Global Cuisine(s)?

by Barbara Santich, 2000

According to Jean-Francois Revel, 'there are no national cuisines; there is international cuisine, which must remain extremely flexible, and there is regional cuisine'.

What he meant by international cuisine was not a fixed corpus of recipes but 'a body of methods, of principles amenable to variations ...[International cuisine] has the capacity to integrate, to adapt, to rethink, ... almost to rewrite the recipes of all countries and all regions, or at least those that are amenable to such treatment'. Being based on principles rather than products, as is regional cuisine, it is exportable; it can be practised anywhere in the world.

Again according to Revel, internationalisation was a feature of cuisine from the nineteenth century, when 'there existed a vast intermingling of various cuisines and multiple reciprocal influences'. This was also the era of the rise of the restaurant, the flourishing of acclimatisation societies, of revolutions in transport. Internationalism continued to thrive in the twentieth century, expressly encouraged by nouvelle cuisine. In the preface to his book La Cuisine du Marche, one of the 'bibles' of nouvelle cuisine, Paul Bocuse suggested that a professional cook should have travelled the world, as in earlier times he worked his way around France. Nouvelle cuisine, he added, responds not only to the desire of some chefs to return to the sources of culinary tradition but also opens the way for practices of neighbouring and even distant countries to be introduced, adopted and adapted. By way of example, he told how he used to prepare snow peas a l'etuvee, with salt pork and onions, in the same way as green peas would be done; but after a visit to Hong Kong, where he observed that snow peas were given a minimum of cooking, he began to cook them simply in boiling water, in the same way as beans, and was overjoyed with the result. (Closer to home, Stefano de Pieri has adopted the Chinese technique of 'steeping' chicken, 'as a vast improvement on the old boiled chook'.)

The buzz word today is not so much internationalisation as globalisation but in many respects it's the same phenomenon, an intermingling of various cuisines and multiple reciprocal influences. Yet it goes further than the internationalisation described above, beyond the incorporation of new principles. Like world music, global cuisine is a conglomerate rather than a consistent style. In practice, it's a menu which unashamedly corrals a casual selection from its global muster: pasta with roasted capsicum, tomato and garlic; char-grilled lamb on a bed of couscous with tahini sauce and fried eggplant; five-spice roast duck with stir-fried bok choy; beer-battered fish and chips; supreme of chicken with tarragon cream sauce; and seafood laksa.

If regional cuisine is the foods and style of cooking of a particular region, then global cuisine might be interpreted as the foods and dishes which can be found anywhere in the world. By extrapolation, it means the same food and dishes throughout the whole world. And this is precisely the reproach, that globalisation results in homogenisation.

Now the globalisation of foods, of ingredients, merely represents a continuation of a trend which began many centuries ago. One upon a time the 'exotic' might have come from 100 km distant; today it might come from as far away as 10,000 km. In ancient Greece the wealthy could buy pepper from India, salted fish from Russia and hazelnuts from Anatolia; nineteenth-century Parisians were offered German sauerkraut, Malaga raisins, Bologna sausage, Italian polenta, smoked eel from Russia, rice from India and soy sauce from China. The only differences today are that the area of supply has been extended to encompass the whole world, and the exotic foods can be enjoyed by many rather than a privileged few. And if chefs everywhere have access to the same global market, then yes, there would seem to be some justification for assuming that the end result would be a certain sameness, a homogenisation of cuisine.

But as Revel affirms, 'international cuisine' is not based on particular products but on practices. Cuisine refers to a whole series of processes which culminate in the presentation of a finished dish; it represents the transformation of ingredients and their synthesis into a new whole. It necessarily involves a series of choices - which ingredients? at which stage of ripeness? what quantities? which methods of preparation? which methods of cooking? for how long? With what flavourings? It is as an expression of conscious choice that cuisine may be considered an art; and when amongst a group of people certain options are consistently favoured over others then the particular cuisine becomes an expression of culture.

The choices cooks make, even when faced with a global cornucopia, are largely culturally conditioned. They may be less so in countries like Australia, where gastronomic traditions are less secure, than in countries like Spain or France. But Australian cooks will make different choices than cooks in Spain, who in turn will make different choices to French cooks. For example, in Spain, where consumption of olive oil averages 10 litres per year, cooks would probably choose olive oil as a cooking medium, whereas in France, where average olive oil consumption is only 0.5 litres per year, cooks would choose a different technique. Thus there is not one single, homogeneous global cuisine but a diversity of 'global' cuisines.

Jean-Louis Flandrin has described a kind of culinary internationalism in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Europe, when certain recipes - blanc manger, green sauce, garlic sauce, cameline sauce, mustard - were omnipresent in the recipe collections from France, Italy, Catalonia and England. The names were similar from one language to another, and the various dishes shared certain common characteristics: green sauce was always based on a paste of fresh herbs, cameline sauce was always thickened and spiced with cinnamon. Despite their obvious similarities, however, there were distinct differences - the inclusion of nuts and honey in Italian recipes for green sauce, variations in the method of thickening cameline sauce. While these mediaeval recipe collections demonstrated a remarkable internationalism, they also bore witness to a diversity of tastes and practices from one country or one region to another.

While it makes sense to talk of seasonality in relation to a regional cuisine, which is dependant on the produce of that region, it is pointless when one's larder encompasses the whole world. The qualities which should characterise regional cuisines - seasonality, stability, durability - have little relevance to global cuisines, which are not based on a more or less finite repertoire of dishes. Indeed, Revel seems to imply that one of the defining characteristics of regional cuisines is that they can be practised only in the particular region, whereas global cuisines have no such restraints.

However fixed (in theory), even regional cuisines are not immune from experimentation. In Aventures de la cuisine française: cinquante and d'histoire du goût, Benedict Beauge discusses the ways in which some French chefs 'reinterpret' regional cuisines by taking a key ingredient which can somehow signify the region but using it in a way which has nothing to do with the culinary tradition of the region. In what way, he asks, is 'creme de tomates au chavres chauds' typical of Marseilles? How can snail ravioli, 'ravioles de cagouilles aux herbes' be typical of the Charentes region, save in the use of the word 'cagouille', a local name for small snails? When were ravioli traditional in that part of France? And a restaurant in the south of France, near Les Baux-de-Provence (a region whose olive oil has been awarded its own appellation), has designed a menu based on olive oils, and even including a dessert of fruit tart with a yogurt and olive oil 'icecream'. It's as though certain key words have a signifying power that, when used in the name of a dish, confer qualities far beyond the capabilities of the dish itself. For Beauge, they charmingly evoke an idealised 'terroir', hinting at historical foundations (though tomatoes, he notes, have been eaten in Provence for only two centuries). The 'Mediterranean school' is particularly culpable, in his opinion, 'often content with making a frenetic consumption of signs' (tomatoes, Mediterranean vegetables, basil and olive oil). As for olive oil, it is sometimes present as part of the decor, to lend a 'Mediterranean touch'.

One can discern a progression from the artificiality (or inauthenticity) of these dishes to today's 'fusion' cuisine. The (hypothetical) menu example above drew on different culinary cultures though each of the dishes is, in itself, culturally cohesive. On the other hand, when several culinary cultures are put together on the one plate (as, for example, in spaghetti with black bean sauce, a playful invention of, I think, Alan Saunders) the result is 'fusion' - or perhaps confusion: in company with others, each culture loses something of itself and its impact is reduced.

Historically, cuisines have always evolved; even regional cuisines have evolved, however slowly. In recent years, change has manifestly accelerated, which means that not only are more new ideas and practices introduced but also that, after a shorter life, more are discarded. For some people, fusion cuisine(s) - for there is an infinity of permutations - might be seen as the way of the future; but if the lessons of the past hold any significance, then fusion is destined to fade while globalism (as interpreted here, in the spirit of Revel's internationalism) will continue to progress.

© Barbara Santich 1999

Barbara Santich researches and writes about food, cooking and eating, in all their fascinating diversity but with a special interest in the history of food, cooking and eating. Her articles, over almost twenty years, have appeared in Australian newspapers and magazines, from the Australian to Gourmet Traveller, and in overseas publications including The Journal of Gastronomy, Petits Propos Culinaires, the New York Times and Slow (quarterly magazine of the International Slow Food Movement). She is a member of the Slow Advisory Board and one of the international jurors for the Slow Food Awards. Her books include: Looking for Flavour (1996), a book of essays on food and culture which won a Food Media Club award in 1997; The Original Mediterranean Cuisine (1995); What the Doctors Ordered: 150 years of dietary advice in Australia (1995); Apples to Zampone (first edition 1996, second revised edition 1999); and McLaren Vale: Sea & Vines (1998), which describes the history and culture of the McLaren Vale region of South Australia.

Wakefield Press have recently published Barbara Santich's new title- In the Land of Magic Pudding