Cuisine as Culture

Readers are welcome to enjoy the video above and feel hungry at the mouthwatering sights of the great cuisine that Iran is known for. But please don’t spoil the taste of your mouth by reading the comments below this video on the Youtube page. I have always wondered why the youtube videos that focus on cultural aspects of a country always give rise to a verbal abusive war of the so-called “clash of civilisations.” Rather than having informed discussions about the nuances of the cultural topic being shown, the discussion often turns to whose culture is/was “greater,” as if it is possible to measure cultures in greater or lesser terms. I have seen this not only in case of cuisines, but also in case of dance, music, poetry, art and just about anything that deals with culture. Perhaps it says something about the quality of education we go through, that doesn’t instill in us a desire to learn from and appreciate other people’s cultures and to share our own culture with others in an amicable environment.

I am fond of all kinds of food and Iranian food is especially my favourite – alongwith Thai, Arab, Turkish, Italian, French, Indian and many others of course! Persian food is a kind of melange of the cultural elements it has absorbed from different parts of Persia as well as from the regions it has been in contact with for thousands of years – which includes South, Central and West Asia and North Africa. Indeed, there are many dishes that transcend the political boundaries of the countries in these regions and manifest themselves in different forms in many countries.

Studying the spread of these dishes across such a vast region and the social factors that involved their spread and transformation itself is a fascinating subject in sociological history. This is because food is not just something to eat, but it carries with it the specific markers of social customs, lifestyles, ecological circumstances in which a society has developed and social equations. In the process of cuisinal transmission, these markers have to be adjusted to fit onto the new environment in which the cuisine is being used. Thus, the mutton and rice dishes of West Asia get transformed into the myriads of varieties of Biryani in South Asia, each carrying the identity of the community and the region that developed it. Yes, contrary to the belief of many South Asians, Biryani is very much South Asian in its taste, ingredients and preparation methods which were evolved in South Asia.

The region of West Asia is often stereotyped as a region of Islamic cultures evolved in a desert environment. While it’s true that the desert conditions have influenced the lifestyle of many communities and Islam is the predominant religion there, it is by no means a monolithic region in ecology or in religious fabric. Over a period of centuries, the people of this region have interacted with other cultures and have also lived with the people from other regions who came to reside here. North Africa is even more diverse because of the cultural contacts it has experienced through the centuries.

This Bahraini dish of rice cooked with quails is another version of Iranian Chelo Kabab and the South Asian Biryani. But, significantly, this traditional recipe as given by this modern blog on Arab food gives MAGGI chicken bouillon and ghee (clarified butter, used widely in South Asia) as its ingredients. Bahrain being quite close to South Asian subcontinent, quite obviously has been in contact with the region and this shows in Bahraini food. The presence of Maggi chicken bouillon obviously comes from the presence of Western expatriates in Bahrain and the influences they have brought with them. The food from the Gulf can be very cosmopolitan while retaining its traditional flavour in many ways. The gourmets and connoisseurs visiting this page can get an excellent collection of Arab dishes on this blog.

North Africa has experienced an even greater cosmopolitanism in culture, drawing from every part of the world through its history. And perhaps Tunisia can be said to be the most cosmopolitan amongst the North African countries. Tunisian cuisine is truly a melting pot of all cultures, taking elements from Europe as well as from different parts of Asia and Africa. Some of it is really an African improvisation of its French counterpart, while others mix elements from many cultures.

This brings us back to the issue raised in the beginning. If we take care to study (and eat!) the cuisine from West Asia and North Africa, the notion of “superiority of one’s own cuisine” really disappears. Perhaps it is important to study the sociological history of cross-cultural cuisine. I would recommend it to every undergraduate who aims to work in a global environment.

The readers who missed the commentary with the Iranian cuisine video above, may watch the following Persian food safari in three parts –

8 Responses to “Cuisine as Culture”
  1. Saindhavi says:

    Oh Boy, am I hungry!

  2. Chitra says:

    The food is very appealing and tempting. But I am a veggie :(. The naan making and tandoor are also very attractive. I will share this link with my son as he is a foodie and loves to cook and eat.

  3. Archana says:

    Hi Chitra,
    Thanks for your comment. Check the link for Tunisian cuisine. It has some vegetarian dishes. The Persian food safari videos Parts II and III also have some vegetarian fare.

    I hope your son is a non-veg.

    Goa is known for its non-veg food. I didn’t know there were Goans who were vegetarians. I know a Konkanasth Brahman from Karnataka who is a non-veg. Perhaps there is a diversity within your community.

  4. John says:

    People do seem to get very prickly about food and cultural identity. There’s a ‘food war’ going on between Arabs and Israel over ‘who owns’ certain dishes like hummus and falafel. It’s escalated to public PR battles and attempts to obtain ‘country of origin’ identification through international bodies and courts!

    If you want a really angry (but delicious!) mess, try and unravel the distinction between Greek and Turkish cookery. The claims that ‘X is from Byzantium’ and ‘X is from the Ottoman court’ are fairly ridiculous, but taken very, very seriously by their adherents. Why, it’s almost a matter of religious faith!

  5. Archana says:

    Thanks for your comment.

    OMG, don’t tell me the Arabs and Israelis have taken their food identity battles to international court! Of course the dishes you mention belong to the region as a whole – including both Palestine and Israel. But they are bringing their political animosity into their cuisine traditions.

    Yes, it’s more about religion and politics than about food. That’s why I said the future workers in global environment should study the sociological history of food. But they should get impartial teachers for this.

  6. sm says:

    good to know about it
    will be back again to watch videos

  7. Archana says:

    Thanks for your comment. I hope you enjoyed the videos!

  8. Archana says:

    no doubt yummy!

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