Friday, December 14, 2012

Travel through Cooking

"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are."
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, born April 1, 1755

Many people dream of travelling to distant, exotic lands they’ve never been before. But the reality is that most of us won’t get the chance to visit all the places that intrigue us. Instead, we will have to be content to simply read about them or watch travelogues about them. But I believe that one way we can transport ourselves to these exotic places is by cooking their foods.

Eating the cuisine of different countries teaches us something about its inhabitants: their choice of spices and seasonings, their cooking methods, even what foods are available to them. Food traditions speak volumes about people. We can get a glimpse into their lives by seeing how they took what the land and sea offered them and what they did with those things.

We have only to search out ethnic cookbooks to bring ourselves that much closer to them. We are so fortunate to live in a time when cookbooks can be found on just about any ethnicity. I find looking through them to be a lot of fun. Researching foods from a particular area of the world and then searching for the ingredients in markets and specialty shops can be a unique experience. And, the cuisine of others can be inspirational when we need ideas for new things to cook. I mean, how many of us make the same 10 things over and over again?

What a boon to live in a time where a Midwesterner, for instance, can Google “palak paneer” and, in a few clicks, learn how to make a dish from Northern India. Yet, ever since Fanny Farmer set the standard for recipe writing in her cookbook, recipes reduce food to a simple listing of nutrients. While recipes let you make a culture’s food, they don’t offer much illumination on the culture from which that food comes, certainly not as much as the food itself. Recipes usually aren’t created to illuminate culture. They’re just step-by-step directions.

The ideal thing would be to find an ethnic cookbook that includes stories of the people that inhabit this place from which you are cooking, what their traditions are, what the weather is like, what unique cooking vessels they might have and why. Preferably this cookbook will also have lovely pictures, of people, the landscape, and the markets, of course. You will be more deeply immersed in their lives and have a better understanding of who these people are when you cook from these.

I find doing this enlightening, because I believe that cooking only from the area in which we grew up feeds isolationism, something a lot of Americans suffer from. I realize it seems a bit simplistic, but I believe that we cannot increase our global understanding and tolerance for different cultures when we simply stick to eating hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken fried steak. How can we not feel somewhat Frenchified when we create a souffle or make Coq au Vin, or feel transported to India when we whip up a Tikka Masala with all its spicy complexities?  How can we not eat these dishes and appreciate their uniqueness, their differences from what we are accustomed to, and not feel even a small connection to the people of these distant lands?

I’ve always believed that everyone should travel outside of one’s country at least once in their lives. It changes you. It opens your mind and offers you a different perspective. It makes you appreciate what you have at home. While we may never get to India, or France, or wherever we dream of going, we can get a little closer through our kitchens.

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