Julia Child once said, “people who love to eat are always the best people,” and as someone who eats on a regular basis, I have to agree.
Food culture has exploded in the last 20 years. Like many people in North America, I grew up eating simply seasoned meat with boiled veggies and plain rice. Sometimes we’d have spaghetti and casseroles, but those seemed to be the only things that existed. Now you can’t go five minute on Facebook or Instagram without seeing some elaborate and delicious dish that someone has whipped together.
Part of the reason for this is that we are immersed in a world in which we are influenced by different cultures and creations every day. I can’t imagine that a lot of North American moms were throwing together a stir fry 50 years ago, but today it’s a quick and easy dinner that can be made inexpensively, and with veggies, meat, and starch, it’s got everything that you could ask for in a family sized meal.
If you ever have the opportunity to travel to the origins of these different meals, you begin to learn that there are a lot of great meals that you get on the cheap. After reading this list, you may want to buy plane tickets to these places just so you can indulge on their cheap eats.
15. Banh Mi – Vietnam
We may be used to food from the Eastern hemisphere making its way to the Western hemisphere, but for a long time it was the other way around. Banh Mi literally translates to”wheat bread,” but when you think of banh mi, you’re probably thinking of the sandwich. Baguettes made their way to Vietnam when the French developed relations – and eventually colonized the country. The Vietnamese decided to take this new cultural food and put their own spin on it. Banh mi sandwiches are typically filled with pickled carrot, daikon, cucumbers and tonnes of cilantro. The meat is usually pork based like sausages or pork belly, but you can also get a vegetarian or breakfast option with scrambled eggs. Banh mi sandwiches are delicious and huge, as they are usually made from an entire baguette. You can get a banh mi sandwich from a street vendor for anywhere between 15,000 and 20,000 Vietnamese dong, which is the equivalent to $0.75 – $1.00. Banh mi sandwiches are a good solution if you’re looking for a quick and filling meal while you’re in Vietnam.
14. Puri – India
Puris are a fun filled snack that you can get in India and surrounding countries. They’re made from wheat flour dough and fried, but rather than becoming a dense loaf like bread, puris balloon out and become hollow little balls of dough. When you get puris you also get a different curry on the side. What you do is poke a little hole in the puri and fill it with the curry, basically creating your own curry filled dumpling of deliciousness. Puris are common street food, but they are also consumed in festivals and special occasions. Puris are also often eaten for breakfast. They go for about 10 Indian rupees for four puris. That’s the equivalent of 15 cents American. Quick math tells me that you could get about 266 puris for 10 American dollars. Puris are a great little snack, and we think they should make an appearance in North America.
13. Acarajé – Brazil
Acarajé is a street food commonly found in Brazil, but it originated from Africa. It was brought over from the West African slaves, where the dish holds cultural significance. It is made by peeling or mashing black eyed and forming them into a ball and frying them in palm oil. Acarajé is most commonly eaten in the African influenced state of Bahia in Brazil, but they can be found all over the country. In Brazil, after the acarajé is done frying, they split it and fill it with caramelized onions and fresh shrimp. You’ll be hard pressed to find these babies outside of South America or Western Africa, and if you’re hoping to make them at home, good luck. This recipe from Easy Brazilian Recipes lists 24 necessary ingredients for the fritters, some of which would definitely require a trip to the specialty foods store. These guys are usually found for about $3.00 USD a pop.
12. Jiaozi – China
If there’s one thing that China got right, it’s dumplings, particularly jiaozi which are popular throughout Eastern Asia. They’re so integral to the Chinese custom, that they even have their own creation myth. Legend says that Traditional Chinese Medical pioneer Zhang Zhongjing created these dumplings as a means to fend off frostbite. He cooked a stew which included some medicinal herbs and proceeded to stuff the stew into some dough. Then he handed these dumplings out in a village which had many people suffering from frostbite on their ears. This lends itself to their traditional name jiao’er, or tender ears. They are a traditional meal on the Chinese New Year, but can be found year round. There isn’t a set recipe for jiaozi, as they are commonly made by families, so this means that the fillings are created by whatever the family prefers, or what is available, but they are usually filled with meat and can be boiled, steamed, or fried. They are priced at about 30 Chinese Yuan per 15 dumplings, so you can get 30 jiaozi for $10.
11. FEBO – The Netherlands
Okay, this one is a bit of a cheat, but it’s an experience all in its own. FEBO isn’t a dish or a fast food chain, but it’s different than anything else in the world. The food is prepared fresh and daily, but you don’t have any human interaction. Instead, you buy your food from an array of windows which essentially makes this fast food joint a giant vending machine. There are tons of option at FEBO, including croquettes, hamburgers, french fries, chicken wraps, ice cream, and more! FEBO was initially set up as a bakery in 1942, but owner Johan de Borst began selling croquettes and automating the sales component. FEBO began in a neighborhood in Amsterdam called De Piip, but has since spread across the entire country. You can get a burger or a croquette for as little as 3 euros, which works out to about $3.50 American.
10. Khlii – Morocco
If you’re conservative about trying new or different food, then this one might not be for you. Khlii is native to the Moroccan city of Fez, and it’s not only a way of preparing meat in Morocco, but a way of preserving it as well. The meat – typically lamb or beef – is seasoned and then left to dry in the sun. After it dries for a few days, it’s cooked in a combination of water, oil and animal fat. Once it’s cooked, the khlii is stored and can last up to two years. Khlii is prepared by putting some of the meat with its fat in a pan. After it’s been heated up, eggs are often added to create something almost like an omelette. It’s common for khlii to be made in the home, but you can also get it in restaurants for about 20 Moroccan dirham, which works out close to about $2 American.
9. Döner – Turkey
Döner kebab is a way of preparing skewered meats that has swept the entire world, but its origins lay in Turkey. Along with the spices and cuts of meat, the signature aspect of the döner is its vertical cooking style. Döner is placed on a vertical skewer and cooked with a tall heating apparatus. Döner is served by itself on a plate, or more typically in wrap form. There are many interpretations of döner today, such as shawarma, or gyros. Döner and other renditions of vertically cooked meat skewers are available all over the world, but there’s always something about grabbing the food from its origin. Döners cost anywhere from 4-6 Turkish lira, which is about $1.30-$2.00 USD. Considering how much it costs in North America, you should already be on a plane.
8. Bandeja Paisa – Colombia
While many of the items on this list are singular food items, Bandeja Paisa is a complete meal. The dish is named after the Paisa region of Colombia, and it literally mean Paisa Platter, and it is a monstrous meal. It often includes white rice, ground meat, fried egg, plantain, chorizo, red beans cooked in pork, chicharron (which is basically pork rinds), avocado, black pudding, and lemon. In 2005, the Colombian government tried to designate the Bandeja Paisa as the national dish of Colombia, and although it was never pushed through officially, the meal has taken on the identity of epitomical Colombian meal. This gigantic meal can be bought for 15,000 Colombian pesos, which translates into $5.00 American. For the amount of food you get for five dollars, this dish could fill even the most bottomless American belly.
7. Tom Yum Goong – Thailand
Move over Pad Thai, there’s a new Thai dish coming to town, and it’s friggin’ delicious. The base soup is called tom yum, but its shrimp version – tom yum goong – is its most common version. It doesn’t use chicken or beef stock like many Western soups, but instead derives its flavors from limes, lemongrass, lime kaffir leaves, and chili paste. As I mentioned before, there are other versions of this soup, so if prawns aren’t your thing you can get tom yum soup with fresh fish, chicken, or an assortment of seafood. Tom yum soup isn’t just found in Thailand, but can also be found in neighboring countries like Cambodia. A typical tom yum goong will cost you about 140 Thai Baht, which is around $4 American.
6. Peri Peri Chicken – Mozambique
Like many of the entries on this list, Peri Peri chicken is the result colliding cultures. The geographic origin of the dish is in Mozambique, but it could not have existed without Portuguese colonization. All chili peppers in the world are descendants from hot peppers that originally grew in South America, so until the Portuguese brought the peppers to South Africa, this dish did not exist. The residents of Mozambique began cultivating their own peppers and were quick to create their own sauces and recipes from their agricultural creation. The chicken is usually served in halves or quarters marinated and basted in the spicy peri peri sauce. You can usually get a peri peri chicken for about $3.00 American. You could go to your local Nando’s restaurant to give this dish a try, but if you’re looking for the authentic experience you have to make a trip to Southern Africa.
5. Pav Bhaji – India
Another entry from India, pav bhaji is pretty much an Indian vegetable curry that’s served with a bun and can be purchased in may fast food establishments in the country, specifically in the Mumbai region. It began as a fast lunch time dish for textile workers in Mumbai in the 1850s and has evolved into a staple. Unlike most of the items on this list, pav bhaji is predictably vegetarian because of its origins as a working class Hindu meal. A single portion of this meal costs 110 Indian rupees, which works out to $1.63 American.
4. Spring Rolls – East Asia
Spring rolls are one of the most well known food items in the entire world. The concept is pretty simple – they have some mixture, usually meat based, that’s rolled in thin pastry and usually fried. They earn their names by being the traditional dish eaten during China’s Spring festival. Forms and variations of spring rolls have made their way across the entire world, with each region developing their own take on the dish. There are the thin, translucent raw spring rolls, there are the Americanized egg rolls, and there are crispy fried spring rolls. An example of their cost is in Vietnam where you can get one spring roll for 5,000 Vietnamese dong which works out to about $0.25. This means you could get 40 spring rolls for $10. I, for one, could probably eat 40 spring rolls in one sitting, so I’m thinking of making a trip to Asia for this reason alone.
3. Souvlaki – Greece
Yet another example of a food that’s been appropriated in a lot other places in the world, souvlaki is skewered meat which is often served in a pita. It’s common for souvlaki to be served with fried potatoes and salad. Archaeologists have unearthed stone cooking tools that would have been used to cook skewered meat, and there are mentions of skewered meat being consumed in the works of Aristophanes and Aristotle, which makes souvlaki the item on this list with some of the most ancient roots. Today souvlaki is considered to be fast food, but it doesn’t make it any less delicious. Trendy Souvlaki joints are also a new trend in Greece, in some of which you can purchase a souvlaki pita for two euros, which works out to $2.25 American. With the new trend going, you could definitely find a place where you could get a meal, a beer, and a spectacular view of the Mediterranean all for less than $10. Greece’s economy may be in the toilet, but there’s always an upside to everything.
2. Pho – Vietnam
I remember pho suddenly popping up everywhere a few years ago, but again, it’s always good to go home to the roots of any dish. In case you don’t know, pho is a Vietnamese soup that’s served with vermicelli, broth, basil, and meat (usually chicken or beef). It may seem synonymous with Vietnamese cuisine, but pho is actually a pretty recent culinary development. It first appeared in the 20th century and was initially sold by street vendors carrying mobile kitchens on their back. It kicked off in the North of the country, but because of the war in Vietnam, people fled South and brought the cultural phenomenon with them. Today, there seems to be a pho joint at every block. You can get pho in Vietnam for anywhere between 20,000 and 40,000 Vietnamese dong, which works out to $1-$2 American.
1. Big Mac – Everywhere
Okay, okay, let me back this one up. Yes, it’s easy to accuse us of being American-eccentric on this decision, but there’s a very good reason why the Big Mac is number one on this list. First of all, the shear availability of the Big Mac is undeniable. There are over 30,000 McDonalds restaurants all over the world, and that spans 119 countries. Pretty much, no matter where you go, you’re going to be able to find a Big Mac. Because of this, Economist Magazine published an article in which they created the Big Mac index. This index is a simplified way to determine the purchasing power of each country. Basically the Big Mac index determines how many hours you need to work at minimum wage to buy a Big Mac in any given country. You can see that Big Macs aren’t only a ubiquitous food source, but an excellent way to measure how much food costs everywhere. Besides admit it, as much as you hate it, Big Macs are delicious.