Sunday, July 05, 2009

More food


Food for thought

Jul 2nd 2009

Adding deliberate culinary insult to unintended injury

Last week’s column has aroused offence where none was meant. The aim—perhaps a bit fanciful, but it is summer after all—was to imagine menu items with names that reflect eastern Europe’s history and politics. Münchner Klöße [Munich dumplings], for example, would be a noxious dish cooked by Germans and force-fed to Czechoslovaks by Brits.

But readers saw it as a patronising outsider’s attack on east European cuisine in general. How dare a newspaper published in a country that invented the chip butty and the deep-fried Mars Bar mock the rich and varied cuisine of half a continent?


Not your father's peasant food

At the risk of adding deliberate insult to unintended injury, the complaints do provide a peg to look at the region’s culinary highs and lows. Two big tests of national cuisine are whether the locals like it, and whether it exports. A simple way of measuring that is the incidence in a Google search of phrases such as “Albanian culinary classics” and “Estonian gourmet recipes” (zero in each case). That gives a rough guide to the level of interest in the English-speaking world in those countries’ national kitchens. Another Google test is compare the profile of each kind of ethnic restaurant in a big international city such as New York. So “italian restaurant” + “new york” brings up a mighty 2m hits, against 20,000 hits for “russian restaurant”, 33,500 for “polish”, 7,500 for “Hungarian” and so on. (Just for the record, “British restaurant” gets only 5,860.)

The presence of immigrant populations has an effect (you can find Lithuanian restaurants in Chicago, if rarely anywhere else). But the undeniable fact is that Italian (and French, Chinese, Indian, Tex-Mex, etc) cuisine has established itself as part of the global culinary landscape whereas the offerings from east European countries largely have not.

One reason is the isolation caused by 50 years of communism. (That also may explain the popularity of Georgian food within the Soviet Union, where it was the most exotic and tasty ethnic cuisine available.) Another is most countries’ recent roots in peasant farming. This created a need for cheap food that could support arduous manual labour: plenty of calories, fat and protein where possible, but not so well suited for a modern diner in search of taste sensations and a healthy diet.

A partial exception is Hungarian cuisine, which is not for those following a low-fat diet, yet still redolent of Hapsburg-era sophistication. But even that suffers from the biggest hole in the region's traditional repertoire: the summer menu. Hearty and delicious soups and stews are all very well when the wind is howling outside. But in the sweltering heat, a cold cabbage salad doesn’t quite do the trick. Two delicious summer soups, the Lithuanian/Polish cold borscht and Hungarian wild cherry soup, both require dollops of sour cream—a no-no for the cholesterolly challenged. Estonia’s kama (a mixture of ground and roasted grains, including pea flour) added to chilled buttermilk or kefir is healthier and a taste well worth acquiring.

The best summer option is probably fish: during a recent visit to Vincents in Riga, one of the priciest (and best) restaurants in the entire region, your columnist enjoyed an exquisitely presented starter of smoked and fresh halibut, salmon, trout, salmon caviar and herring. Sashimi, Baltic-style.

Even more striking was the dessert, concocted out of the lurid and astringent juice of the sea-buckthorn berry. This costly and vitamin-packed elixir was mixed before our eyes with liquid nitrogen, creating an instant sorbet with explosive effects on the tongue. Did someone say that east European food was boring?

1 comment:

Bea said...

Don't like sour cream? The sour milk aka kefir is ok for cold borshtch soup, too.
I've heard foreigners fear the rosy color alone. Then you could leave a beetroot out as well. :D