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Mar 3, 2010 07:57 AM

Spain had a HUGE impact on its colonies' cuisine. Why didn't France?

Once upon a time, the sun never set on the Spanish empire. And even today, if you go to any city or even a tiny village that once was under Spanish influence, you can taste that influence in the food. In Latin America, that's obvious. Just one example is sofrito. That mainstay of Cuban and Dominican cuisine comes from Spain. But it's also true of, say, the Philippines. For culinary purposes, the Philippines should be considered part of Latin America. The biggest food influence on the Philippines is Spain. Kalderetang kambing, for example, is just like the goat stew you can get in any Dominican restaurant. This is also true of Portugal, and people in Angola eat stews and use marinades a lot like the Portuguese.

The main impact Spain and Portugal had on the world, though, was in bringing foodstuffs and recipes from one colony to another, or to Europe. Potatoes, tomatoes, cassava, chili... we owe all those to Spanish sailors. Some Chinese restaurants in New York offer "Portuguese style" dishes, and what you get is curry, a tribute to the Portuguese traders who brought curry dishes from India to Macao (and thence China) and Japan.

But Britain and France never had that impact on their colonies or on the world. I can't think of any English food that's popular in India or Africa. Perhaps one can understand that. But France, self-proclaimed center and apex of cuisine? French bread did catch on, you can buy baguettes in Algeria, Togo and Vietnam. But why didn't more French foods and cooking techniques spread to West Africa and Southeast Asia?

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  1. I suspect you may underestimate French culinary influence in Vietnam and English influence in India.

    18 Replies
    1. re: Perilagu Khan

      I agree. Specifically, there is consierable French influence in cooking technique in Vietnam. The techniques are applied to different ingredients and tastes, but it is there.

      (there are also things like lactose intolerance being common in Asian peoples [don't know about Vietnam in particular] and the Asian notion that cheese is milk so rotten it has solidified--in other words, why would Asians want to adopt French cooking ingredients with their own rich history of food culture?).

      One could argue that there is little original British food popular anywhere (smile). On the other hand, India has thoroughly and completely "colonized" British food. Hence that chicken tikka masala is the national dish of Britain--a dish with Indian origins, but also adapted by the Brits. But tea time is still going strong in India today, you're just as likely to eat a samosa or other Indian food with your tea.

      1. re: cocktailhour

        "One could argue that there is little original British food popular anywhere (smile)."

        OK. OK. I will rise to the bait. :-0

        This arguing that you suggest could be made? Can we start by agreeing a definition of "original", please?

        My small island nation has always been a seafaring one. It's meant we've exported culinary influences and we've also imported them from places we've visited. For a short period in history, we were the most powerful nation on earth - and probably it's greatest coloniser. So here, we've taken our influences to other countries and brought back others, Finally, we've been an island that's had settlers since Roman times - our native garlic crops date to that period.

        So, when we've agreed on a point in history that we're going to take as the culinary "original" , then let us discuss whether that "original" food is still popular anywhere (including in Britain).

        Returning to the original post, I'd suggest the French empire was quite small and the nature one of administration, so the impact of "home cuisine" on the local population comparitively minimal. I'd take a similar view of Dutch and German colonisation. There was, also, a much briefer time scale for empire than for Spain.

        Of course, one might argue that the most succesful culinary colonisation of the world is the incredibly swift spread of American "fast food".

        1. re: Harters

          Speaking of Dutch, it is interesting that one shelf in the Indonesian section at 99Ranch (a California Chinese grocery chain) is devoted to Dutch (or Dutch style) products, things like chocolate sprinkles.

          Along the same line, the easiest place to find Horlicks Malt powder is Indian, Asian or Caribbean groceries.

          1. re: paulj

            Last week, I was just noticing the surfeit of chocolate sprinkles throughout convenience stores and supermarkets in Jakarta. They never really caught my attention on previous visits, then again, the one dessert I had with them last time - grilled bananas with "cheese" and sprinkles - was not one to fondly remember.

            However, on my next visit to California, I must take a picture of that Indonesian section of 99Ranch.


        2. re: cocktailhour

          "Hence that chicken tikka masala is the national dish of Britain--a dish with Indian origins, but also adapted by the Brits."

          It's not our National dish, although it is popular. And just to be sure, when you say that, it was invented in England by an Indian chef.

          Anyway, That's the great thing about England, we've always been a bit of a mish-mash. So instead of forcing our cooking on everyone else (which is pretty simple cooking), we've taken bits of everyone elses and borrowed it. I'd rather do it that way.

          Even fish and chips has moorish origins.

          1. re: Soop

            ctm is based on butter chicken -- which is an original indian dish.

            1. re: alkapal

              Legend has it that a customer ordered chicken tikka, and then complained that there was no sauce. So the chef added a can of tomato soup.

              1. re: Soop


                fish and chips had moorish origins? potatoes are new world, though.

                1. re: alkapal

                  Specificallly, fish and chips in Britain are supposed to be of Sephardic Jewish origin, which would of course originally have been a subset of Moorish culture (Moorish Spain of the "three religions").

                  But of course potatoes are originally from South America, what is now Peru.

                  1. re: lagatta

                    are (were) there lots of sephardic jews in england? how long has fish and chips been a national dish?

                    1. re: alkapal

                      Lots, no, but a couple of very promenent members of this community were Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and Moses Montefiore. "Fish and Chips: a Sephardic Delicacy"

                      And this guy traces ancestors of this dish back to ancient Persia, via Bagdad, on to Moorish Spain ...

                      1. re: alkapal

                        Ah, I can answer that one.

                        Fried potatoes have been around in Britain for as long as there have been potatoes. There is a clear record of the first shop selling chips in 1860 in Oldham ( a town a few minutes drive away from me).

                        It is certainly believed that the fish in batter element was brought to Britain by Jewish immigrants, also in the mid 19th century. The two main cities to which they immigrated were London and Manchester (the centre of the metro area of which Oldham is now part).

                        The first accurately recorded shop selling both fish and chips is 1863 in Mossley - a small town near to Oldham. There is a possible rival earlier claim by London but it hasn been possible to substantiate its establishment between either 1860 or 1865.

                        It very quickly became a national dish, offering cheap food for the working class. It was particularly popular in Roman Catholic areas for Friday suppers. Although we're no longer a particularly religious society here, I'd reckon Friday is still the most popular night to get a chippy takeaway.

                        1. re: Harters

                          thanks lagatta and harters! i really enjoyed the article from "the language of food" blog -- i'm bookmarking that site. the blogger sure gives a lot of interesting culinary history (though he never dealt with the "chips.").

              2. re: Soop

                I thought it was a Bangladeshi cook in Glasgow who invented CTM.

                1. re: lulubelle

                  Pretty much generally accepted these days - and a particular restaurant claims it. Of course, that's pretty good PR :-0

                  1. re: Harters

                    Bangladesh needs to have a positive reputation for something! Pretty much all people think about when they hear the name of the country is poverty and corrupt government. (oh, and George Harrison)

                    1. re: lulubelle

                      Poverty, but also very industrious people. They seem to be very proud people too, when you look at photos of Bangladeshi garment workers mourning their dead at Rana Plaza and other places. They are beautifully dressed, though the ladies must wash all their cotton garments by hand before or after setting off to work, in incredibly chaotic traffic.

                      Just as their counterparts in Manchester did, so long ago.

                2. re: Soop

                  Don't forget Birmingham Balti dishes!

            2. Spain had a much longer colonial presence than did France or Britain, which may account for some of the disparity. The fact that the British Empire peaked during an age of Orientalism may also account for some aspect of certain colonial powers being more influenced by their holdings than vice versa (v. Dutch cuisine). But while the Spanish influence is readily visible after 500 years of colonization, other colonial powers certainly had an influence on their holdings, even if not to the same degree. There is a genre of Western foods that are popular in Britain's former Southeast Asian colonies. Custard, white bread and other conveniences are also certain English contributions. France contributed its pastries and bread to its former holdings. Britain's greatest legacy is probably the Indianization of cuisines throughout its empire. The fact that Indian cuisine so readily influenced the food of Britain's tropical holdings may also give a clue as to why Spain had so much greater an influence on the cuisines of its empires than its counterparts: the availability and convenience of the temperate foodways of England and France in their African and tropical holdings.

              1. Bahn Mi sandwiches comes to my mind as an influence of french cuisine in it's former colony of Vietnam

                also not to forget, but french cooking often requires more elaborate cooking techniques/materials, which are often not available or not usable in many of it's former colonies

                11 Replies
                1. re: westaust

                  I like the approach taken by the writer of this blog:

                  where he quotes from a book that quotes the ambassador from Siam to France in the 17th century, on the subject of French food:
                  "Here are few spices and much meat, and an attraction of quantity replaces piquant wholesomeness.”

                  In other words, when you have the glories of Thai, Indian, Chinese, etc. cuisines, why would any French (leave alone British) cooking appeal? :


                  It's easier (I think) to adapt from bland to spicy cuisine than vice versa (maybe due to the addictiveness of capsaicin).

                  France may be the "self-proclaimed" apex of food culture, but it's not self-evident that it would appeal globally to people of totally different and equally if not more rich foodways.

                  Other than the spread of the foods Jungmann pointed out: breads, pastries, custard, chocolate, etc.

                  Where India was concerned, though new 'ingredients' (chilies, potatoes, tomatoes etc) were embraced, actual dishes were less adopted/adapted (differences in skill sets, Indian food restrictions, differences in underlying tastes, and cultures: e.g. large dishes requiring cutlery vs small-diced ingredients easily hand-eaten, etc.).

                  Now of course, everything is being swamped in the new contributions of the new world: a global tide of Coca Cola, McD, and Cheese Pizza.

                  1. re: Rasam

                    Very early on (Renaissance) France had a strong influence from Italy. I'd say a civilising influence, but that would be a bit presumptuous, as lagatta de Montréal.

                    Is "Cheese Pizza" a brand? I suppose you mean greasy pizza with too much fatty cheese. I never touch CC or its acolytes, or McDo, but I do make pizzas that incorporate some cheese.

                  2. re: westaust

                    Pho is also a descendant of French pot-au-feu, I've heard.

                    1. re: LiaM

                      Exactly. The national dish of Vietnam is derived from the French. Also, not completely food related, but I don't think you can discount the consumption of gin (Bombay?) and the obsession with kricket throughout India.

                      1. re: southernitalian

                        OMG our national dish is NOT derived from French!!!

                        1. re: southernitalian

                          Not to mention Scotch Whisky! And cricket is of course as popular in Pakistan as in India.

                        2. re: LiaM

                          And banh mi = pain de mie.

                          My Francophile/French in-laws' favorite French restaurant here in LA County was a place down in Rosemead called La Vie, run by a Vietnamese chef and staffed mostly by his family. Papa liked it because the cooking was very correctly classic French, and because it was relatively cheap. Still is, I'm sure.

                          And let us not forget that Ho Chi Min was a classically trained (and I'm told very good) patisseur, a pastry chef.

                          1. re: LiaM

                            Pho has some culinary influences from french techniques like brulee of the onions and using beef bones, but pho definitely does not directly descend from pot au feu, The spices are very chinese and the use of rice noodles and herbs is very vietnamese. The french like to claim credit to everything, but the more likely story is that french masters probably forced vietnamese to slaughter their oxen (or probably brought their own cattle over) to satisfy their typically french appetite for red meat (white meat is more typical in vietnamese cuisine) and all the leftover tougher parts and bones were used by the frugal vietnamese to make pho.

                            If we can point to any real french influences, I would say any pastry, use of pate, or dairy like cheese and yogurt are directly the result of french colonial influence. Some also argue that banh xeo is a descendent of crepes

                            1. re: LiaM

                              This is wrong! Pho is not a French dish. Firstly pho has nothing to do with feu. It is the name of the noodle not the name of the dish. I don't know how many times I have to repeat this explanation. The French love to claim everything as their influence and also over glorifyng their culture. In Hanoi we have pho cuon spring rolls using the pho noodle, pho xao stir fried pho and many other dishes called pho. Pho is the name of the noodle not the dish. There's nothing French about Pho, it uses the same technique that other noodle soups use. Pho is our national dish and it's very offensive for other people to claim that it is a French dish! French influence in Vietnam is not even that strong. Most Vietnamese doesn't know anything about France. Our biggest influence, language, culture, cuisine is China. Also another thing is that the french need to stop including Vietnam as a Francophone country to make their lamguage look better because no one speaks French in Vietnam

                              1. re: kimph

                                I have met many Vietnamese people who speak beautiful French. Vietnam is part of the Francophonie for economic and cultural benefits (including facilities for students to get bourses to France and Québec). I'm certainly not saying that to insinuate that traditional Vietnamese foods are French, and yes, of course I know that pho are noodles.

                          2. I assume that the respective climates would also play a role. Spain, being a warm, Mediterranean climate, probably has more in common with the climates of its (tropical and subtropical) colonies than England or France, with their Marine West Coast climates of cool summers. Therefore, it would be easier to grow Spanish ingredients in colonies compared to English or French ones. That said, there was certainly much British influence on the American Colonies! And there are similar climatologies. Weather and climate certainly don't explain everything, but they would account for *some* of the difference.

                            5 Replies
                            1. re: nofunlatte

                              Totally agree - and along the same lines, think about the predominant cooking fats in those areas - Spaniards use a lot of olive oil and a little bit of pork fat but very little butter or poultry fat, like you see in France and England. Butter lends itself to different cooking techniques than oil (lower heat, more braising and baking and less frying).

                              1. re: kathleen440

                                While I agree that the Spanish had a huge impact on the food of their Latin American colonies (From around 1500 till independence in the 1810s is a long time), olive oil use was lost, at least in many areas. Large parts of Chile have a mediterranean climate like in Spain, yet olive oil is only coming into vogue now--and is quite expensive.

                                1. re: Wawsanham

                                  "New Spain was exploited for the benefit of Spain with little reinvestment . Many of the colonists who came to New Spain wanted to make their wealth and return to Spain.....

                                  Commerce was controlled by royal decree. All trade with New Spain had to be approved by Spain and carried on Spanish ships and through the one official port of Vera Cruz to collect duties .
                                  ... .Industries that could compete with those of Spain were prohibited and was trade with other countries, so New Spain produced few manufactured goods for export .One example of this is the olive and wine industry, introduced by friars but eventually banned by Spain as competing with Spanish growers ."

                                2. re: kathleen440

                                  That doesn't really apply in the Maghreb, where a lot of "pied noir" colonists came from the south of France or other parts of Mediterranean Europe. Not a huge difference in climate.

                                3. re: nofunlatte

                                  took the thought right out of my head.

                                  Nobody's mentioned Creole cooking from the Mississippi Delta region of the US -- absolutely undeniable French roots there.

                                4. Regarding Japan- Traditionally (before 20th century), outside of China, the country with the greatest influence on Japanese cuisine is England. The English brought curry to Japan as well as Worchestershire sauce (which the Japanese took to be the Western analog to soy sauce!), as well as western/continental techniques that formed the basis for Yoshoku cuisine. There was a lot of French influence as well since Meiji Era policy sought to bring in expertise from France and England...and Germany as well, but they left little impact on the food. And I'm reading more that the Dutch are responsible for introducing various western vegetables to Japan. Their presence was much more substantial than Spain or Portugal. Though, the Portuguese are credited with introducing tempura as a means of eating dodgy fish during Lent.

                                  There is no Spanish influence in Japan that I can think of. The word for Spain in Japanese is based on the English pronunciation "Spain" rather than "Espana" which probably indicates very little historical contact or influence.

                                  5 Replies
                                  1. re: Silverjay

                                    ...also, bread from Portuguese as well.

                                    1. re: Silverjay

                                      Yes. I only recently realized how many Chinese baked goods are Portuguese derived.

                                    2. re: Silverjay

                                      "There is no Spanish influence in Japan that I can think of. The word for Spain in Japanese is based on the English pronunciation "Spain" rather than "Espana" which probably indicates very little historical contact or influence."
                                      There's one that springs to my mind immediately:

                                      One could also make an argument for Botarga (most of the Western Mediterranean islands were under Castillian rule at the critical time). Then there'd be a case for Karasumi, one of the three most celebrated Japanese delicacies, having Spanish origins, even if, like Castella, it made its way to Japan via the influence of other nations.

                                      1. re: Silverjay

                                        and of course the Portuguese brought japan tempura.