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Grand Cuisines of the World

Reading through alot of food related writing, I often find writers mentioning Chinese and French as the world's "great" cuisines. Sometimes, you'll also hear Mexican, Indian, and Japanese. What do you think compels writers to declare Chinese and French as "great" cuisines? I would guess part of it is due to the immense impact that both cuisines had on the cultures of their respective geographical boundaries. To be honest, i'm not very knowledgable about French cuisine but I love Chinese and Indian cuisine for the sheer diversity of flavors, ingredients, and styles of preparation. I am sure everyone has their own criteria for "great" cuisines but I am curious as to what everyone else would choose if they were to determine their own list of "grand" cuisines. For me, Chinese and Indian would definitely be on the list.... French as well for it's impact on Western culinary culture in general..

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  1. Yeah I read something similar years ago and there are basically 3 factors:
    1) A royal kitchen - Eager to impress the king and queen etc and w/ the resources to do so.
    2) A long dynastic run - To ensure coherence and refinement of cuisine.
    3) Access to spices, meats, fish, etc.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Chinon00

      I often see Japanese being listed as the 3rd of the "great" cuisines nowadays but going by those 3 factors alone I suppose Japanese cuisine cant really be included due historically lacking access to a variety of spices, ingredients, as well as being basically pesco vegetarian. It seems Japanese culinary influence on world culinary culture is relatively recent in comparison to the historical influences of Chinese and French cuisine. Going by those 3 factors, Indian cuisine could be included no? They had access to an extremely large variety of spices/ingredients just like the Chinese, and I do believe the royal Mughal kitchens would qualify for factor #1.

      1. re: cpa314

        Dunno a whole lot about the history of Japanese or Indian cuisine. But from what I've seen when it comes to pure artistic flair of their cuisine the Japanese, Chinese and French are second to none. Also the source I read listed Turkish cuisine as well.

      2. re: Chinon00

        Korean cuisine may fit in nicely then. Though, like in many places meat wasn't always fit for the hoi polloi, and their access to tropical spices was limited (though cinnamon seems prominent these days).

        1. re: BuildingMyBento

          I'm not sure if historically Korea would fit into the 3rd factor. The climate there was not exactly beneficial to the growing of a large variety of fresh vegetables... hence, the emphasis on pickled vegetables such as Kimchi to allow for the consumption of vegetables during harsh Winter months.

      3. The world's great cuisines? Have folks from Honfleur and Nice make a fish soup. Roast duck from Hong Kong or Peking. Mulligatawny from Delhi or London. Each is influenced from the culture it comes from and resides in. I love the fact that MacDonalds serves wine in France and beer in Germany.

        So the "great" cuisines? Ones that have made a world wide impact? Wendy's, MacDonald's, Taco Bell, and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

        In a region of 250,000 and a vibrant community from the sub-continent, we have one dining establishment of Indian cuisine. Two German. A rough dozen sushi/Japanese. One high end French. And a plethora of pizza places and half a plethora of Italian places. And finally an amalgam of "Fusion".

        While our French does not have an entrecote, it does have sirloin and rib eye.

        1 Reply
        1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

          Two German restaurants in a region of only a quarter million? An anomaly - a lucky one, but nevertheless...

        2. Everything Chinon00 said about continuity

          I would add the royal influence in what we have come to call "technique & method" ,much of which began as indulgence,excess,spectacle.Getting the food,feast from a kitchen how far away and still be ? a feast for the eyes and impress the audience.
          Forks,knives with round tips,dumb waiters and restaurants are recent history.The hot meal as we know is very recent.

            1. There's a difference between "great" and "greatly influential." You can find great food anywhere on earth if you look hard enough, but Euro-centric cuisine has had a major influence on those former colonies. French food used to be a kind of standard; every royal house and industrialist castle boasted a French trained cook. English cooks were so intent on apeing their French counterpart that their own cooking fell into disrepute. Rationing almost killed it off. Fortunately, they're rescuing the cheeses and livestock breeds that were near extinction. I think as more cultures crosspolinate and rediscover old ways of doing things in the kitchen, the distinctions between "great" and "near great" cuisines will matter less and less.

              1. Those so inclined may be interested in this book - Three World Cuisines by Ken Albala -http://www.amazon.com/Three-World-Cui...

                It's actually a textbook to support some of his classes at UOP. In it he discusses the roots, history, culture, evolution, agriculture, cooking methods, utensils and more. At the end of each chapter are "study" questions (I told you it was a text book <gg>) that help the reader understand, clarify and develop the concepts presented in each chapter. After the study questions are 1 - 3 recipes from each cuisine that illustrate the concepts in the chapter.

                The first three chapters are:
                - Theory of Gastronomy
                - Historical Background
                - Technology, Techniques & Utensils

                The remaining chapters all deal with ingredients like grains, vegetables, fruits, meat, fish & shell fish, fats, and so forth. I just received the book late last week and have not had a chance to delve into it very thoroughly yet, but I've got this holiday break coming up to do so, and I am eagerly anticipating doing just that.

                I have long contented that the 3 great cuisines fo the world are (in alphabetical order) - Chinese, Italian and Mexican. Why? Because each is closely tied to and grew out of the relationship to the soil, ground, land and is a reflection of the environment and culture and can still be easily seen and identified today.

                The French? They didn't have much cuisine to speak of until they imported Catherine d'Medici via marriage...

                17 Replies
                1. re: DiningDiva

                  "Because each is closely tied to and grew out of the relationship to the soil, ground, land and is a reflection of the environment and culture and can still be easily seen and identified today."

                  And that's NOT the case with Japan, Italy, or a thousand other cultures?

                  1. re: monkeyrotica

                    Ah, but see how doing one post with slightly challengable stuff results in 20 immediate posts telling me I'm wrong.

                    So how many _____________(fill in the blank with any ethnicity you want) does it take to change a light bulb?

                    This is a lot like opening the "authenticity" can of worms. Everyone has an opinion and anyone who doesn't agree with it is wrong :-D

                  2. re: DiningDiva

                    It's true that Catherine de Medici had a great influence on France, but just as, or more important, were the previous hundreds of years of monasteries in France that were developing recipes (cheeses, sausages), liquors, etc... France was in a particularly good position due to a fairly large population, good climate, etc...
                    Italian, Chinese, and Mexican cuisines have also been influenced by outside factors, have had their own Catherine de Medicis so to speak in the form of conquistadors, traders, new vegetables and ingredients being introduced.

                    1. re: DiningDiva

                      I have long contented that the 3 great cuisines fo the world are (in alphabetical order) - Chinese, Italian and Mexican. Why? Because each is closely tied to and grew out of the relationship to the soil, ground, land and is a reflection of the environment and culture and can still be easily seen and identified today.

                      I think that's a bit too overgeneralized don't you think?

                      What about African cuisine? Certainly, I don't want to clump an entire continent as one singular cuisine, but let's take Ethiopian foods. I would say that Ethiopian cuisine is very much tied to the soil and to their environment and probably can still be readily identified today -- probably more so than say "Chinese" food which has taken so many turns and iterations through the centuries that what was considered "Chinese" waaay back when is certainly not what we would consider "Chinese" today.

                      I think we tend to think of certain cuisines -- be it Chinese, Italian, French or whatever -- as "great" or whatever because they are popular.

                      And I think they are popular more because of social and/or political demographics than anything to do with soil or the environment.

                      I really think it's the hegemony of Western culture -- and the peculiar tastes and preferences of Western culture -- that has led to the general notion that certain cuisines are "great" (or greater) than other ones.

                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        The West is and long has been an "information society," and it has been a society that is curious about what lies outside its borders. It is almost uniquely panoptical. For that reason, the very concept of "world's great cuisines" is far more likely to be bruited in the West than elsewhere.

                        1. re: ipsedixit

                          There's definitely some ethnocentrism going on in this attitude, which is particularly ironic considering that Mecca had public street lighting when most of Northern Europe were cowering in the lord's castle.

                          1. re: monkeyrotica

                            Speaking of ethnocentrism. Or, if you're not Arabic, hesperophobia. At any rate, I don't think you want to get into a debate about which societies have authored the most significant contributions to human existence.

                            1. re: Perilagu Khan

                              I think Chowhounds have made the most significant contributions to human existence ...

                              1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                Well, that's my point. By claiming "greatness" for one or two cuisines, you've marginalized the rest. In the study of history, there's something called the Great Man Theory that dictates that powerful individuals--your Napoleons, Muhammads, and Shakespeares--use their power to make decisive impacts on history. The countertheory proposed by Herbert Spencer is that great men are the products of their societies; their greatness would not be possible without conditions created by their environments. I'd posit that with regard to cuisine, both theories are obviously in play. But given the accelerated rate of change and adaptation, the influence of any single cuisine has been greatly diminished.

                                1. re: monkeyrotica

                                  Greatness--notice, no scare quotes--is greatness. If a cuisine is great, it is great. And if other cuisines are comparatively inferior, well, thems the breaks.

                              2. re: monkeyrotica

                                @Perilagu Khan and @monkeyrotica

                                Agree with both of you.

                                And, also, consider the audience that this question is posed to.

                                I bet the answer, or responses, would be quite different if you were to ask a mainlander from China, or an Ethiopian or a Sao Paulistano/Paulistana.

                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                  Indeed. Just replace the "Grand Cuisines" in the title with "Best Barbecue" and watch the fur fly. Totally subjective.

                                  1. re: monkeyrotica

                                    It's funny, because if you asked my mom this question, a woman who has been in the restaurant biz all her life, but who really doesn't enjoy nor truly appreciates Western cuisines, and told her the answer was "Chinese, Mexican and Italian" she would look at you and say, "How can that be? All the Mexicans and Italians do is add cheese to everything."

                              3. re: ipsedixit

                                "we tend to think of certain cuisines -- be it Chinese, Italian, French or whatever -- as "great" or whatever because they are popular"

                                I don't think that French cuisine is all that popular in the US. Very few assay to prepare it; commercially Mexican and even American dining establishments are far more numerous than French.

                                1. re: FrankJBN

                                  High end French and French bistros are very popular however they cannot be as ubiquitous as say Maggianno's, Buca De Beppi, and other mid range Mexican places. And it terms of influence most high end kitchens are heavily informed by French cooking.

                                  1. re: FrankJBN

                                    By "popular" I don't just mean in terms of total number of restaurants, although that is part of the equation.

                                    Part of popularity also has to account for it's presence and dominance in popular culture and fabric. For example, dishes like crepes, omelets, croissants, escargots and quiche, to name just a few, are prevalent in Western culture, and have their origins in French cuisine. Same could be said for desserts, e.g. tarts, macaroons, creme brulee, eclairs, mousses, etc.

                                    And it's not just dishes or food items, but also techniques, such as mother sauces or making a roux, or using a bain-marie, etc.

                              4. I'm uncomfortable with the concept of there being "great" cuisine. It's like saying there's such a thing as a "best" meal. What does that even mean? Reminds me of those pointless Top Ten List of Top Ten Lists list.

                                It also reminds me of the Raymond Chandler quote, "There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that."

                                7 Replies
                                1. re: monkeyrotica

                                  "I'm uncomfortable with the concept of there being "great" cuisine. It's like saying there's such a thing as a "best" meal."

                                  It's not at all like that. One can acknowledge that Babe Ruth was a great baseball player without asserting that he was the best baseball player.

                                  That said, I have long counted French, Chinese and Italian cuisines as among the worlds greats, not nly for theri influence but for their realization.

                                  1. re: monkeyrotica

                                    Of course taste is subjective but I think when people identify "Great" Cuisines, it is generally by the historical influence the cuisine has had. For example, Chinese cuisine's influence is very evident in the cuisines of Asia in general as seen in the use of things such as soy sauce, tofu, chopsticks, the wok,etc.. It's not an argument of which cuisine is better than the other. I guess I am just curious as to how food writers came to the conclusion that Chinese and French were quintessential "Grand Cuisines".

                                    1. re: monkeyrotica

                                      To me "great cuisine" is more about contribution to technique,method and development of ingredients and less about what we eat today.
                                      France and China made huge contributions to the domestication of livestock,fruit and vegetables in a very codified way early.They certainly weren't alone but they did get so much that became universal early that lasted and cast a long shadow for a long time.
                                      Original or first,maybe not,but they did codify much first,even if they stole it at sword point.
                                      Plant breeding,cultivar selection,grafting and seeds with written record keeping and "special"seed saving were early exports as conquer your neighbor and take home with you.The Norman conquest comes to mind.
                                      Both have a long history of training and exporting chefs feudal or not.Of course other cultures were training but Japan as an example of not exporting.Who got it around gets remembered often.
                                      Tomatoes,potatoes and peppers a prime example of the reverse,we mostly don't think of the Spanish and the Portuguese explorers first when eating them.

                                      1. re: lcool

                                        But those French and Chinese contributions did not happen in a vaccuum. Egypt was one of the earliest nation states to develop wine. Of course, it tasted nothing like what we have today. It was used primarily for religious rituals. They used a variety of herbs and resins to preserve the wine for transport, but these techniques were taken back to Greece by the Ptolemys and applied to local grape varietals. When Rome conquered Greece, those techniques were taken back to Italy, where grapes found much more fertile soil than Greece. Greek soil having been heavily eroded by centuries of erosion because they cleared so many trees to make way for olive groves, which themselves contributed to the drain on soil nutrients. The Romans refined winemaking techniques and brought them along when they conquered Gaul. When the Roman empire collapsed, the Catholic Church was one of few repositories of this knowledge that survived the sack of Rome by the Vandals and Goths. Their monasteries set to work preserving and expanding the knowledge of winemaking, helping it to evolve to what we have today. So those French contributions were based on centuries of others. So determing what's "great" is like that saying about making movies: the ending depends on when you stop telling your story.

                                        1. re: monkeyrotica

                                          I agree completely with your history and your articulation would make you welcome at my table anytime.
                                          for fun
                                          What if the Egyptians,Macedonians,Romans or Persians went far enough east to meet China coming west ?Instead of The Crusaders and Church of Rome meet the tip end of the Silk Road to gift us with the plague,the compass,a new outlook on paper and later printing,moveable type and gun powder.
                                          Religion,organised for better or not was maybe the biggest player of all for centuries.It wasn't just there are too many of us,well fed and aggressive or hungry and stealing food.We are here to fix you in the name of ...I like to think we cross pollinate from a better place as time goes on.
                                          The French and Chinese simply had a head start on much of what we remember we eat around the globe.By no means the best or first but perhaps with most technique we think of first.Again,even if they stole it.

                                          1. re: lcool

                                            "What if the Egyptians,Macedonians,Romans or Persians went far enough east to meet China coming west?"

                                            They almost did. Under Alexander the Great they got as far as India. And coming east, you had Attila the Hun, who got as far as Orleans in France, and Ghengis Khan's Mongol Empire that stretched from the Pacific to Eastern Europe. All these armies had to eat something. And like today, they probably complained about how inauthentic the mongolian grills were in Constantinople and how you couldn't get decent Greek food in Mesopotamia.

                                            1. re: monkeyrotica

                                              Oh yeah,and likely no one was happy with the bread,pickles or beer.

                                              And if they had just traveled to this meeting in a way to sit and break bread in a hospitable way.Maybe argue how to butcher and cook a wolf instead of each other.

                                    2. I think the OP nails their own question when s/he wrote
                                      "What do you think compels writers to declare Chinese and French as "great" cuisines? I would guess part of it is due to the immense impact that both cuisines had on the cultures of their respective geographical boundaries",

                                      I've really nothing at all to add to that.