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Greatest Cuisines? French and...

Do we all agree that the greatest cuisine in the world is French? Oui? But what other cuisine is it's equal? I used to think it was Chinese, and maybe it is - but I now think (based on my time in Japan), that Japanese should be right up there with the other two. The reason I think this has to do with the way French cooking can take the common idiom of the cuisine and build endless variations, like a very sophisticated language, with a large vocabulary, which you can use to say almost anything. On our trips to France we rarely saw the same thing on a menu twice, and when we did (bouilliabasse, mousse au chocolat), the dishes always turned out to be different from each other in important ways (bouilliabass in one place, Bouilliabasse Royal with lots of saffron in another; mousse au chocolat in one place, mousse au chocolat made with sour cream in another).

We saw the same sort of thing going on in Japan - again, except for a few traditional or standard items (like soba, or tempura), we never got the same thing twice - yet it was all identifiably Japanese. The "language" of the cuisine is sophisticated and capable of seemingly endless variation - something that I had to go there to realize, stuck, as I usually am, in the sushi-sameness of Chicago.

My husband contends that if we went to other countries (like Greece), we'd see a similar variety that we simply don't get in this country. I maintain that a cuisine like Greek, though tasty, is just not at the same level. Some cusines seem not to have evolved beyond a limited repertoire of standards (much as I love Lao cooking, for instance, it's certainly not in the same league as French).

I'd like to hear others' thoughts on the subject.

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  1. I've always thought Mexican cuisine is the most underrated (Just as Akatonbo and I have thought Chicago's Topolombapo is among the city's most underrated restaurants). Real Mexican food can be as complex and vibrant as any other. I'm sure some of you are reading this, thinking about your local place that serves tacos and enchiladas, and saying to yourself "huh!?" But the Mexican food we typically eat in the U.S. is not representative of the cuisine as a whole. Not even close. Check out Rick Bayless' PBS show (Mexico One Plate at a Time) to get a different view of the cuisine.

    1. I find arguments like this pointless and frankly, somewhat racist. There are no 'best' cuisines; only those we are familiar with and like and those we don't. And no, there is no consensus that French is the greatest cuisine in the world. Only people coming from a Western culinary background would argue it, especially as such a sweeping general statement.

      7 Replies
      1. re: Pupster

        Hum...the point of this website is to talk about food, restaurants, and cooking. This necessarily involves subjective judgements. I don't think anyone is implying their thoughts about "the best" of something, whether it is the best place for pizza in Chicago or the best world cuisine, is meant to be some objective statement about underlying truths. It is simply meant to be a statement about preferences, with the understanding that others may disagree. I think the discussion about world cuisines is no different from the discussion of best pizza in Chicago or best way to cook a pork butt. Perhaps the discussion about world cuisines could have been more carefully worded as "which cuisine do you like to eat most often," or "which cuisine has contributed more to the American food scene," or "which cuisine do think is the most complex," etc. Asking "which is the best" is simply a shorthand way of expressing these more general questions. It isn't meant to be anything deeper.

        Sure, this topic involves a great degree of generalizations. There are terrible examples of the so-called "famous cuisines of the world". There are also excellent examples of lesser-appreciated cuisines. The fact that there is variation doesn't mean we can't talk in generalities. We talk in generalities about all kinds of things on this site. In fact, this is the point I tried make in my earlier post about Mexican food: typical Mexican food in the US is not a good example of how great the cuisine can be. I think there is a lot to be learned from this kind of discussion. Perhaps someone who has only eaten at generic Japanese restaurants, or generic Mexican restaurants, will read Akatonbo or my posts above and try to seek out a better version to see what we're getting at.

        Cuisines of different countries can be a fascinating discussion. Why is the cuisine of Vietnam so exciting? Because of the country's colonial history, their food has elements of both their traditional cuisine and French influence. Why is the cuisine of France so unique? French high cuisine evolved from the influences of many of their neighboring countries when great chefs were brought in to work in the royal palace. I'm sure there are similarly fascinating stories for most countries throughout the world, and we do the food community a service by talking about these differences and what we like and don't like.

        1. re: Darren72

          " Do we all agree that the greatest cuisine in the world is French? Oui? But what other cuisine is it's equal?"

          Darren, there's much to celebrate within each cuisine and I have no issue discussing similarities, differences, histories, influences. Nor to point out particular renditions by specific restaurants or chefs. But the OP doesn't really seem interested other than to rank cuisines by nationalities, as though that can be done. Did she mean something else? Did she mean, I like this better than that; not, there is a world consensus that this is the best? (Psst, there's not.) Well, she should probably have said that.

          1. re: Pupster

            I agree that there isn't much to be gained from compiling a ranking, unless it is accompanied by a meaningful discussion. In the interest of moving forward on areas that would be most interesting to discuss, let's focus on an interesting point Akatonbo made about what impressed her about Japanese and French cuisines:

            "...French cooking can take the common idiom of the cuisine and build endless variations, like a very sophisticated language, with a large vocabulary, which you can use to say almost anything."

            What are some good examples of this in French and Japanese cooking, for those who are less familiar?

            What other cuisines have this feature?

            Besides this feature, what other features of a national or regional cuisine excite you?

            1. re: Darren72

              All I meant to do was elicit people's thoughts on the subject of what makes a cuisine "great." Sorry if I wasn't clearer. As for the idea that French is the "world's greatest," I don't believe I'm wrong in saying that many people do, in fact, think so (and not all of them are French!!). Also, French techniques are still the foundation for all the major cooking schools in the Western world, and the cuisine's influence, I think, is undeniable. But that doesn't mean there aren't other cuisines that are also complex and capable of great variation. I agree that in this country we get only a hint of the richness of Mexican cuisine - the same could be said for Thai and Vietnamese.

              As for examples, I'm not knowledgable enough about cooking terms to give good examples, but I still remember a "cressinade" that my husband and I ate in Paris many years ago. It was so-called because it involved watercress, and chicken livers. It was wonderful, and included a variation on a brown sauce - but though all these ingredients are known to French cooking, they were combined in a way that was unique to this one little restaurant. That's the sort of thing I mean. An example in Japanese cooking? Maybe the imo manju that I had recently at Meiji, here in Chicago. This was a variation on the agedashi-dofu theme: a "tofu" made from potato (imo) rather than soybean, deep fried and stuffed with cubes of eel and ginko nuts, served in a dashi liquid that was flavored with eel broth. Unique, as far as I know, to Meiji's Chef Ishi, but comprised of elements that are typically Japanese.

          2. re: Darren72

            'Why is the cuisine of Vietnam so exciting? Because of the country's colonial history, their food has elements of both their traditional cuisine and French influence.'

            Yes, but the 'traditional' cuisine is made up of many influences including Chinese. I think the French influence has more to do with ingridients, beef for one, than technique.

          3. re: Pupster

            (Yes, I know this is from eight years ago)

            "Only people coming from a Western culinary background would argue it, especially as such a sweeping general statement."

            Ever left the West, Pupster?

            1. re: BuildingMyBento

              Although it's probably fair to say that many Asian cultures also revere French food - take Japan and the number of French restaurants, bakeries etc etc.

              French technique (or more accurately technique codified by some of the great French chefs like Escoffier and CarĂªme) forms the basis of most western cuisines which has been very influential. I do agree that other cuisines are equally great - Indian, Chinese, Japanese etc.

              I think one of common themes behind many of these cuisines is that cooking and great power go hand in hand. So the the "French" classic cuisine from the courts of Europe, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese cuisines from their princes, emperors and imperial dynasties.

              I believe it was the writer Fuchsia Dunlop who made the statement that Chinese cuisine would have a far higher level of recognition if it wasn't for the cultural revolution closing cooking schools, restaurants and "re-educating" chefs.

          4. "Also, French techniques are still the foundation for all the major cooking schools in the Western world"

            Don't tell this to the Italians and if you include Mexico then that is 2 schools of 'Western' cooking that do not use French technique.

            8 Replies
            1. re: KTinNYC

              I am not sure I am reading your post correctly, but if I am, I disagree. actually I think there is a not insignificant French influence in Mexican cooking techniques, which only makes sense given the French ocupation of Mexico. Of course, you might not recognize this eating the food that commonly passes for 'Mexican' at many restaurants in the US.

              1. re: susancinsf

                The first statement in my post is a quote from the previous poster. I do not believe either Italian or Mexican cooking uses French technique.

                1. re: KTinNYC

                  Check out the breads, pastries and the seafood stews next time you are in Mexico....(to give a few examples)

                  1. re: susancinsf

                    The bread, sure. The French influenced a lot of people with baking but I still contend that actually cooking technique in Mexico in the whole has little to do with the French.

                  2. re: KTinNYC

                    The basis of modern French cooking were the techniques introduced by the cooks Catherine de Medici brought from Italy.

                      1. re: Darren72

                        It was an interesting read but the examples really didn't sway me too much to your argument. It would be like pointing out Japanese curry and then saying that British technique really influenced Japanese cooking.

                        1. re: Darren72

                          KTinNYC wrote "It was an interesting read but the examples really didn't sway me too much to your argument."

                          I didn't make any argument regarding Mexican and French cuisines. What are you referring to?

                          You and Susancinsf are talking about the relationship between Mexican and French cuisines. Neither she, nor anyone else, is claiming Mexican cuisine is based on French cuisine. But perhaps there are some connections. This article discusses these connections.

                          If you scroll up, my original reply to the question about great cuisines of the world was to say I liked Mexican!

                  3. "Do we all agree that the greatest cuisine in the world is French?"

                    No. I'd give up French food before I'd give up Chinese, Indian, Italian, or Vietnamese.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      I am not clear why I can't reply right below whoever claimed I said that Mexican food is based on French cuisine (is Darren replying to himself?) but I never said that, and don't believe that to be true for a minute. What I said is that I believe that there is a French influence in Mexican cooking. There are a lot of other influences besides French, as well. Sorry, Robert, I know that you weren't the one claiming that I said that, but this seems to be the closest reply point.

                      1. re: susancinsf

                        For some reason the software limits the number of replies to a post, that is why I had to "reply to myself" so the post appeared in the correct place.

                        In any case, I fixed a typo in my earlier post. I didn't mean to imply that you said Mexican cuisine is based on French cuisine. I meant the opposite, actually. I fixed the typo and hopefully that post is more clear.

                        1. re: Darren72

                          I think all of us in this thread agree that Mexican cooking has French influence but there are many other equally if not more important influences.

                          I think we are still having problems getting use to the new software : )

                    2. I agree with Robert although I would replace Indian with Spanish. Probably throw in Thai also. French is fine, but it's certainly not the end all of goods. Oh, I'd also add Mexican, true Mexican.