dish, bibimbap, was actually born in this ancient city 20 miles south of Seoul. In fact, Visit Korea calls it ‘Jeonju bibimbap’, a spectacular mix of bean sprouts, spinach, Chinese bellflower, gochujang chili paste, sesame oil, and rice topped with a fried egg. It’s also renowned for the local traditional multi-course feast called ‘Hanjeongsik’, featuring a kind of Korean tapas called ‘Banchan’. Like most great cuisines, it excels at elevating and perfecting the simplest dishes like the bean sprout and rice soup called ‘Kongnamul Gukbap’. Chefs work with what is available locally, including wild greens from the mountains, fresh fish from the Yellow Sea, and rice and beef from nearby plains. In the spirit of the advocacy UNESCO favors, the city founded the Creative Culinary Institute of Korea and the Bibimbap Globalization Foundation.

Shunde, China

No other cuisine in the world is more delicate in flavor than Cantonese. Still, the range and variety of flavors found in Shunde astounds. While abiding by the characteristics of Cantonese food – light, fresh, crispy, tender, smooth and genuine – the chefs of Shunde push the envelope, not with the blazing heat of its cousin, Szechuan, but rather with innovative flavors of sun dried tangerine peel and dates. Local delicacies include pan-fried lotus root stuffed with locally-farmed carp. Buffalo milk mixed with egg whites and sautéed results in an omelet-like dish. This region excels in serving up traditional, humble, home-cooking that has been elevated, making Shunde one of the greatest food capitals of the world, according to UNESCO.

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