To me, the world of food is so big and so grand that any food that makes the cut for the Top 5 or even a Top 50 list should be truly a singular sensation. While it doesn't necessarily have to be rare or hard to get, it should have a trait that makes it uncommon or special, in my opinion.
- (Tie) I know it's cheating a bit, but I honestly couldn't decide between butter and garlic.
Butter. There are people in the world whose native cuisines don't make much use of dairy. These people simply lack one of the most essential culinary descriptors I can think of: butter. It is a foundation of baking, of cooking, of ... it's just that important. Buttered popcorn. A buttery Chardonnay. Sweet French butter on warm, fresh bread. It's even more important than cheese, and for me to say that is truly saying something. It's a basic component of so many preparations that you simply must know what it tastes like in its unadulterated form in order to understand its contribution.
Garlic. I honestly cannot imagine my life without garlic. What on earth would I have eaten? I don't think I can immediately recall a savory dish that my mother commonly made that didn't include it. It is a key component in my favorite Italian sauce, pesto. In addition to the aforementioned Italian, almost every cuisine in the world incorporates it: Greek cuisine, Chinese cuisine, Indian cuisine ... from rustic peasant flavors to subtle hints in curries and stews, garlic is a near-universal seasoning.
- Cheese. If I ever reach the point where everyone I love is dead and then my doctor tells me that I can't have cheese anymore ... life will look pretty damned grim. There are things on this list that I feel people ought to eat, and this is surely one of them, but out of the list, I'm not sure that there's an item on it that I love more than cheese. Sheep's milk, goat's milk, cow's milk, I don't care -- bring on the umami of the aged Stilton, the tangy tartness of a chevre, the creamy richness of a Brillat-Savarin, and the sheer unctuous seduction of a Vacherin Mont d'Or. I could see myself all-too-easily in the shoes of this guy, jonesing for a Brie de Meaux fix. The heck with the Mary Jane: hook me up with some real cheese. I'll stop this paragraph before I get distracted by my envy of the French on this.
- Sushi. Everyone should try sushi at least once, and I do mean nigiri, not some tarted-up roll that completely masks the purity of what you're eating. Several of my other selections are often fussed over with sauces and enhancements: top-quality sushi is generally fairly unadorned. I list it because of the sheer variety within the category: just as cooked salmon doesn't taste like cooked mackerel, raw salmon doesn't taste like raw mackerel, or raw tuna, or raw octopus, or any number of other popular fish used for sushi. Each kind has its own sweetness, its own texture, and its own flavor contribution. The only thing that each has in common with the other is the preparation. I recommend eating "in the raw" at least once, and trying not to let preconceptions color the experience too much.
- Truffles. I'll be candid: there is something about the aroma of truffles that makes me go quite weak in the knees with arousal. Their sensual scent is that potent, and this dish is almost all about the nose. I truly believe that if the smell of a truffle is not in your olfactory memory bank, then your collection of known smells is simply not complete.
- (Tie) Foie gras and escargot.
Foie gras. Vegetarian or carnivore, everyone should experience the texture and richness of foie gras, preferably prepared as a chilled terrine, at least once. There is nothing else quite like it. Uni, for me, approaches the texture, but the flavor is different.
Escargot. Even when they aren't overcooked (as people are wont to do), these little gems are earthy, even a little mushroomy, but not quite like that. My husband says they taste like moss to him, although since he has never eaten moss, it seems rather an unfair statement. Sizzling in garlic butter, they have both a flavor and a texture that stands out.
Those are my five (technically seven) for today (I can't find a way to decently wedge in artichokes). They're pretty much all savory (although butter and cheese straddle the line), and I'm okay with that. I hope that some of the culinarily-minded among you will feel inspired to post your five, and why you believe a person should experience them.
Beverages are a whole 'nother post for another time.