How Do Certain Foods Become National Dishes?

From a New York Times book review by Irina Dumitrescu headlined “How Do Certain Foods Become National Dishes?”:

“We have a compulsion to tie food to place,” Anya von Bremzen writes in her new book, but that compulsion, it turns out, has more to do with myth and marketing than with historical fact. “National Dish” is the story of her quest to understand why certain foods, like pizza, ramen and tapas, are adopted as symbols of their places of origin.

Von Bremzen’s journey takes her through six cities — Paris, Naples, Tokyo, Seville, Oaxaca and Istanbul — and countless restaurants, kitchens and bars as she nibbles her way to an answer. Along the way, she talks to star chefs, food bloggers, agricultural scientists and culinary historians. The result is a fast-paced, entertaining travelogue, peppered with compact history lessons that reveal the surprising ways dishes become iconic.

The author of six cookbooks and “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking,” a memoir of living, eating and rationing in the U.S.S.R., von Bremzen is ideally suited to this undertaking. Having exchanged Soviet propaganda for the American promise of the multicultural melting pot, she has a deep-seated skepticism for the stories nations tell to create unified identities. She is also a curious eater, keen on digging out the rich cultural background of, say, Iberian ham or pasta puttanesca — before wolfing them down. Reading this book is like traveling with someone who knows the best places to eat and the right people to meet, but who can still find joy in humble, improvised meals.

The journey begins, naturally, with carbs. In Naples, Italy, von Bremzen settles into a flat in the still ungentrified Spanish Quarter. Somewhere here, between hanging laundry, loose pit bulls and the beatific presence of Diego Maradona, is the secret to a true pizza margherita. The legend goes like this: In 1889, Naples receives a visit from King Umberto and his beautiful, charismatic queen, Margherita.

The situation is tense. Italian unification has not been good for the southern economy, and is seen as a Piedmontese scheme. The royal couple from the north need to sell Naples on the idea of the nation. Margherita invites a local chef, Raffaele Esposito, to bring her pizza, a cheap street food that keeps this poor city going. He invents a version with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, the colors of the new Italian flag. The queen loves this patriotic pie, and gives it her name.

Of course, none of this is true. Neapolitans had been eating that combination of toppings for ages, and there is no evidence in state papers of a royal pizza tasting. Pizza margherita was a clever marketing idea cooked up by an enterprising pizzaiolo in the 1930s, complete with a fake letter from the queen to hang in his restaurant. The idea of the one authentic pizza margherita, which only Neapolitan chefs knew how to make properly, became even more useful as a symbol of Italy in the late 20th century, when globalization was threatening local cuisines. “Authenticity,” muses von Bremzen, is “such a monster marketing tool.”

The myth busting doesn’t stop there. In Tokyo, von Bremzen chases down another convenient starch with an international reputation. Accompanied by an impossibly hip American ramen influencer — “let’s go crush some bowls,” he says gamely — von Bremzen slurps seafood ramen with scallops and delicate slices of raw chicken, and develops an addiction to high-end instant noodles.

However gourmet it is now, ramen, like pizza, has roots in necessity. Originally a Chinese import to Japan, the dish owes its popularity to the United States’ occupation of Japan after World War II. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, worried that famine could push Japan toward communism, had excess American wheat sent in. The Japanese Health Ministry encouraged the populace to replace rice with wheat, warning parents that rice could doom their children to “a life of idiocy.” Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant ramen, received funding as part of this effort.

Von Bremzen decides to explore the art of preparing white rice, which “has zero millennial-hipster glamour” and is a powerful symbol of Japanese culture. Even that, it turns out, wasn’t always as central to the Japanese table, which used to include more barley and beans. In the late-19th-century Meiji era, government authorities promoted rice as part of their policy of nostalgic nation building.

Things get more dispiriting in Seville, Spain, where von Bremzen learns that foods like Catalan sausage and Andalusian gazpacho were not regional specialties but dishes historically cooked by families across the country. It was La Sección Femenina, the women’s branch of Spain’s fascist movement, that assigned these recipes to regions, as part of its effort to foster “a sanitized, politically acceptable form of cultural diversity.”

Around now, the reader might grow antsy. If so many dishes considered iconic expressions of place and history are really the result of clever marketing or nationalist propaganda, does this mean each plate is a lie? Is eating authentically even possible?

The answer is yes, but it comes at a cost. In Oaxaca, Mexico, von Bremzen learns how to make black mole, laboriously roasting rare local chili peppers and layering them with spices that first came to Mexico on Spanish trading ships. The result is a blend of Indigenous agricultural and culinary knowledge and colonial conquest, with all the violence that came with it: mestizaje, or cultural mixing, on a plate.

Corn is even more profoundly linked to a sense of Mexicanness, she finds, as one person after another tells her: “Somos gente de maíz. We’re people of corn.” Domesticated 9,000 years ago in the Balsas River valley, corn was stigmatized by Spanish colonizers, who associated wheat with racial superiority. Now, the farmers who produce corn are threatened by NAFTA, industrial production and climate change. The men and women who hold on to traditional methods of corn preparation perform the backbreaking work of shucking, soaking and grinding to produce their meals.

It is true that if you look into any dish or ingredient deeply enough, you might discover a gloomy history. The unctuous jamón served at tapas bars recalls the suppression of Jews and Muslims in Spain: Inquisitors served pork to Christian converts to test their faith. Armenian and Greek meze dishes served up at an Istanbul restaurant reveal the culinary legacies of peoples who were killed or exiled and then forgotten. But this is an incomplete picture. “National Dish” begins with the connection between food and place, but it is ultimately about the intimate, transitory communities people make when they eat together.

At a potluck dinner in Istanbul, guests bring their favorite dishes from their cultures. They argue about culinary origins while drinking raki, smoking on the balcony and singing so loudly the neighbors call the police. In Oaxaca, the Zapotec chef Abigail Mendoza and her sisters spend days making chocolate atole, an elaborate celebration drink with pre-Hispanic roots. Back in Queens, von Bremzen prepares borsch (the “t” in “borscht” is a Yiddish addition, she notes) for two Ukrainian friends still reeling from the invasion of their home country. Our beloved dishes may not always tell a happy story about who we are, but they tell us what we have to give.

Irina Dumitrescu teaches medieval literature at the University of Bonn, and is writing a book about perfectionism.

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