A guest post by Mel Barrett
Mel Barrett writes a regular cookery column for the Wholesome Food Association. Mel is a former management consultant who, since leaving the corporate world, has worked with butchers, bakers and canapé-makers (and many others too!) who share her passion for food produced with integrity. She has written/co-written publications for Sustain (the alliance for better food and farming) on bread and London’s food economy, and is currently developing a new kind of cookery course. She has two young daughters. To see Mel’s growing collection of cookery columns, click here.
Cooks we admire are those who can effortlessly throw together ingredients – they just know which ones will work together. In Column 9, How to Combine Flavours, I tried to understand how they do this, coming to the conclusion that certain combinations work primarily because, in the mind of the eater, those ingredients are linked by a meaningful (and positive) association. Filed away in our minds are all sorts of memories and cultural references which help make sense of the food presented to us, for example, a dish involving goose, dried fruits and saffron might work for anyone with a vague awareness of medieval history; prawns accompanied by leaves of some kind and a ketchup-spiked dressing may well delight those who know of the iconic prawn cocktail of 1970’s Britain. Create a meaningful link between ingredients, and you are halfway to delivering a successful dish.
One source of inspiration from which cooks can draw is the globe, with its rich pool of nations, regions and peoples, many of which have their own distinctive cuisines. These have developed over time, perhaps starting with native crops, then added to with ingredients introduced as a result of trade, conquest and immigration, and influenced by factors such as religion. Rice from the Far East came along the ancient silk route to Iran, whence it spread throughout the Middle East and beyond, as medieval Arabs took it, along with spices like cumin and coriander, to their conquered lands. The Portuguese and Spanish took New World bounty – for example the chilli pepper and the peanut – to Africa and Asia. German settlers introduced the frankfurter to the US. With every ebb and flow of civilisation the food map of the world changed, until finally, with the last major waves of industrialisation, unification and migration which transformed Europe and the US in the latter half of the 19th century, the different cuisines of the world – although constantly subject to new influences – became consolidated into those we know today.
Savvy cooks have worked out that drawing from this map of cuisines is a good way of uniting ingredients. Many of the recipes in Jamie Oliver’s 30 Minute Meals, for example, are based around a particular cuisine. Whilst Oliver and his team no doubt systematically plundered the globe, for many of us the process is less conscious. For example, we may have a feeling that lamb and dried apricots would pair well in a stew – having almost certainly taken in some information which places these two ingredients squarely together – without perhaps knowing that lamb and stone fruits are cornerstone foods of the Middle East, and have been used together in fruited meat stews in ancient Persia and subsequent Middle Eastern empires for thousands of years. Were we to make that explicit Middle East connection, we might feel inspired to flavour our stew with cumin, coriander and cinnamon – key aromas of the region – and serve it with rice – a staple starch of the region. So how exactly does the cook go about replicating a cuisine?
How to replicate a cuisine
First of all, I’ll define a cuisine quite broadly as food particular to a community of people which features a shared set of ingredients and techniques. Cuisine boundaries are often more relevant when drawn along regional or ethnic lines, rather than national ones, particularly where a nation enjoys great diversity of climate (for example India, which stretches from the Himalayas in the north to the tropics in the south), geography (for example the US, with both coastline and great plains) or socio-economic factors (such as religion, for example). Thus it might be more meaningful to consider the cuisines of Kerala and Goa (as opposed to ‘Indian cuisine’); the cuisines of Szechuan and Canton (rather than ‘Chinese cuisine’) and the Creole cuisine of Louisiana (instead of ‘American cuisine’), although sometimes blurring boundaries can work well in the kitchen (there are countless recipes out there for ‘Asian style’ dishes which are no less delicious for being non-authentic, for example). The key is to identify the common elements which make a cuisine distinctive. To my mind,there are eight elements which mark out one particular cuisine from another:
- A staple starch. Quinoa is eaten throughout the Andes, the tuber cassava feeds much of Sub-Saharan Africa and South America, drought-resistant sorghum (a cereal) sustains in the tropics, potatoes and rye thrive in colder regions such as northern Europe, but it’s rice, wheat and maize on which two thirds of the population depend. Rice is Asia’s staple food, but is also commonly eaten in southern Iraq, as well as places which at one time were under the rule of the medieval Muslim Empire (Spain, Portugal, Sicily, Turkey, North and West Africa), colonised by the Spanish and Portuguese (Mexico and Brazil) or influenced by the enslaved peoples of West Africa (e.g. Louisiana in the US). Wheat is a staple throughout the Middle East, and appears on the table at every meal in the form of a huge range of breads and paper-thin pastry, couscous and bulghar. It’s also commonly eaten in breads, noodles, dumplings, pies and pastries throughout Asia and Europe. Maize is the staple in Mexico and many African countries, and eaten as a form of porridge in a number of other regions (for example, polenta in Italy, hominy grits in the American South).
- A characteristic protein. Temperate regions with vast plains, as well as lands which
offer up rich summer pasture in mountain or field, will have a history and association with beef or cow dairy – think Argentinian and American steak; British roast beef; Swiss cheese. In dry, arid regions there will be a reliance on dairy from sheep and goats and pulses (for example the Levant, where beans, lentils, chickpeas and yoghurt feature heavily). Lamb is eaten throughout the Middle East, and is also a major feature in the cuisines of Greece, UK and Ireland, France, NW Africa, India and the Caribbean. The pig is important throughout China, SE Asia, Europe, and places with a Spanish or Portuguese influence (such as the Southern US, South America and Goa, in India), but avoided in regions where there are large Muslim and Jewish populations (for example most of the Middle East). Coastal societies are often known for their fish dishes.
- Vegetables/ fruits which flourish in the region. Regions tend to be associated with their native species (for example sweetcorn, squashes, chilli peppers and potatoes in the Americas; spinach, dates, pomegranates, olives and figs in the Middle East) or varieties which grow well (for example, frost-tolerating roots, berries and apples in the temperate climes of northern Europe; sunshine-loving varieties such as cucumbers, tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and courgettes in hotter climes; exotic varieties such as coconuts and mangoes in the tropics).
- Signature aromas. Most cuisines return to the same key aromas time and time again (see How to Create Flavour Part 2 for more information on aroma). For example, signature aromatics in Persian food are saffron for rice; cinnamon, cloves, cumin and coriander for stews; parsley and mint in salads; dried thyme or sumac with oil and bread or sprinkled over grilled meat. The aromas of fermented bean, sesame oil, five-spice and star-anise pervade China; in Indonesia it’s fermented soy and toasted peanuts; in Thailand Kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and coriander. Various alcohols are used throughout the world to impart aroma (for example cider in Normandy, France; Shaoxing rice wine in China; Vermouth in the South of France), except in places where it is forbidden by religious dietary laws (for example, the Middle East, where fruit plays a large aromatic role).
- Signature taste ingredients. When it comes to arguably the most important taste ingredient – umami – the world seems to be split between those who use some kind of fermented sauce or paste, and those who use cooked alliums. Fermented fish and soybean products are ubiquitous throughout Asia. In Europe it’s the softened onion which is king, imparting its glutamate to a whole range of soups, stews, pies and sauces, typically in conjunction with an umami-rich meat stock. Too much umami dulls the palate; acid and pungency come to the rescue (see How to Combine Flavours). Much of Europe relies on alcohol vinegars to impart sour notes, whereas in the Middle East it’s often lemons and yoghurt; in the tropics tamarinds and limes. For pungency many cuisines use raw alliums (e.g. chives in France; spring onions in China; garlic in Italy) or a range of roots and seeds (e.g. wasabi in Japan; ginger in China; horseradish and mustard in the UK). Some cuisines manifest a fondness for sweetness in their pots (often a legacy of having ready access to sugar, for example Southern American Cajun cuisine, and the Arab-influenced cuisine of Sicily in Italy) or piquancy (various types of chilli pepper appear throughout the cuisines of China, SE Asia and Mexico, for example). (See How to Create Flavour Part 1 for more information on taste ingredients).
- A customary liquid to make sauces. Certain liquids regularly show up in particular cuisines to form the base of a range of sauces, whether on the side, as a salsa or dressing, for example, or as an integral part of a cooked dish. Examples include olive oil (e.g. southern Europe); yoghurt (e.g. Central Asia and the Middle East); milk and cream (e.g. northern Europe and North America); meat and fish stocks (e.g. Europe and Asia) coconut milk (e.g. tropical regions) and tomato pulp (e.g. Latin America and Mediterranean Europe).
- A widely-available cooking fat. Historically, the choice of cooking medium will have been influenced by affordability and availability, thus butter is traditional in dairy-farming northern Europe, rendered sheep fat in Central Asia, ghee (clarified butter) throughout India, and olive oil all around the Mediterranean, for example. Nowadays, more and more populations are turning to plant-based fats, perceived to be healthier.
- A traditional cooking technique (i.e. the equipment, fuel and vessel used to cook food, as well as its mode of preparation). Identical ingredients can be completely transformed by varying the cooking technique: a wheat and water dough with a filling, when fried, becomes the Turkish borek, the Russian pirozhki and the empanada of Latin America. Baked in a tandir, it becomes the Indian samosa, the Uzbek samsa or the Tajik sambusa; in an oven the Cornish pasty or Jamaican patty. Steamed or boiled, and served with a sauce, it takes on the guise of ravioli or tortellini (Italy), pelmeni (Russia)orkreplach (in Jewish cuisine). Cooking techniquehas been influenced by such factors as a society’s ability to afford fuel (stir-frying being a very fuel-efficient method, for example) and the availability of labour (spit-roasting, popular in the slave-filled households of the American South, is a very labour-intensive one).
Being able to link ingredients in a way which makes sense is one of the greatest skills a cook can have. Cooking pork? Look out the flavours and accompanying foods of the places where it is savoured: use soy sauce, Shaoxing wine and five-spice powder in a marinade then roast and serve with pak choi and rice for a Chinese vibe, or for a taste of the American South slow cook and serve shredded in buns with a side of coleslaw and a sauce which includes molasses, tomatoes, mustard and white wine vinegar. If lamb is your star, use the robust herbs of the Mediterranean or the spices of the Middle East, and partner with a yogurt-based sauce and a flatbread. Learn to recognise the signature starches, proteins, vegetables, aromas, taste ingredients, liquids, fats and cooking techniques which make one cuisine stand out from another, and you will soon be rustling up your own 30 minute meals, without any need for a cookbook.
Brittin, H. (2011). The Food and Culture Around the World Handbook. Prentice Hall.
Civitello, L. Cuisine and Culture. (2011). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Davidson, A. (2007). The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press.
Mack, G. R. and Surina, A. (2005). Food Culture in Russia and Central Asia. Greenwood Press.
Notaker, H. (2009). Food Culture in Scandinavia. Greenwood Press.
United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation website. Dimensions of Need – An Atlas of Food and Agriculture. Staple foods: what do people eat? http://www.fao.org/docrep/u8480e/u8480e07.htm