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Cuisine in a nation, or of a nation?


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Hi all,

This is aiming to stimulate discussions on what actually a national cuisine is. I got myself involved in editing the Wikipedia entry on New Zealand's cuisine at one stage. Before we move on, NZ's traditional diet is basically derived from 19th century-1960 British cuisine, pavlova, meat plus three vegetables (usually roast lamb legs, beef, or pork) for main meals, and baked cakes, scones or biscuits/cookies at teatime, fish and chips, and meat pies. From the 1980s onwards, the Pacific (Asian) and Mediterranean ingredients became progressively more popular, such that you probably see butter chicken and sushi being eaten just as frequently as fish and chips.

I remember that I noted antipasto has become very widespread in NZ eating cuisine in the Wikipedia article. A PhD academic from the University of Auckland disputed my entry, and she argued that anything "new" technically isn't representative of NZ cuisine per se, because even though they may be eaten in NZ, they are not iconic of the nation in the first place, and secondly, what is touted as popular doesn't automatically follow they are really popular and served across the whole spectrum of socio-economic status.

In that sense, we would have to go back to the old fish and chips, meat pies, pavlova, meat and three vegs when we talk about NZ cuisine, but which if you read the current cookbooks published in NZ, they don't have much of these dishes anymore and they do look pretty old-fashioned?

Does anyone have more comments? That Cuisine of New Zealand is a much narrower definition. If we follow the "must be iconic" argument, we can argue 90% of foodies food can't be counted as national cuisines at all.


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I think when most people think about/talk about a national cuisine they think of food that was developed and is traditional in the country. This can lead to confusion because:

1- "Nation" and "country" aren't the same thing at all. A country is a political entity, a nation is a cultural and ethnic entity. So in places where you get a mix of ethnicities and cultures sharing the country, definitions get messy. In food terms, California rolls, chop suey and sour-cream-on-everything "Mexican" food aren't considered "American" food but they definitely aren't "authentic" Japanese, Chinese or Mexican, either. The confusion gets worse in countries where the dominant cultural bloc is a foreign culture, like in NZ, Australia, the Americas, etc., so we get "Native American" cuisine (as a distinct category from "American" cuisine), for example.

2- Cultural borders are porous and cuisine borrows and sometimes just plain steals. Think about baklava, hummus and all the other foods that are claimed by two or more national groups that are at odds with each other. Food shows up in weird places too; one of the most popular varieties of tacos in Mexico is "trompo" (aka "al pastor"), which I'm pretty sure was copied from gyros.

3- Cuisine evolves as cooks develop and apply new techniques and ingredients, and the idea of a national cuisine seems to be tied to tradition. As far as I know (and I admit I know very little about it) sous vide was developed in France, but it's not considered "French cuisine". On the other hand, tomatoes and potatoes didn't show up in Europe until the 16th C but they're certainly a part of many national cuisines there, so I guess as long as it's old it's all right.

So, a pretty messy topic.

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I for one am happy that people bring their cuisine to other countries and it becomes something totally new.

General Tso's Chicken. Obviously the gastronomical equivalent of nuclear fusion. The byproduct of having a lot of Chinese and Jewish immigrants in New York simultaneously.

Italian-American food. The United States is rife with people who say, "I'm Italian." Yet they don't know what "Buona Sera" or "Tutto Bene" means. Spaghetti and meatballs is a direct result. It's not really Italian food. But it's GOOD food.

And think of all the cuisine that owes it's origins to southern Spain or Madras. As much as I love true ethnic cuisine, sometimes the best things are caused by "shuffling the deck" as it were.

Please excuse me while I drink a Vienna lager (made in Mexico -- Vienna lager is no longer produced in Austria) along with an Italian/Spanish stuffed cuttlefish recipe I've been tweaking.

(Although this thread has got me hungry for lamb for some reason....)

Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today. -- Edgar Allan Poe

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Hi Johung. Interesting topic ...

Your academic's notion that 'new' things can't form part of a national cuisine seems remarkably restrictive. Must we conclude that 'traditional French' cooking isn't traditional at all, since it's not what the French used to eat before Catherine de Medici arrived from Italy? Is much of Italian cuisine inauthentic, since the tomato didn't arrive in Europe until around the turn of the 15th century? And in the New Zealand context, even the pavlova is a 'recent' introduction - 1920s, maybe. Going further, since ultimately ALL of us here are immigrants, maybe none of our cooking is truly local!

Your statement that From the 1980s onwards, the Pacific (Asian) and Mediterranean ingredients became progressively more popular, such that you probably see butter chicken and sushi being eaten just as frequently as fish and chips is, I think, completely accurate. Certainly 'old' NZ cuisine survives - I'm not even willing to say it's limited to rural areas and the older population - but I think it is fair to say that by far the majority of food served in our cafés and restaurants, and the recipes in our magazines and newspapers, show definite Asian/Mediterranean influences, albeit with modifications to suit local tastes and/or availability of ingredients.

In short, I believe a national cuisine is defined by the food cooked and eaten by the majority of the country's population. And naturally, this can change over time. I'll be interested in other comments.



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I guess that part of the problem is about the definition of "cuisine". It can mean different things to different people, beyond being simply "Kitchen/recognizable style of cooking". I actually think that it is a poor term, as it doesn't tend to address what people from a particular area and time actually eat in total. It also can imply ownership of a specific dish or cooking technique, but for the most part dishes and cooking techniques don't respect modern boundaries. Most regions also have multiple styles of cooking that while being recognized as separate, can in influence each other. Home v Restaurant cooking, Urban v Country, class specific cooking etc.Some dishes can be made for decades or even centuries in a particular region, but never get recognition as being "local", in other instances is it can take a very short amount of time. In addition if you look at the cuisine of a specific region, it tends to change quite a bit over time, often very rapidly. Most British people would recognize food published (British cookbooks) in 1850 as British, but not from 1800.

"Fish and chips, meat pies, pavlova, meat and three vegs", etc are also representative of Australian foods, so not specifically New Zealand foods. People argue about precedence and some people are very invested in this, but really I don't see much merit in this. If a nations cuisine is based on iconic dishes that as part of that definition have to be owned in total, then it will be teeny tiny list.

The people in New Zealand have a specific diet that changes over time, and it has some recognizable styles of cooking/specific dishes. The two don't have to overlap, although often do and there lies the issue as different people see different degrees of overlap.

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This is quite useful information Adam Balic, and interestingly David Veart touched on the subject of people differentiating themselves from other socio-economic groups (that is common/polite circle NZ speak for class) in the NZ contexts in his 2008 work First, Catch Your Weka. Traditionally New Zealand had an enforced form of egalitarianism, which means that everyone cooked largely the same dishes whether they were upper class stuffy people living in Fendalton in Christchurch or welfare beneficiaries living in Mangere in Auckland. There was a very big prejudice against any deviation from lower middle class tastes. So everyone would prepare scones, colonial goose (roasted stuffed lamb legs), etc. And also don't forget that for example, in 1946 NZ's population was something 98% European/white, and 99% of "Europeans" were from the British Isles or their descendants.

An implication of this is that both the rich and poor read and cooked from The Edmonds Cookbook, and cookbooks published in NZ served the whole community. This only changed in the 1970s when non-British influence started to creep into NZ and it became easier to purchase non-NZ cookbooks. And in the 1980s, it finally became more acceptable for people to exhibit different culinary preferences according to class and wealth. So it fact, NZ was rather unique that there was indeed a uniform national cooking style up until a generation ago.

Edited by johung (log)
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