World cuisines are diverse - or are they?
Sun, 3 February, 2019
I’m so bored with western food I don’t care about accusations of cultural appropriation any more – I’m cooking oriental dishes all the time. Taste buds are more faithless than hearts – we get bored of eating the same things.
But on close inspection, perhaps it’s only an illusion that food tastes different if you move away from home. It had struck me before how remote places cook similar things. Wrapping filling in pastry or noodle parcel? Here we are: dumplings, wonton, gyoza, tortellini and pierogi.
Cooking less choice cuts of meat in a big pot with vegetables, odds and sods? As you wish: stew, goulash, cassoulet, curry, carbonade and gumbo. Even an apparently ingenious thing like packaging a random mix of rice with things in leaves can be found in Greece (dolmades), Poland (golabki), Sweden (kåldomar) and Thailand (khao tom).
Everywhere the shape of the dishes depends on the consumers’ wealth: if you can, you slap a slab of good meat on the fire and follow with rare or difficult to obtain ingredients. If you’re poor, you chop up what little meat you have into little pieces and fashion a stir fry, a curry, bulgogi, meatballs or ragù. And you can usually work magic with the crop or grain that is plentiful in your area without the help of meat: wheat, potatoes, corn, rye, barley or rice.
The devil is in detail: seasoning. That indeed changes as you traverse the globe, again subject to what is grown, picked and foraged locally. Central and Northern Europe are particularly stark, with only salt, caraway and dill abundant. No wonder spice was precious in the times when shipping it involved camel rather than carbon footprint.
Modern trends are trying to turn thing up on their head: the wealthy don’t eat meat but go vegan; the local rarely deserves the ‘healthy’ label and as a result we get conflicted between the urge to put chia seeds on our breakfast and the guilt about shipping it from across the globe. Why don’t they stick to kale? At least it’s indigenous. Except it’s not very exciting and here we go again – our taste buds want stimulation and new flavours.
I crave exotic; to tickle my taste buds with the unaccustomed, but not everyone is like that. Apparently more people enjoy what is indigenous for them than the fancy, unfamiliar flavours. That’s where we are a confused lot in first world: we can get anything from anywhere so don’t know what is ‘us’ any more. In that aspect the cultural appropriation objectors are totally justified: stick to your own, don’t nick poor people’s food, however miraculous you might think it is.
Which all leads me to conclude that I should just shut up and put up, or try and experiment with wild combinations of cabbage, potatoes and dill to come up with new flavours. Why is such a basic thing as eating so complicated?