Recipe origins: keeping it appropriate

Where in the world did you get that idea?

 

Hello, my name is Pedro and I have been borrowing from other cultures.  

For a start, my name is not actually Pedro. Shock, horror! It is a long-standing nickname. Back when Facebook became the social media du jour, I tried to quietly change my name back to its original standing. There was public outcry. Pedro was here to stay. 

I’ve borrowed the Spanish Peter as my nom de plume and it’s been gleefully bandied about. It makes me very aware of the cultural pick and mix I commit. There’s a line in the murky international waters somewhere. Sharing is good. Experience is important. When should we tread a little more delicately? 

We know our food is farm to table when it’s coming from Streamside. But where is that recipe coming from and how many stops has it made along the way.

Chances are, it’s not from here in good ol’ NZ. We’re a classic melting pot culture. We have taken every influence and put our own spin on it. 

Cooking is a great way to share our cultures. My favourite part of this is attempting to make something Mum (Or Mom, Mamma, Maman, Ma) used to make for a traveller who is far from home. The response is amazing. The stories come out. Which festivity the dish was made for, who gathered to eat it. A little window into another culture opens and it is a privilege to witness it. There is also the chance for an appropriate person to course correct any liberties I may have taken with said dish.  

 

When it’s just good ol’ Christopher from Timaru reading a recipe off the internet and trying to replicate a dish with which I share no common history? Time to tread delicately and recognize it is only a mere reflection of what that dish is meant to be and could potentially represent to someone. Anyone could whip up a Pavlova anywhere in the world, but they won’t know all the intricacies that make it one of New Zealand’s few signature dishes. The fact it is another source of friendly rivalry with the Aussies makes it all the more quintessential. That would be lost on the humble chef whipping egg whites and hoping for lift. 

That’s the rub for me. Most of what we’ve experienced of other cultures food is a copy of a copy. With substitutions. Double that down for the vegans among us. Half the ingredients are swapped out, cleverly replicated, or ignored.  

Food is ever evolving. Borrowing and mixing ideas to give us something new. That’s easily said coming from a chef bought up in a young melting pot nation. For others, particular foods are sacred. Some literally, others are tied so tightly with memories of home and family that they may as well be considered sacrosanct.  

 

I experienced true trepidation (And a massive amount of gratitude) when asked to join a friend for Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. Dinner on Friday night is the beginning of the period of rest and comes with distinct foods and rituals. I was asked to make the challah, a bread made especially for the feast. I was thankfully relieved of the duty when Jeff could see how nervous I was about buggering it up!   

I shouldn’t have been so apprehensive; it was a beautiful experience. It wouldn’t have mattered if the challah was a little funky, the focus is about bringing people together to take pause and share. 

When I know someone holds what I am making close to their hearts, I try for an open dialogue. Many respectful questions, attentive listening. A willingness to learn goes a long way. 

I have had kiwis proudly denounce my vegan croissant because it doesn’t have butter in it. How can it be real if it doesn’t have real butter?? (The ship of Theseus Paradox strikes again!) Well, the number of French travellers who have tried them and complimented them would lead me to think they’re actually pretty close to the mark. My French girlfriend (with a Russian name) particularly liked the pan au chocolat. I’m not saying they were the reason she became my partner, but I’d put it in the top 3 of reasons why I caught her attention.  

 

Every Friday at Pedro’s cafe I made a big batch croissant and Danish. The joy of sharing a warm chocolate croissant with Noemie never failed to make me grin. It even managed to make getting up before dawn to bake them worthwhile. Just. 

 

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I’ll hand you over to Noemie for the second part of this blog. Time for someone who has experienced the strange world of food facsimile. French culinary delights have been borrowed, bent and bungled the world over. How does this look through French eyes? Well, her answer surprised me and it shouldn’t have. You see it all started with a few people losing their heads…  

 

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Hi my name is Noemie, I'm French and I think that French cuisine is overrated. ohlala, controversial! Let me explain... 

Up until our nomadic ancestors introduced us to wheat and consequently the first prototypes of bread, the French diet consisted of apples, pears, cabbage, lots of wild berries and herbs, alongside fish and meat when possible. Simple. 

In the Middle Ages, travellers and tradesmen allowed for more variety and innovations for cooks. Let's clarify that chefs only worked in the kitchens of aristocrats, filling their kitchens with the best produce available, leaving peasants surviving on high fibrous vegetables and legumes (Your early version of a vegan diet)  

Then the French revolution happened, and all those cooks became unemployed. Heads did roll and restaurants were created. 

In the 19th century, these establishments were an arena for the French bourgeoisie to display wealth, the culinary delicacies a bonus on their step up the social ladder. Fine dining and the pride of French culture was truly born then but food was still a luxury. The peasants were still eating cabbage and turnips. 

The gap between rich and poor has tightened since then in most western countries, and food variety is more available, but the consistent accessibility to organic produce and nutritious, unprocessed meals is difficult for a large portion of the population. bringing politics into a subject as lovely as food. How French of me... Bear with me please! 

 

France was heavily influenced by its surrounding countries; a perfect example is the birth of the baguette and croissant originating in Austria. Wild I know. But something else took French cooking to another level... 

Colonialism. Oh dear. A dark, dark part of European history. Even if the sharing of produce would have eventually happened in a cordial way between continents, let's try and turn this into a "positive" part of colonialism... it sped this process up by making it mandatory… Not worth all the horrible stuff that came with it, but it is what it is unfortunately.  

The countries that France occupied and exploited were rich in beautiful produce. The Americas brought us potatoes and tomatoes, Asia aubergines and lemons, Africa and the Middle East kale and olives. 

Where am I going with this? French cuisine is deeply rooted in privilege and exploitation, and it is important to know. The past shines a light on our present. 

It is also not unique. Just like other countries, it is a product of a métissage (=mix) of vegetables, spices and condiments from around the globe. What would Italy be without tomatoes? Spain without olives? Australian instagrammers without kale and avocados? 

Without the cross-pollination of ideas and ingredients, French cuisine would not have come to be what it is today.  Is it the best cuisine in the world as so many claim? Meh. Your call. Its status in the cooking game is so powerful it has stuck as a stereotype (a rather nice one when compared to the arrogant and smelly ones) for any French citizen.  

Yep, it allowed me to land my first job in a kitchen. Zero experience or qualifications, but my nationality says that I must be good at cooking, so I was hired. Bluffed my way through that one. Thank you French cuisine.