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Food Doesn’t Travel

04.09.09
No matter how “authentic” the ingredients or the recipe, cuisine is inextricably tied to—and limited by—the place where it’s made.
steaming indian food
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Last month I wrote here about a couple of very happy weeks I had just spent in India, mostly on the beach in Goa. During that trip I kept scribbling notes to myself about the food we were encountering; and one day, after dropping off a laptop to be repaired in the unbeautiful town of Margao, we stopped at a restaurant called Tato and had such a sublime masala dosa that I yanked out my notebook and wrote, “Food doesn’t travel.” It wasn’t the first time I had been struck by this notion. In fact, whenever I go to India I seem to end up scribbling exactly that revelation in my notebook, generally while sighing over the remains of a perfect masala dosa (a kind of Indian crêpe made from a rice-and-lentil batter, filled with a spicy potato mixture) that I’ve just devoured in some wonderful South Indian restaurant. Of course, dosas are on the menu in South Indian restaurants in the U.S. But they aren’t the same as the ones in India, not remotely. Back home from this particular trip, as I reflected on my favorite meals in Goa and Bombay and tried to figure out what made them so important to me, I decided all over again that food really doesn’t travel. I could round up the ingredients in a specialty shop across town, and I could gather the likeliest recipes, and I could taste and fiddle my way towards flavors that would remind me of those blissful meals (although the “I” in this case is completely rhetorical, since my actual cooking is nowhere up to such a venture). But recreating those meals in my kitchen wouldn’t restore them to life. They would be American in every way. The only ingredient that could lift them to the heights I remembered would be me—and the memories I brought to the table.

Not surprisingly, my editor here disagreed; and if you’re a good cook who loves to wander the globe and bring home the culinary ideas you discover, you probably disagree, too. There’s no question that our whole approach to making the food of other countries has changed more dramatically since the 1950s than nearly any other aspect of home cooking. Even the most lackadaisical homemaker of today would not be impressed by the recipe for “Curry Sauce” published by Woman’s Day in 1958 (onion, margarine, milk, ketchup, and curry powder). These days a sophisticated home cook who sets out to recreate a dish first tasted in Buenos Aires or Hanoi is likely to come up with results more nuanced and accurate than most professional chefs in ethnic restaurants would have dreamed possible half a century ago.

But I still don’t think food travels. After all, what is it we’re trying to do when we start frying cloves and cardamom pods? Perhaps we’re seeking a flavor we remember from a restaurant in Delhi, or from the home of a friend in Chennai. But we can’t buy the right flavors just because we can buy the right spices. We can taste and ponder and add a little more cumin, but we can’t add half a cup of Indian water, or soil, or air. We can’t recreate the mild shock of coming in off the street to a Cochin restaurant and leaving the dust and chaos behind. We can’t toss in a handful of the dish we tasted just before we took a spoonful of those remarkable chickpeas; we can’t bring back the smells that were swirling above the table. Any time we exclaim over some delicious array of flavors, or frown with disappointment, the food before us is only part of what we’re tasting. Everything else is part of the experience, too, and resonates on the palate—the people, what we’re wearing, how we’re sitting, what we see when we gaze around the room, and all the emotional associations we’ve brought to the table along with our appetites.

Once, years ago, I went to an informal dinner in New York City where most of the other guests came from India, though they had been living many years in this country. It was a potluck; and since this was a crowd of fine home cooks, the dishes were terrific. But I was startled to see these avid food lovers scooping up their cauliflower and dal with pita bread. Clearly, since nobody had brought along a grandmother or an ancient family cook to stand over the stove and turn out hot chapatis all evening, there was no hope of a more traditional accompaniment for the food. But pita bread? To me, an American who had visited India a few times, the difference between a pita and a chapati was huge, endless, immeasurable; there was no possible way one version of flatbread could bridge the gap to the other. I used a fork. But to the people around me, who had been raised with this food and were far more discerning than I could ever be, a pita in these circumstances was perfectly acceptable. They could taste the chapati they weren’t eating.

Place matters: Where you’re eating changes everything. If you’re in the wrong place, sometimes you can make it right by what you bring to the table. And yet, when I say food doesn’t travel, I’m also saying that food does nothing but travel. It changes every step of the way as it moves from cook to cook and nation to nation. Food is a nomad, and there’s no sense trying to force it to settle down in its birthplace. I’ve finally learned that a masala dosa in this country is never going to equal the ones I remember tasting thousands of miles away, and in the spirit of fair-mindedness I try not to hold it against the restaurant. In fact, whenever I return home from a trip to India, I always wait a few months before venturing into an Indian restaurant, because it’s just too soon to avoid horrible disappointment. But after a time, I always adjust. I know what I’m tasting isn’t the masala dosa it should be, or the one I want it to be, but if I can meet it halfway—and once in a while I find an Indian restaurant where that’s possible—I’ll be happy. Pretty soon I’m urging friends to meet me there for a dosa, especially if they’ve never had one before. “You’ll love it,” I tell them. “It’s completely different from any Indian food you’ve ever had.” And different from any dosa in India, I should probably add—but it’s better to keep quiet, and watch their faces light up at the first taste.

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