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Asia’s contribution to world cuisine

2 May 2009 3,042 views No Comment

The movement of food ingredients, cooking methods and dishes across the earth’s surface is ancient, and in large measure only poorly recorded. While the West has documented its contributions to global cuisine, those of the rest of the world are less well recognized. This paper takes note of Asia’s role in enriching the world’s foods, both nutritively and in terms of diversity and taste.

If any of us were asked — in the classroom, or during a radio interview, for instance — whether Asia had made any significant contributions to a global cuisine, I am certain that all of us would answer spontaneously, and in approximately the same manner: ‘Absolutely. Asia has contributed enormously to a global cuisine.’ Despite what would probably be our unanimous agreement, this exploratory paper demands that the reader accept provisional definitions of two relevant terms, because the question itself is actually so vague. One term concerns the boundaries of Asia; the other, the meaning of ‘global cuisine’. How we delimit and define Asia is open to arguments, both broad and narrow; and precisely what is meant by ‘global cuisine’ is similarly unclear. I am not by training an Asia specialist, and here I begin with my own quite tentative answers.

For the purposes of this paper only, I take ‘Asia’ to mean East and Southeast Asia; the northern border states of the Indian subcontinent; and Myanmar, Mongolia, Tibet, and China I intend to deal with food systems that fall within the region as I have arbitrarily defined it here. In drawing what are meant as provisional boundaries I have in mind not so much political systems, as limits set by ecological and cultural factors, which have shaped cuisines over time. Foods and cooking methods can become deeply rooted locally, even without political or religious pressures. They can also diffuse widely, and sometimes quickly, without regard to political boundaries. Group food behavior, like group linguistic behavior, seems to follow rules of its own.

By ‘world cuisine’ or ‘global cuisine’, I really have in mind a process, more than a stable system. That process is now nearly continuous and ongoing, but it is also surprisingly ancient. World food history has involved the gradual but uneven spread of plants and animals, foods and food ingredients, cooking methods and traditions, over larger and larger areas, often penetrating and sometimes blending with local food systems, which vary in their openness – and the effects of that spread. This process has gone on intermittently for millennia. Interpenetration of local food systems, which now takes place on a world scale, at times with great speed, has its roots in the past. The current vogue for global analysis ought not to blind us to the ancient history of this phenomenon. Probably of equal importance today is the common disappearance – of species, of other resources, sometimes of whole religions, languages or peoples – and the consequences, often known only imperfectly, if at all, for localized food systems. In any event, my rough approximations here, both of Asia and of the global system, are certainly arguable. Admittedly, it is only by being so arbitrary that I am able to proceed at all.

Students of Asian food may find instructive a wonderful passage in Anderson’s The Food of China (1988: 117-18), where he describes the production of wheat in ancient China in relation to wheaten products (bread, dumplings, noodles), both there and in neighboring lands. In a few brief paragraphs, Anderson exposes the wheat-related methods and substances, and the words to describe them, embedded in complex relationships of exchange and invention, distributed over a vast area that stretches from northern China to southern Europe. Much of this complex of wheat-related culinary culture was probably developed several millennia ago. Though Anderson is writing primarily of China, in this description ‘Asia’ and ‘Europe’ are not separate entities, but an enormous patchwork of neighboring peoples, some of them migratory, some invasive, who took and gave, both what they grew and what they cooked, over the course of long centuries.

There is no doubt that some regions — because of their native richness in food resources; because the cultures in them had developed particularly effective means of aggregating and tapping those resources; or because food itself proved to be a central interest to people culturally, beyond matters of nutrition – have contributed more to the global culinary repertory than others. But at least as important as autochthonous or local developments have been the important flows of cultural materials, of the kind labeled ‘diffusion’ by anthropology, often including foods, food ingredients, and methods of food preparation, as for cooking and preservation. The following is the most famous illustration of such flows.

The Columbian exchange — as the Old and New World interchange of plants, animals and foods, after the European discovery of the Americas, has been described– completely remade world diet (Crosby 1972). Specific plants, animals and foods traveled enormous distances. The sweet potato, for example, a vital supplementary food or ‘side dish’ in Asia despite its lowly reputation, crossed the Pacific westward from the New World in the sixteenth century, probably entering China via the Philippines. Maize  and peanuts also reached  Asia in that century. All are from the New World, and exemplify old and important changes in the global system. Once such introductions are accepted, of course, their origins no longer matter to their users, and may be remembered, if at all, only in particular words or phrases  (often geographically misleading, such as ’Guinea corn’) in the everyday course of life. But it is important to understand that all of the interchanges of the present are being superimposed  upon those of the remote past.

The Columbian Exchange

I wish to begin here, though, not with some of the most dramatic global borrowings from the East, but with some of the least noticed. It may be of interest that an American in what was then the colony of Georgia, Mr. Samuel Bowen, produced noodles, sago flour and soy sauce from plants imported to and growing in America. He carried them to Britain, was received by King George III and awarded a gold medal for his work, and this happened in 1766, just ten years before the start of the American Revolution. Though little of economic importance resulted from Mr. Bowen’s experiments, his success suggests that these Asian foods had already greatly interested European colonists in the New World, as well as the Europeans themselves (Hymowitz and Harlan 1983). A letter from Benjamin Franklin to his friend John Bartram in Philadelphia, written in 1770, explains how one could make ‘cheese’ (by which he meant curd) from beans – indicating that tofu, a remarkable Asian achievement, and the legume from which it was processed, were known to the pre-revolutionary American colonists and held their interest. I note these matters to remind those readers who are excited by today’s global trends in food that modern globalization lies on the surface of a truly lengthy history, one that we ignore at our peril, lest we be ridiculed for our lack of knowledge about plant history and the history of trade.

Though western acceptance of soybeans and of beancurd as food would be delayed for centuries, we know Europe developed an early craving for Eastern spices, and the Columbian voyages and those which followed were inspired by a desire to find a sea route to Asia to obtain such things. Discussions of Columbus’s achievements dwell on his courage and his search for that sea route. They do not often mention that marine trade was needed by Europe in the fifteenth century because superior Islamic military and political might had made land trade with Asia both costly and dangerous. Spices figured importantly among the desired items. Most, such as cardamom, cloves, turmeric and black pepper, were drawn first from India and Indonesia, and particularly from the Moluccas of the Malaysian archipelago, the so-called ‘spice islands’. But not all of those tastes which Europe desired came from the islands.

Asian spices

Though not often remarked, an important flavoring of Chinese origin seems to have reached Europe in the seventeenth century. Dutch traders carried soy sauce to Europe, where it enjoyed an early popularity. Soy sauce turns up thereafter in unexpected places. In the 1960s, we should not be surprised when we find soy sauce reappearing in the first edition of the late Julia Child’s famous The Art of French Cooking, in which she instructs readers how to make a ‘classic’ French roast lamb with mustard dressing. Classic it may be; but the main ingredients of the dressing, in addition to the mustard, are powdered ginger and soy sauce. I have not done the historical research that might help me explain how ginger and soy sauce came to be part of a ‘classic’ French recipe. I leave that task to someone more energetic than I.

But ginger deserves at least another word. Ginger is, of course, also Asian in origin. Galanga or galangal, known as ‘galingale’ in medieval England (Alpinia galanga, A. officinarum or Kaempferia galanga), often split into lesser and greater galingale, flavorings found in Southeast Asia and in China, differ from true ginger (Zingiber officinale Roscoe), but are of the same botanical family. They turn up in England, together with true ginger, at an early time. Indeed, The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives as its first written reference to both ginger and the galingales a work in the Saxon language, dated to about the year 1000 A.D. But like many other eastern spices, ginger almost drops out of sight in British cuisine after 1650. It has been suggested that during the Commonwealth, under Oliver Cromwell, spice use in Britain may have declined sharply. I know of no genuine evidence that the humorless austerity of the time reached even into the spice pantry. But except for such special holiday treats as fruit cake, cured gammon or ham, and cookies, in which the traditional cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger still commonly appear, British spice use did seem to contract in the seventeenth century.

A wholly different, non-traditional and curious Asian food-related import to the West is monosodium glutamate, the substance first isolated from seaweed by the Japanese chemist Ikeda Kikunae, in his work on the elusive taste now known as umami or, in Chinese, as xiãn wéi. MSG was sold widely, though in tiny quantities, in the U.S. after 1908, turning up in showy green-and-gold tin boxes, decorated with dragons and other Asian art, and labeled ‘epicurean powder’. My hunch is that it had been laboriously extracted from natural sources, such as seaweed. Before World War II, however, its principal users in the U.S. were probably Chinese cooks. The first MSG factory in the U.S. opened in 1934; the appearance of aji-no-moto, and its rebirth after World War II as the trade product Accent, are relatively late events.

These odd bits and pieces of Asian food exportation to the West serve to remind us that the diffusion of a plant or spice to a different continent or country may predate by many years its significant use in the larger local food system. The uses made of garlic and the capsicums in the U.S. before 1945 were largely limited to ethnic communities. Indeed, some food plants may diffuse first because of their medicinal or ornamental uses. Second, we need to be reminded that restaurants, while not the only, or necessarily even the main, channels for the transmission of new foods, may bring in items otherwise not known in the host society.

Gentleman farmers such as Thomas Jefferson envisioned the cultivation, processing and use of new agricultural products as part of the farmer’s profession. People like him, by their energy and curiosity, ensured that many unfamiliar food ingredients would reach foreign shores and new enthusiasts. Only in the course of the last century have foreign cooks and ethnic restaurants become major sources of new dishes and ingredients in the West, New foods are disseminated today not so much by imaginative farmers as by aggressive restauranteurs and corporate organizations.

I want to turn now to diffusions that dwarf these early borrowings. Rice is surely one of Asia’s greatest gifts to the West. It was probably first introduced to Europe after 711 A.D., when the Moors invaded Spain. Not until the mid-fifteenth century did Spanish farmers plant the variety called Arborio on the Po Plain in northern Italy. That short-grained rice then became the basis for the famous Italian risotto. European rice is Asian in origin, the species Oryza sativa. Arborio, and numerous other European varieties used in local cuisine, are all of these species.

Rice reached the United States in the seventeenth century, but was not planted commercially until nearly 1700, in South Carolina. This rice, too, is Oryza sativa, just like the rice that reached Europe. Rice became well known in the Americas by the nineteenth century, though it had early become a commodity in international trade, thanks to the labor and skills of enslaved Africans in South Carolina (Carney 2002), centuries earlier. During the more recent spread from its center of cultivation in the U.S. South during the last century, it has been transformed from a somewhat localized food or dessert ingredient into a daily near-necessity for countless millions, Asian and non-Asian alike, across the Americas.

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