“Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.”
Reflections on the futility of food nationalism.
June 5, 2021
Nations rarely have copyright for the things they claim for themselves. And yet the culture wars persist, often centered on the very product that is most globalized of all: food.
Are French fries Belgian or French? Is Ramen Japanese or Chinese? Armenians have been known to come to blows with Azerbaijanians about who can legitimately claim the flatbread “lavash.” Does China’s pao cai predate Korea’s kimchi?
When traveling in Turkey I remember asking a group of locals at a restaurant to recommend a typical desert to try. They’d unanimously suggested “halwa,” a confection that for me conjured up the taste of home in India.
Afternoon tea and curry Fridays
Afternoon tea in England, which is ostensibly as British as the Queen, could not have existed without the tea grown in India, which in turn wouldn’t have been grown had it not been for cultivation methods learned from China.
And a contender for Japan’s national dish is curry, so much so that the Japanese Navy even has a “Curry Friday” tradition where all navy canteens offer curry and rice as a Friday staple.
It’s all about the taste
Ultimately, what really matters is how a particular dish tastes, not what national label we stick on it. The stories behind food tell you about the truly globalized nature of the world that we live in:
Did you know that Japanese tempura has Portuguese origins? Portuguese-sponsored Jesuits were active in Japan from the mid 16th century, until Christianity was banned from around the start of the 17th century.
These priests brought with them not only promises for salvation, but something more useful in the here and now: battered frying cooking techniques.
Ember days need batter
There is some debate as to the origins of the term “tempura.”
One theory links it to the Latin phrase quatuor anni tempora, which refers to the Ember Days, or days in the Catholic calendar when meat is forgone, as for example during Lent. Batter-fried veggies apparently made it easier for priests to abjure meat during the Ember Days.
Another theory claims that the etymology is linked to the Portuguese word tempêro, meaning “seasoning.”
The story of chai
Then there is the fascinating story of chai. Masala chai is almost a synonym for India. Its sweet and spicy milky aroma ubiquitous from railway stations to political gatherings.
But read into the tea leaves far back enough and an astonishing history reveals itself: one that crisscrosses continents and features gunboats and botanical espionage.
Europe awakens to the brew
When Europeans first learned of tea, they associated it with China, not India. The leaf was one of the first new goods that Dutch merchants brought back from their trips to the Far East at the beginning of the 17th century.
But as more and more people In Europe began to develop a taste for the drink, the problem of the Chinese monopoly on tea became more pressing.
By the 18th century, tea was a top import for Britain from China, alongside other exotic goods like silk and porcelain. But while the British had a seemingly insatiable appetite for Chinese goods, the opposite did not hold true.
There was little that Britain could offer China in exchange for its tea.
The solution that the East India Company (which had a monopoly on trade with the Far East at the time) developed was two pronged.
A duet of “solutions”
One was to find a product that the Chinese would desire. This resulted in the nefarious history of opium cultivation in India and its gunpoint-sale in China.
The other was to diversify the market by introducing tea cultivation to India.
The first tea estates were set up in the east Indian state of Assam in the 1830s. But cultivation truly took off only after a Scottish horticulturalist, Robert Fortune, undertook a large-scale tea heist on behalf of the East India Company.
In 1848, Fortune stole and smuggled out about 13,000 plant samples and 10,000 seeds from China, via Hong Kong and on to Calcutta, enabling tea farming to become firmly established in India.
As a final example, let’s talk about ketchup. The blood-red condiment brings to mind McDonalds and all things American. Yet, the sweet sauce originated from far from the Americas, in Southeast Asia.
The word ketchup derives from the Hokkien Chinese word, kê-tsiap, which is the name of a fermented fish sauce. Once again, the British are key players in this story of global gastronomy.
They likely encountered ketchup (in its original form) in Sumatra and upon returning home attempted to recreate it.
A recipe published in 1732 for “Ketchup in Paste,” by Richard Bradley, referred to “Bencoulin in the East-Indies” as its origin. British Bencoolin was a possession of the East Indian Company that extended over south Sumatra (modern day Indonesia).
But today’s star ingredient, the tomato, remained absent from early versions of the sauce, which featured ingredients like mushrooms and anchovies instead.
Enter the love apple
According to a piece in National Geographic (How Was Ketchup Invented?), the first known published tomato ketchup recipe appeared only in 1812. It was written by horticulturalist, James Mease, who referred to tomatoes as “love apples.”
In the end it is best to eat well and healthily, but to keep in mind that food is truly global. We should keep your passports safe in our hands, but hold the entire world (and its food) close in our hearts.
As the late Orson Welles put it: “Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.”
Nations rarely have copyright for the things they claim for themselves. And yet the culture wars on food persist.
Ultimately, what really matters is how a particular dish tastes, not what national label we stick on it.
The stories behind food tell you about the truly globalized nature of the world that we live in.
Did you know that tempura was introduced to Japan by Portuguese missionaries?
The story of “chai” is astonishing, crisscrosses continents and features gunboats and botanical espionage.
Long before tomatoes, ketchup was all about mushrooms and anchovies.