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Dec 8, 2009 09:09 AM

The death of national cuisines

Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems that most national cuisines evolved out of a history of relatively isolated local food sources and practices. For example, sushi is considered a Japanese food item because it was not exported outside the country until it had for the most part evolved into its current standard form. Similarly, curries are considered representative of Indian cuisine because the cooking techniques and traditions associated with it had pretty much been standardized by the time Victorian England discovered it. You can say the same about many other "national" (cultural may be a better term) dishes such as tamales, stinky tofu, pho, etc. In some ways, this was possible because their development occurred during a time when geographic isolation (e.g., travel before the jet age) meant cooks could mainly work only with local ingredients. Additionally, information exchange was much more difficult and slow, and it is reasonably to imagine that food trends did not travel outside a local area as fast, if at all.

Given the easy availability of what were previously purely local ingredients and the quick dissemination information about local food trends, are we witnessing the death of new national cuisines?

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  1. Interesting topic.

    I'm not certain globalization in all its many forms is so much destroying national cuisines as introducing other cuisines to them. In other words, nations around the world may come to resemble America insofar as a multiplicity of cuisines, rather than a single national cuisine, will be found there. Naturally, this means that the home cuisine will have to share the table, so to speak, with the parvenus, but it does not mean the home cuisine will disappear.

    All in all, I regard this as a positive development inasmuch as variety is the spice of life, at least when it comes to food.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Perilagu Khan

      Good point about home cooking.

      In terms of new dishes, I suppose that for it to be established as a recognized national dish it would first have to become popular with a critical mass of people within a region. In thinking of an example of a recent "national food," the only one I could come up with is bubble tea, which reportedly did not appear until the 1980s in Taiwan. Of course, it had to become popular locally before some enterprising business person decided to export it to the US and beyond (the first time I remember seeing bubble tea in the west coast was in the late 90s).

      Let's take the above scenario, however. Assume bubble tea was invented in Taiwan today. I can imagine CHers writing posts about this new drink they just had recently. Soon enough people outside Taiwan are making bubble teas and adding their own variations to the original formula. Would bubble tea be considered a Taiwanese (or even Asian) drink at that point?

    2. Examined fully, what you're talking about is a massively complex phenomenon with political, religious and social factors playing significant roles in addition to improvements in transportation and communication. But first off, I think you're overstating the degree to which any major cuisine develops "in isolation" and remains static for any historically significant period of time. In short, no, I don't think any "cultural" cuisines will be dying any time soon but the problem of course is defining what that means.

      The rate of change has been steadily increasing since the dawn of the Industrial Age, but I think you're grossly underestimating a constant historical trend to adopt new ingredients and to a lesser extent, cooking techniques, as they became available. And they were "becoming available" long before air transportation or the Internet. All cuisines change and adapt over time and different segments of populations adopt - or shun - changes at different rates. And while jet transportation is - for the time being anyway - comparatively cheap, an amazing number of foodstuffs and food preparation techniques were disseminated throughout the world by sailing vessels long before the steam engine was invented.

      A few easy examples are corn, beans, tomatoes/potatoes/eggplants, chocolate, vanilla and perhaps most importantly chile peppers, which were unknown outside the Americas until the 16th century. Is "Indian food" without chiles, eggplant and potatoes still "Indian"? Is Thai food Thai without the chiles and eggplants? European, without tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant, or for that matter rice (which the Moorish Arabs brought with them to Spain)?

      12 Replies
      1. re: MikeG

        That is correct, but the OP is also correct in noting that the rate of change has increased dramatically. And I would specificy, that in the case of the US, this change has been hastened not only by technology, but by dramatic liberalization of immigration policies in the mid-60s which has produced a tidal wave of Third World immigrants who have brought their own foodways and ingredients that have altered American cuisine dramatically. Compare the American cookbook and restaurant scene in 2009 to that in 1959 to get a picture of how radical this change has been.

        Now that said, Americans still eat pot pies, chicken and dumplings, and other "retro" dishes. But those dishes now share the spotlight with pho, sushi, injera, gai ga pao and empanadas.

        1. re: Perilagu Khan

          Apart from top-down socio-political pressure to conform to a vague/generalized WASP standard that really hit its stride in the late 19th century, I don't think "the United States" ever had a unitary "cultural" cuisine to begin with.

          Which raises the further issue of what exactly constitutes a "cultural" cuisine. Within any large political unit there will always be a lot of variation. Historically, South French cuisine is dramatically different from that in the north, Chinese and Indian cuisines vary *enormously* from region to region. Even in much smaller countries, there is a great deal of variation from place to place both in basic ingredients as well as cooking techniques.

          1. re: MikeG

            I haven't read this whole thread, but, I've recently been reading a number of books of recipes during "Colonial" America. Most of them are clearly tied to English recipes (many of which are still found in England today, but have either died out here, or are so changed that they bear little resemblance to the original), but there are also a number that clearly reflect the French and Spanish influences.

            Edit - reading the OP's comments about curries, there are a number of curry recipes (though clearly "anglicized" sp?) in those colonial recipes.

            1. re: MMRuth

              The United States is after all the "heir" to what started out as a bunch of Dutch, English, French, and Spanish colonies. :) And needless to say, massive subsequent waves of immigration not only shaped "American" cuisine but in some regions arguably defined it (like post-colonial German and Scandinavian immigration to the Midwest.)

            2. re: MikeG

              While it is true that American cuisine was never monolithic, I think it is patently undeniable that it is far more variegated now than it was, say, 125 years ago. As MMRuth alludes to, the stock that made up the American people was originally overwhelmingly British whereas the modern American volk incorporates not only the British root, but mittel European and southern European components, as well an increasing welter of Third-World elements. And that's not even taking into consideration the modern technological advances that have facilitated the fracturing if not the elimination of the old more homogeneous America cuisine.

              I suspect very strongly that this American model is being replicated throughout all technologically advanced nations that have liberal immigration regulations and an economy vibrant enough to attract immigrants.

              1. re: Perilagu Khan

                I've tried to write a reply to this several times, but can't get past an outline for a 30+ page thesis. (rofl) But in short, you're talking about "American" cuisine such as it is and one of my basic premises in this sort of discussion is that America does not now, and never has had, a "national cuisine" of the sort I think the OP is talking about.

                And fwiw, for the foreseeable future, anyway, and for a lot of reasons to numerous to mention briefly, I don't think you'll find countries that have arguably well-defined "national cuisines" in the category of those that encourage large-scale, permanent immigration.

                [Edit] I'm not sure I would call it an "American" model in the first place, but I certainly don't disagree that "cuisines" do change over time, for many reasons. I was just disagreeing with the OP's suggestion that a major cause of that change is "simply" an increased exposure to foreign ingredients and foodways.

                1. re: MikeG

                  Yes, I do think that is part of the issue. In a way, we do have an American cuisine, but it is a polygot cuisine. I've been spending more and more time reading pre-20th Century cookbooks, and books about English cooking - both old and more recent, and this issue really is a fascinating one. Here's a link to a discussion about a book I read I while back, where the English author had very circumscribed ideas about what ingredients were, and were not, "permissible" in true English cooking.


                  I find these sorts of discussions intellectually very interesting but, at the end of the day, continue to seek out deliciousness where ever I can find it.

                  1. re: MikeG

                    Well, how do you define "national cuisine"? If you can answer that question we can make some headway toward answering the question of whether or not America ever had one.

                    PS--I would argue that several Western European nations (France, Germany, Spain, Italy, etc.) have fairly well defined national cuisines, and as of the present, all of them have fairly porous borders. As a result, North African and Middle Eastern cuisines are appearing in abundance in those countries alongside the traditional host cuisine.

                    1. re: Perilagu Khan

                      How do I define "national cuisine"? "Simple": the cuisine of a nation. (lol) That's part of the problem. The original poster raised a host of issues in a "simple" statement. It would take me a couple of pages to coherently parse out my initial reaction. ;)

                      But meanwhile, the OP was concerned about the potential "death" of "national cuisines" due to "the easy availability of what were previously purely local ingredients and the quick dissemination information about local food trends."

                      I think not. While I think ever-increasing globalization has and will continue to have a profound impact on the world's eating habits/patterns, I think the changes will be the result of "non-culinary" factors, not simply the availability of additional foodstuffs or awareness of others' eating habits.

                      1. re: Perilagu Khan

                        People say that the US and Canada don't have a national cuisine, but I think they do. The cuisine of the US and Canada, as I see it, is defined by fresh, local ingredients, freshly prepared. The Westerners who settled this land were glad just to survive another day, so the cuisine is simple, hearty, with the occasional regional flourish. Georgia peaches! Quebec blueberries! It's a make do with what we have sort of mentality, and it was the Native people who first taught the Westerners how to prepare their corn, squash, and so on. Simply, with reverence, and above all gratitude.

                        1. re: bakersdelight

                          If it is defined by fresh, local ingredients, how can either Canada and the US, the second and third largest by land area respectively, and probably third and first most geologically and meteorologically diverse respectively, possibly have unified national cuisines? Native cuisines (native meaning contemporary natives of the nations, not aboriginal peoples) certainly. But how those could be unified in such diverse places, particularly when those places were cobbled together from culturally distinct colonies and then subjected to several waves of the largest human migrations, both forced and unforced, that have ever occurred?

                2. re: Perilagu Khan

                  The mentioning of empanadas is a good case--really they are pies. The chicken pot pie, if it wasn't in a pot/tin would be refered to as an empanada in Latin America. I'm pretty sure that even as it is, it would be described as an "empanada." Milk caramel has been renamed as dulce de leche. Sometimes it's just the same food.

              2. I'm not sure this is directly on topic but something to think about. My mother-in-law left Ireland in the 60's. At the time, the part of the country she lived in was very poor and food was basic at best. She goes back every 2 or 3 years and it's turned out that her county has become a very popular golf destination with lots of hotels and inns. Whenever she goes back, she laughs at the menus at some of these places who cater to mostly American (Irish-American) tourists who think they are having a unique irish experience (probably think they're eating like their ancestors did!) when in fact nothing could be farther from the truth. Until recenlty, only the very wealthy in Ireland had access to good food. So the resorts have invented a national cuisine!

                1 Reply
                1. re: southernitalian

                  I do see certian "Chefs" making money of certain national cusines...The smple fact is these days, if it aint nailed down, somebody is going to claim it as their own.

                  simple peoples all around the world have been eating their traditional... dishes for generations, who knew that some chefs from the Foof Netwrk would be getting rich "Interpreting" simple dishes eaten by the masses.

                  So long as the traditionalist continue to make their dishes and pass them down...this trend will soon pass.

                2. I started cooking from the age that I could reach the dials on the stove. My mom studied in cooking in France and always said the french no matter what stay true to there recipes. I also believe that all this fusion this and deconstruction that has it's place, as long as tradition and the original dishes do not lose there place in culinary history. I urge all people to learn at least one or two dishes to save your own heritage. I do love fusion sometimes

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: pikiliz

                    "My mom studied in cooking in France and always said the french no matter what stay true to there recipes."

                    At what point do you freeze time and say, okay this is our true cuisine. For example, at what point was "French Food" unquestionably French, 1850, 1950?

                    1. re: KTinNYC

                      See Waverly Root's "The Food of France" and AJ Liebling's "Between Meals" (which he claimed was occasioned by Root's book.) Liebling remarks that some regions were sufficiently distant from each other to maintain their traditions in the days before teh automobile but he lamented the rise of the Michelin guide--a means of selling tires, which he thought not unimportant. Much of what is being talked about here is touched on in Liebling. Mr Root stole all his ideas from Mario Bataglia a few years before Bataglia was born.

                      1. re: KTinNYC

                        As far as my late pa-in-law was concerned, "French food" meant what he ate there when he visited as a boy in the '30s, and what he ate there after the war. He had no patience with any newfangled messing with tradition, and was deeply annoyed when he was served snails swimming in their butter in the indentations of the dish, instead of in their shells. In the pre-war years his French relatives would take the train from their summer place near Macon over to Vonnas, and dine at the famous Mère Blanc. When we visited there in '91 we made the trek to Mme. Blanc's place, now run by her grandson Georges Blanc. We could not afford the restaurant, but lunched at the Auberge - same chef, plainer food. It was very good, not old-fashioned at all but good solid fare, nicely presented. Papa clearly thought the place had gone to hell... however, the cook at the family's place, though Spanish, had the Cuisine Bourgeois down pat; she definitely stayed "true to their recipes"!

                    2. Here in the UK, there is very much a growing return to restaurants cooking local, seasonal foods in a traditional (but updated) style. We've done the globalisation thing of being able to have asparagus every month of the year. Now, you'll see a Michelin starred chef have Lancashire Hotpot on his menu (and it was the best hotpot you'd ever want to taste).

                      Or, by way of further example, this place a few minutes drive away: