It may come as a surprise to learn that armies don't all eat the same things. I can hear the gasps already, but it's true. The rather clumsily named Meal, Ready-to-Eat—an abbreviation to the even worse genetic-condition-sounding MRE—is as varied as a whirlwind tour of the planet. That is to say, every nation has combined its greatest minds with its very worst chefs to come up with country-specific ways to punish those who would give their lives in the name of the flag.
MREs are a fascinating pouch-sized window into the quirks and humour of various countries, because while most troops will be tucking into similar shit—potatoes that taste like cardboard; enchiladas covered in cheese that looks freakishly similar to semen; and, er, water—every so often, you'll come up against something that is unique, a shining diamond dish in a culinary pre-made wasteland.
The internet is filled with places that go into specific detail about what's in each pack, noting whether it tastes terrible. Some aren't all that bad. Others—like Russia's, which I'll get to—sound abominable. Last year, a variety of packs were displayed to the public after a military charity dinner in Kabul, Afghanistan.
I've done my best to find out which nations do what, and then made fun of them.
But the variety can be huge—and it's often tough to delineate country-specific MREs. American troops, for example, have at least eight different MRE pack options; spaghetti may pop up more often than not, but it's not unexpected to get chicken and noodles or chilli with beans. Oh, and awful, awful veggie burgers.
Most countries rely on international favourites to get them through—pasta, chocolate, coffee—but occasionally you find a national treat.
AMERICA Americans have a variety of MRE packs, which splinter off into acronyms that stand for eerily similar things, such as FSR (First Strike Ration), RCW (Ration Cold Weather) and the MCI (Meal, Combat, Individual). Historically, however, the modern MREs are an improvement on the MCIs utilised during America's wars in Korea and Vietnam, and are at the forefront of the military meal table.
With America being a hotbed of contemporary cuisine—as well as a gargantuan melting pot of culture, academia, and economy—it's relatively surprising, then, that its primary MRE cuisine is Italian. Not that Italian food isn't the best food on the planet—hey, it's up there—but perhaps it's a little weird that the USA's MRE is more Italian than the Italian MRE, which has a very French vibe.
They've come up with a way to make spaghetti bolognaise that tastes just like how Mama used to make it. They're currently in lockdown in an attempt to invent the MRE pizza, which was (by quite some distance) the dish most requested by American troops—because, despite what this may say, pizza is incredible. These meals are topped off by things like bread and cheese, spicy Cheez-It crisps, blueberry cobblers and, America's favourite thing ever, peanut butter.
Other curiosities include the curious combination of beef jerky infused with caffeine, which sounds like a logical culinary combination if you're both an experimental child and don't have a fucking tongue.
Let's not be too harsh, though. I can definitely see this taking off as soldiers make a healthy extra income across the black market selling this to college kids, for whom Adderall no longer hits the spot.
BRITAIN There is such a thing as the clam chowder MRE, and it sounds quite horrendous. If it doesn't fill you with fear from the bottom of your stomach to the back of your throat, then you've probably already eaten one and died. Thankfully, more common is the nation's favourite curry: the chicken tikka masala.
Being lovely and conscientious and not all Satanic, the British MRE also contains Typhoo teabags and polo mints. Because it's not a warzone unless there's Elevenses and troops with fresh breath.
CHINA Despite not really having any need to have MREs—they haven't been in an "official" war for over 40 years—China has not disappointed. In 2009 it introduced a new pack that contained egg rolls with pork, pickled mustard root, vegetables, and something called "an instant solid beverage."
MREs are exceptionally low in fibre, so maybe this is just a fine example of China's deadpan humour. Or maybe I'm being an idiot and it's coffee. It's probably just coffee.
NORWAY Norway—sitting as it does on its non-EU pedestal—has an interesting mix of American tech and northern European tastes in its MRE. That is to say, it has a flameless heater and things like Rowntrees Tooty Fruities. It's got sweeties, for fuck sake. If I were in a war, I know for sure the first thing I'd want after a good day's shooting was a fruit gummy.
On a more grown-up front, the entrée can vary from spaghetti bolognaise (look, people love that dish) to more local flavour like muesli, cod stew, beef stew, and chicken stew. Did I mention they like stew? Real Turmat offers a civilian version, which you can try yourself.
ITALY The worst thing coming out of Italy since Silvio Berlusconi has got to be its 40-percent alcohol breakfast shot, which is essentially like drinking a thimble of vodka the second you wake up because for some reason you hate yourself and want to kill your liver.
SPAIN I really have no idea. It just looks like they got sardines and condoms. Lots and lots of condoms. After further research, it appears the sardine tin actually contains a tuna salad, which can be heated for reasons unknown and…that's where most of the food ends. Apparently Spanish troops don't get hungry.
The condoms—unfortunately—are a hypochondriac's dream of pills, vitamins, and hydration tabs.
SOUTH KOREA This is mental. The South Korean army gets bibimbap. I'm not sure if you're familiar with that, but it's a pretty damn tasty rice based dish that is just the best. (Warning: While informative, that link is guaranteed to make you despise humanity and, by proxy, bibimbap.)
But that's not all they get. As you know, each citizen South Korean citizen gobbles up 18 kilos of kimchi a year, which is the kind of love only shared between a man and his stalker, so they also get a lovely baggy of the stuff. Bless.
FRANCE You've got to hand it to the French, who provide their troops with deer pâté, duck confit, and a chocolate yoghurt for desert. I can only imagine being the next country below, tucking into my grub, as my French mate starts into his pork roast.
COLOMBIA Beans. And rice. It's not that inspiring.
The Columbian army once received its MRE packs from the USA, but decided to create its own. It contains something called a "sweet cheese drink," which recreates a regional tradition of melting cheese into hot milk like a bizarre parody of hot chocolate.
JAPAN If you were expecting tuna sashimi and soiled schoolgirls' underwear, then I'm afraid you've come to the wrong place. Japan's MRE is, sadly, all business. It includes hamburgers, frankfurters, and a variety of curries.
I mean, that's surprising, right? Where's my damn Pikachu-shaped cake and sexy manga? It's almost as if they designed this for grown adults who have little to no interest in that sort of thing. To be completely honest, they don't even look that nice.
In fact, the best piece of information I've found is this vaguely sexist and definitely creepy comment from Mr. Iga, an employee of the Tohoku Defence Bureau, that the pound cake "was sweet, so the Japanese women would like it as well." Right on.
RUSSIA Russia's all about the local delicacies. Its MREs have got something called "shpick," which is apparently just like bacon except meat is replacedwith fat and the fat is replaced with more fat. Other things on the menu include "cheese in a can" and a fried squash puree.
NORTH KOREA North Korea doesn't have any MREs because it's currently on the cusp of the worst food shortage in 20 years. There have been some reports that the army is using an ancient stolen one from China and Japan. In 2008, Japan retrieved an old NPRK ship and discovered lots of Japanese canned food on board.
Sadly, there's no rice in the shape of the Dear Leader's gut or anything stupid like that. North Korea's national rationing system, which has been in trouble recently, is set up on a meritocratic scale of social worth, with the average military troop (apparently 4.5 million people) not exactly at the top of the charts.
With that in mind, it's sad and ironic, then, that the world's supposedly most volatile nation is the only country on the list that probably doesn't even have sufficient food or money to provide its troops with a good meal.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in January 2015.