Article: Some thoughts on cuisine and culture

So, I’m still perusing Irene Kuo’s Key to Chinese Cooking, and along the way I happened on a chapter that talked about Asian noodles, and how you could basically substitute spaghetti for Chinese egg noodles. Which struck me as odd because they don’t taste anything alike, but… see, the book was written in the Seventies, and back then, finding genuine egg noodles in the middle of the US must have been really hard (to some extent, it’s still freaking hard to find proper egg noodles in my part of the Parisian suburbs). And this put me in mind of a conversation I was having with a friend of mine, about how nước mắm used to be so hard to find in France, so the very first recipes that the Vietnamese immigrants came up had to make do with soy sauce… (which again tastes nothing like nước mắm)

It all comes back to a subject I find fascinating: the authenticity of cuisine–something I see crop up a lot on the internet, especially with regards to cookbooks. What makes an authentic recipe? What is and is not an acceptable variant? [1] How should a cuisine as a whole be judged? Because truth is, like cultures, cuisines merge and adapt, and evolve. Sometimes, they adapt because they don’t have basic ingredients: there’s a very cute Vietnamese cookbook in French, Le Chant du Riz Pilé (Song of Crushed/Ground Rice), which makes do without half the Vietnamese staples, because it’s an old book and those staples weren’t available in France at the time.

Sometimes, they merge with other cultures: the most well-known Vietnamese dishes, phở and bánh mì, didn’t actually exist before the turn of the 20th Century: they’re creations made in the melting pot between Vietnamese and French culture. Likewise, there’s a pretty common Vietnamese dish, thịt bò khô (beef stew), which has more than a few common points with an equally famous French dish, boeuf bourguignon (the Vietnamese version has more spices and herbs, but it’s strikingly similar). French cuisine now, as compared to the one at the turn of the century, has grown to include Mediterranean dishes such as taboulé and couscous, and Italian pasta have basically become part of every cook’s repertoire.

In the specific case of immigrants, new dishes become created, whether for the diaspora or for a foreign audience: General Tsao’s Chicken is a pretty good example of a typical Chinese-American dish that you won’t find in Chinese restaurants in France (and, if Wikipedia is correct, which isn’t always the case, a dish that the Chinese in China didn’t much appreciate).
Dishes fall out of favour, or become only cooked within the home of immigrants, because the majority doesn’t appreciate them: there is a fascinating phenomenon whereby most foreign restaurants in a given country will serve the same staples, because they’re the ones that the the majority of people appreciate (it can be because the majority of people is not immigrants, and is freaked out by stuff like pig’s ears; but it can also be because ingredients just aren’t the same. In Vietnamese cooking, chicken used to be a luxury, served mostly for feasts; but when the Vietnamese arrived in France and in the US, they found chicken was available really cheap, and so chicken began to feature on the menu a lot more than in Vietnam). Most Chinese restaurants in France serve the same things; the few Chinese restaurants I tried in the US also served the same things–but not at all the same as the French Chinese restaurants. It’s a fascinating process of accretion, whereby some parts of the cuisine just vanish, and some others acquire a disproportionate weight, depending on where and when the immigration happens. [2]

And, sometimes, things just change because time passes, and mentalities change. French cuisine used to rely a lot on butter for cooking ingredients, and on stuff like homemade stocks. Today, we’re more health-conscious (I don’t use butter, though I do know people who still do), and we’re more pressed for time–so the time-consuming parts of cooking such as making stock tend to get skipped (again, I do know people who make stock. It’s just not the norm anymore). What my French great-grandparents considered a good meal probably would have made me sick; and what I eat today would probably seem strange to them (even sticking to broadly French/European dishes. Let’s leave the nước mắm out of this for the moment…)

Not to mention, of course, that each of us have their own background and their own cuisine, often passed on from parent to child. The H considers his mother’s recipes to be the reference for a lot of things, and will scoff at other recipes (not because they’re inauthentic, but because he thinks they just don’t taste as good). I make my own stuff, mostly pastry, and the odd Vietnamese-French fusion dish (especially when my pantry is bare and all I have lying around are shallots, garlic and nước mắm. You wouldn’t believe what you can improvise with those around). Every French person has a different idea of what good French cooking is, and they’ll likely pass on some of it on to their friends and family–and get stuff passed on to them, as well, from their friends and family.

Yes, I know. I’m having a philosophical moment because of a cookbook. But still… it’s really fascinating stuff. Cuisine as a metaphor for culture. There you go, the thought of the day 🙂

[1] Mileage varies a lot, but here’s a hint as far as I’m concerned: don’t try to sell me chả giò (fried rolls) made with egg roll wrappers (chả giò should be made with rice paper). Egg roll wrappers are for Chinese or other Asian cuisines; the only Vietnamese dish I know which makes use of is a variant of wontons.
[2] There’s also the “restaurant effect”: restaurants tend to serve festive food that you can’t make at home; therefore, most people’s perception of foreign cuisines is really skewed, because the signature dishes tend to be extravagant dishes that are only served for feasts. One good example in France is chả giò, fried rolls, which everyone associates with Vietnamese cuisine in spite of the fact that it’s hardly part of an every day Vietnamese meal.


  1. Wonderful post! Even if I agree with your arguments…and linked to it @

    I also found Malinda Lo’s post insightful and accurate even though it was written in academese.

  2. Hi John,

    Aw, thanks! Malindo’s post was awesome (even though the academic language was a bit hard at times). And thank you so much for the link, your website (& book) sounds fascinating.

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