Spices, culture and the value of cuisine

Written with Mandy Aftel. This essay came out of research we did for an upcoming book about flavor, which will be published next year by Riverhead.

The kitchen has always been a place where people could gather in good times and bad. At funerals, celebrations and family gatherings, everyone seems to end up there. Food — the act of breaking bread around a table — is more than just a gustatory experience, it’s a way to show nurturing and love. We, as cooks, see the ways that different cultures view each other reflected in how we eat. Maybe one way to understand — and to change — how we value each other is to start by looking at how we value food.

America has typically undervalued food of non-European origin, just as it has historically undervalued the labor of the non-European workers who built its railroads, labored in its fields and factories, tended its gardens and children, and cooked and served its restaurant meals. The rich, diverse cooking traditions of countries like China, India and Mexico, which date back thousands of years, were lumped into a category called “Ethnic” food. “Ethnic” food, usually cooked by immigrants who learned the dishes in their native country — or invented ones on their new turf, adapting their heritage to new ingredients and neighbors — was stereotypically perceived to consist of fast, cheap and highly spiced dishes, often served in a strange-smelling, unhygienic environment. It implies otherness, un-Americanness, and the assumption has been that while it could be tasty, it should be cheap and not taken too seriously.

This inequitable way of regarding cultural food is baked into the very structure of the food we do value, which has a revealing history of its own. Most non-European cuisines are based on the carefully orchestrated use of spices and strong flavors. Until the mid-seventeenth century, you might be surprised to learn, so was the native food of the northern European elite. As Paul Freedman writes in Out of the East and Medieval Cuisine, “Within medieval Europe, a taste for highly spiced food was an international style, something found from one end of the continent to the other.” In European cookbooks from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries spices like ginger, cinnamon and saffron appear in the majority of the recipes, for savory dishes as well as sweet. Their abundant use was a status marker.

It’s hard to imagine, in an era where spices can be found in almost every supermarket, how valuable they once were. Wars were fought, fortunes made and lost, new worlds discovered, and civilizations built for the spice trade. Spices were central to all important aspects of life: beauty (as perfume), health (as medicine), spiritual life (via their role in ritual), and, of course, sustenance (as a seasoning). From the regal orange pistils of saffron to the warm, woody bark that rendered cinnamon, they made food memorable and delicious. The fact that they came from faraway places added value. Exotic spices evoked foreign lands and stirred the imagination. When the nobility lavished them by the handful on their food, they might as well have been sprinkling their dishes with gold.

In the latter half of the 17th century, however, the cuisine of northern European nobility began to change. The first country to lead the way was France. The reasons for the shift were complex, but it partly had to do with a movement towards the flavors of its own indigenous foods, like truffles, oysters and mushrooms. Advances in medicine meant that spices were no longer considered essential to good health. And a lot of the change was because, due to the advent of mass cultivation and production, spices became inexpensive, and what was once a luxury item became available to everyone. Spices lost their status as a symbol of luxury and wealth, and the taste of the nobility began to shift away from them.

This change did not happen because the spices tasted any differently, at least not objectively. But taste is not only about flavor. The word taste is derived from the Latin word taxare: to touch, to value, to judge. Its culinary meaning was secondary, overlaid. More broadly, taste also came to indicate a preference, and eventually a value judgment. The style of food preferred by European nobility began to change because spices were no longer in good taste.

The new preferred culinary taste of the European elite trickled down to the middle class through restaurants, which became popular after the French revolution. The private chefs who had served the fallen aristocracy, finding themselves out of work, began to migrate to restaurant kitchens, bringing with them the cooking style of the former ruling class. Over time restaurants gained in cultural standing, and the new Euro-minimalism became codified into books and recipes and menus. Ingredients presented simply became the new fashion. Vegetables became more popular. The thin, heavily spiced sweet and sour sauces that were once popular became thick, elegant and savory, smoothed with cream and butter. Subtlety trumped strong flavors. Slowly this new kind of cooking spread across Europe.

Meanwhile, Europeans themselves were spreading out across the globe, colonizing other countries. In the cooking of Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas, they encountered vibrant and complex flavors, not only in the spices that grew there but in fermentations like fish sauce and kimchee. The European bias against such flavors merged readily with the bias against the indigenous cultures themselves. In a kind of culinary Stockholm Syndrome, often the people whose country had been conquered came to value European cooking, especially in restaurants, more than their own. The visceral experience of the way the native foods smelled and tasted became bound up with the intellectual idea that spices and strong flavors were the food of lesser people — people without status, without taste.

America was one of those conquered lands. Unlike in other countries where the Europeans co-existed with the people already living there, in America they decimated the native population and created a new, European-based country. To this day our culture is imprinted with their values, and the philosophy of simple, unadorned food is the foundation of what has long been considered “American food.” On a mass-market level there were burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches, steamed broccoli and mashed potatoes, with only black pepper as a vestige of the once ubiquitous spices. American haute cuisine, too, was based on the European ideal. Even the cuisines of other countries had to bow to the dominant taste, becoming stripped of their spices and the funkiness of the fermentations, their intensity blunted, their acidity smoothed out, their distinctiveness erased. As encountered in the “ethnic” restaurants of the average American city, the great cuisines of the world were transformed into bland, homogenous imitations and relegated to the bargain bin of our eating habits.

To all appearances that’s starting to change. There has been an influx of authentic cooking from different cultures as larger numbers of immigrants have settled here, bringing their traditions and flavors. Several years ago salsa overtook ketchup as the most popular condiment on the American market, and these days sriracha pops up on fast food menus. A parallel evolution has happened in fine dining. In fancy restaurants all across the country, it’s not unusual to see eggplant paired with cumin, or grilled chicken with fish sauce. The slow trickle of spices and strong flavors into the mainstream reflects a changing population, where those of European descent are no longer the majority.

But cherry-picking a few flavors is more cultural appropriation than cultural acceptance. The base on which almost all of the food is built is still European, finished with a touch of exoticism, the frisson of something new. The valuation of non-European food remains low: Americans will pay $25 for a dish of Italian pasta, but not for a bowl of Japanese ramen. Cultural respect means not just harvesting the ingredients, but recognizing and accepting the integrity of the cultural whole.

Maybe change begins with a simple recognition. It’s true that the simple, clean flavors of European cooking can be delicious, but so are the complex, deeply woven flavors of cuisines based on spices. One is not inherently more valuable than the other, and acceptance of a pricing structure that reflects that would go a long way as a symbol of parity. The aesthetic of subtlety, elegance and harmony passed down from European nobility is a cultural construct, an arbitrary decision based on perceived status. The fact is, when it comes to flavor, there is no hierarchy of taste.

Our country will continue to cross-pollinate, both in terms of people and food. The idea of authenticity as a guiding principle is backward looking — American food can and should represent the diversity of our population. Like the immigrants who arrived with the seeds of plants from their native countries sewed into their hats and pant legs, people drag along their history, both personal and cultural, as they move around the world. Once here their foods, cultures and bloodlines merge into something new. Maybe we can value that something new, whatever it is — because our culture is constantly morphing — while still respecting all of the underlying histories.

To understand that all good cooking is equal is to understand that all people are equal. We can change how we value flavor, by becoming aware of the roots of our biases, and by reaching beyond them. At a moment when America is reconsidering its past in order to make sense of its future, the kitchen might be a good place to start.

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