Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Adaptation & Appropriation of Dishes

The CC really wanted to include this article under that of The Naming of Dishes but there was a lot more to be said about this subject than just the naming portion so he decided to spin it off into its own little post.

The world has always been global.

We've had traders and merchants traveling the seas trading across countries and continents. It's not uncommon even today to find Roman coins in India when land gets dug up for some new project. The largest collection of gold artifacts in the world was discovered in Surigao in the Philippines in 1981 as part of an irrigation project. Its connections to ancient India of the 10th century is quite well established (Source: Ayala Museum.)

Along these trade routes flowed something else besides spices, grain and gold — recipes and techniques for recipes.

The most famous of these routes is undoubtedly the Silk Road over land but equally important were the three sailing routes. One across the Mediterranean from Alexandria (modern-day Egypt) hopping counter-clockwise, hugging the coast, all the way to Rome and also from Cyrene (modern-day Libya) and Carthage via Alexandria to Rome. The other was the route from the modern-day Gulf of Eden hugging the coast of the modern-day Middle East all the way down the western coast of India to Calicut (modern-day Cochin). And finally the extension of this route around the southern tip of India hugging the eastern coast of India to Burma and from there on to Thailand, Indonesia and the far East.

The most powerful of impulses that the traders appealed to was that of the "exotic". Anything remotely exotic is lapped up by any population as long as it is not too far off from their own conception. Whether these are colorful clothes or dishes or spices hardly mattered to the traders just as long as it could be sold for a profit.

Not knowing anything about a foreign culture — remember travel was hard before the last 75 years or so — local dishes with some exotic ingredient are just the ticket for a sharp businessman with a marketing strategy.

Exoticism sells. Nobody from emperors to laymen are immune.

This is not just a theory. We have evidence.

Queen Victoria was crowned the Empress of India in 1876 and the British went crazy over "anything Indian". There were "Indian-themed" parties and "Indian food" marketed by the East India Company. This is also the birth of the infamous curry powder — a non-existent concept in Indian cooking. This powder marketed globally is now ubiquitous in such far-flung places as France, Thailand, Singapore and Japan all thanks to the marketing of the East India Company.

In the 1950's and 1960's there was a worldwide craze of "Hawaiian". Needless to say the folks from Italy and India and Vietnam or even most of the United States for that matter had never been to Hawaii but "Hawaiian Salad" was all the craze globally. The exotic element was pineapple. Take a typical salad with a mayo-based dressing and toss in some pineapple to get the afore-mentioned dish. Needless to say this had about as much to do with Hawaiian cuisine as chalk has to do with cheese. There were "Hawaiian cakes", "Hawaiian cocktails", you name it! All with pineapple. It was all marketing, of course. (Yes! The "Mad Men" had their hands all over this. We have the ads to prove this.)

The relatively recent movement towards "authenticity" is not more than about 30-40 years old. Sure there were pioneers even in the 1930's towards an honest and detailed assessment of global cuisine but its mass adoption is a relatively recent phenomenon.

This trend towards exoticism isn't relegated to dishes. Ask yourself if you really know what entrée means. It means "appetizer" in French from the verb entrer — to enter. Same goes for hors d'oeuvres which means "first course" in French but has taken on the meaning of "appetizer" in English. (Appetizers would be des toasts — "nibbles" in French.) Clearly some things got lost just getting across the English Channel and if that's the case, you can just imagine how much got lost when recipes migrated longer distances in older times.

Every culture appropriates dishes. Whether it is the Sicilian adaptation of Arabic eggplant recipes or the Malaysian appropriation of Indian recipes (roti canaicanai probably comes from Chennai but the concept is, quite likely, from Kerala), or the Japanese versions of "spaghetti" and "ma po tofu", it's universal. You also have wholescale adaptations like the Hakka-originated "Indian-Chinese cuisine". Not to mention chop suey and the like which are American adaptations of Chinese dishes.

Italian cuisine is a particularly special case. There's the Italian-American branch but that, at least, can be understood as the reaction of new immigrants to a foreign land and its native resources. What no Italian would recognize is Japanese "spaghetti napolitan" (sic) or Filipino "spaghetti" (made with banana ketchup!) or even Indian "masala spaghetti".

It's lost in translation but why?

To truly master a cuisine, you must first internalize its grammar. And every cuisine has an unmistakable grammar. A set of rules, techniques and ingredients that work in a specific set of combinations and in a very narrow context (historically) to create a meal. Only after you know this grammar backwards and forwards can you truly break free into true creativity. Science helps.

Needless to say, mastering different grammars is insanely hard work. It's far easier for cooks to get a superficial understanding of some foreign cuisine, just use the local grammar of cooking instead of mastering a foreign one, and make something vaguely in that style. It would've been even more the norm in older times since travel and authenticity were so hard. In time, the dish gets appropriated into the local cuisine and becomes "native".

So how does one distinguish incompetence at rendering a foreign cuisine from a slapdash effort from a  deliberate rethinking/reworking?

The answer lies in a similar one from the world of art.

In order to break the rules, you first have to understand and master them.

Not many people know that Picasso was a master draftsman and painter. His early paintings where he copies the classical works and even the Impressionists and out-flanks them are not well known. It's only after complete mastery of older techniques that that he broke new ground both aesthetic and technical. The same goes for Matisse.

It always pays to master different grammars. Picasso "borrowed" shamelessly from African art, and almost all painters of that era borrowed extensively from Japanese art. So it goes with any artistic endeavor.

The bias should be towards mastery of grammar and technique. The "going beyond" follows as a natural consequence.

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