Searching for the essence of cuisines

From a reader, here's an interesting question I think you readers might be able to answer:

Been reading your site for a longtime and love your food focus. I've been reading 'The Omnivore's Dilemma' and near the end Pollan talks about all cultures being omnivorous but picking a selection of the available foods (forming their cuisine) and about all cultures having rules of eating (whether they're codified concretely or not). This got me wondering if anyone has collected in one place the essence of different cuisines (what are the things that make Japanese food Japanese and what are the tricks, like soy fermentation in this example, that they have used to provide adequate nutrition). I mean cookbooks contain this wealth but you'd need to comb an awful lot of cookbooks to glean many cultures (especially since the marketplace of books covers only a limited set of the world). And also, this got me wondering if anyone has collected the cultural rules of eating (for example not talking during meals in some cultures while lengthy conversations are expected in others).

I'm guessing you've read a lot of books on food. Do you have anything you can recommend along these lines?

There are 3 responses

here's my own clumsy answer (also posted on my blog):

The short answer is no, there has been no attempt at defining the essence of various cuisines.

The Long answer is that it would be quite an impossible task. Impossible, not in the sense of "Oh my GOD that's a lot of work", but rather in the "the thesis is invalid and unworkable". This might take a bit of explaining.

Cuisines are a direct result of economies, with a little bit of politics and religion thrown into the mix. "Culture", for lack of a better phrase, only gets its hands on affecting cuisines once the aforementioned variables have played their roles.

Because economies, politics, and religion can significantly change in a society (sometimes over a timeframe as short as a generation), a culture's cuisine will find itself in constant flux. American cuisine (in all of its iterations, from Cajun and Tex-Mex, to fast food and supermarket selections) is the perfect example of this.

Let's take fast food for an example. The popularity of fast food would have not taken off without an assist from the automotive industry, as well as the creation of well maintained roads that provided easy access to these restaurant. That the rise of fast food restaurants in the 50's, 60's, and 70's coincided with the creation and completion of the interstate is not a coincidence. But I digress.

Economics play the biggest role in food cultures. Poverty, food supplies, trade, barter systems all play a role, with other variables such as political instability and even the weather affecting all of the above in some fashion or another. Pollan's comment that culture's picked their foods, is really shorthand for the economic realities that everyday people had to contend with.

The idea of recognizing cuisines is still rather new on the planet, and is likely a direct result of having little concern over one's access to a food source. When a culture has less wealth, it's less likely to concern itself with the idea of cuisine, and more likely to simply try to feed itself.

Look at it this way - Do you think the poor of the middle ages were concerned with rules of eating, or do you think that they were more concerned with ensuring there was food available to them in the long periods of time between harvest season and growing season. Culturally, it's only with the relatively recent explosion of the middle class since the time of the industrial revolution that has seen an interest in food beyond simple survival. I'm speaking other than the ruling class of course, who have almost always have been lavish with foods, but they are the exception that proves the rule.

Once a culture gets to a point where it has the luxury to actually examine other cuisines of the world and apply them to themselves, it's always through the bias of their circumstances.

Let's take Italian food for instance. America, Argentina, and Ethiopia all have had notable amounts immigrants and expatriates from Italy. These immigrants and expatriates left their mark on each countries perception of Italian food. But America has focused more on pastas and tomato sauces, almost completely ignoring polenta and meat, Argentina has meat dishes and polentas with very distinct Italian influences. And while American Italian food was directly influenced by poor immigrants, Ethiopian Italian food is influenced by by wealth, due to Italy's history as colonizers. Meanwhile, back in Italy, they have their own take on their own cuisine, with differences both subtle and great.

My overall point, I suppose, is that there is no "one essence" of any cuisine, due in large part due to economic fluctuations, as well as the biases we all carry in regard to food. Changes in food due to culture has played a far lesser role in the shaping of cuisines.

I honestly think that blogs are breaking ground in this regard, because they're not constrained by the demands of the publishing industry and a particular market. A post on Japanese pantry essentials, written by an expat who can't take the availability of those things for granted, speaks directly to me.

Thanks Nick, it helps when you're a web developer by trade ;)

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