Paris is known for its patisseries, Michelin-starred restaurants and perfectly prepared steak frites. In Rome, square slices of pizza topped with zucchini, Caprese sandwiches and of course, gelato, tempt foodies. In Tokyo, upscale favorites like sashimi and robatayaki rule alongside street food mainstays like Gyudon, a beef and onion mixture served over rice.
Tradition is a powerful sentiment. That's why these pillars of global cuisine remain the top cities for foodies.
Behind the numbers
The list is derived from the 2009 Anholt-GfK Roper City Brands Index, released in June. It surveyed 10,000 people from 20 countries — each chosen for geographic and economic diversity — in April of this year. It asked them to rank 50 cities on such varied subjects as climate, physical attractiveness, restaurants and nightlife. Cities were judged on lifestyle, buzz, multiculturalism and attractiveness.
To determine which cities were most-closely associated with good food, respondents were asked to look at a list of subjects — including food — and indicate which ones they would find interesting in the city. Cities with the highest number of respondents saying "yes" to the subject "food" ranked highest.
Formerly known as the Anholt City Brands Index, the survey was started in 2005 by Simon Anholt, who works as an independent adviser to 20 national, regional and city governments on brand strategy and public diplomacy. In 2009 he joined forces with New York-headquartered market research firm GfK Roper to create a new report that included more respondents from non-European countries, as well as a mix of respondents from both developed and developing countries.
Mexico City and Barcelona round out the top five. While some Americans and Canadians might not regard Mexico City's as a culinary hotspot, those in Europe and Asia do. "What they believe, whether it's true or false, is what they're conditioned to believe," says Anholt. "Mexico City gets huge scores from Egypt, Russia, Sweden and Australia to name a few, which shows that Mexican is becoming an increasingly important cuisine globally."
In Mexico City, you'll find top-notch tamales at El Monasterio, traditional poblano dishes at Casa Merlos and hot chocolate at El Cardenal. Spots like these — beloved by both tourists and locals — are part of the reason why Mexican has morphed into a global cuisine over the last 20 years. Across the Atlantic Ocean, Barcelona's seafood paella, traditional Catalan dishes like Escalivada — made of roasted, smoky vegetables — codfish salad and pan con tomate, a requisite tapa, have helped it land on the gastronomic map.
One would assume that Mexico City and Barcelona's governments have touted their respective culinary scenes through advertising and marketing to tourists. Anholt says no.
"You can spend a couple of million dollars on an advertising campaign, but if the food isn't really that good, people aren't going to eat it," he says. "If [it] actually changes, then people will come on their own accord."
He says Mexico City and Barcelona have benefited from an increase in continental tourism overall — due mostly to cheaper flights — as well as a heightened interest in culinary travel. The Portland, Ore.-based trade group the International Culinary Tourism Association says that the term "culinary tourism" didn't enter the lexicon until around 2001. In 2007, just in the U.S. alone, 27 million travelers embarked on food-centric vacations, according to the most recent data — making up 17 percent of overall leisure vacations — according to the U.S. Travel Association, a trade group based in Washington, D.C.
While the top five best cities for foodies represent what are probably the top five most popular cuisines worldwide, there are some other contenders climbing the ranks. Chinese food, for example, is becoming a cuisine that food-lovers take seriously. There's even a culinary travel tour group — Beijing-based Hias Gourmet — dedicated to culinary tourism throughout the country. Three Chinese cities — Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai — placed seven, eight and 10, respectively. Cantonese food rules in each of these cities, and delicacies such as Shanghai's hairy crab, Beijing's beggar's chicken and Hong Kong's dim sum add local flavor. You ate what?
Notably missing from the list are London — which, over last 20 years, has become somewhat of a foodie paradise — and New York, the restaurant capital of the U.S. Unfortunately, for these inarguably delicious cities, the local cuisine just isn't as dynamic as in other parts of the world.
While Morimoto serves melt-in-your mouth sushi in New York, his culinary ideas are deeply rooted in Japan. And although Hakkasan is one of London's most beloved restaurants, its food is Chinese, not British. "Both the UK and the U.S. are wonderful for eating out," says Anholt. "But it doesn't change the fact that people still think American food means McDonalds."
© 2012 Forbes.com