Monday, October 04, 2010

Food, Travel & Identity

I just wanted to share with you the latest happy addition to my bookshelf – The Brazilian Table by chef Yara Roberts who is, as it says on her website:

“…the first Brazilian chef to write about Brazilian cuisine in English. She gives an intimate look at the regions of Minas Gerais, the Amazon, the Cerado, and Bahia from a food perspective, not only introducing one hundred delicious recipes but also providing an in-depth cultural lesson on the regions and their unique foods.”

Flicking through this wonderful book got me thinking about food and my relationship to it.

Such a big part of travelling for me is about food – few things bring as much pleasure. As well as the pure enjoyment of taste, food can tell you so much about a country and about its history and its people. All over the world day-to-day life revolves entirely around, and is structured by food (well, perhaps not entirely, but I can safely say that my thoughts are often occupied by what the next meal will be and when). People connect over food - it brings them together, families, friends, old and young. There is something basically human about sharing a meal, whether it’s a chunk of cheese and some dry bread shared with a fellow traveler on some endless bus journey across Bolivia, or an invitation to a family asado in Argentina.

Food and the customs and rituals surrounding it provide a framework for a country’s character, showing you their humanity. People are fiercely proud of their culinary heritage, it speaks of their past and of their values. In Argentina sharing mate (a bitter tea like drink) demonstrates a warmth and openness that strangers can immediately connect with.

Food is surrounded by these emotions; friendship and generosity; comfort and nostalgia. When people are homesick it often manifests itself in missing the flavors of home, and home-cooked food features in many a childhood memory. A bowl of hot soup at the end of a long, cold journey can switch your mood in a moment, and in England pretty much any problem can be solved by putting the kettle on for a cup of tea.

As well as this, layers of a country’s history can be seen in its culinary styles and influences. In Buenos Aires, waves of Italian immigrants opened pizzerias and ice-cream parlors all over the city, and today ice cream is a big part of the city’s culture – heladerias to rival Rome’s finest gelato emporiums are dotted throughout the city serving towering cones in multiples of delicious flavors.

Whenever I think of summer in Buenos Aires I think of heading to the heladeria at midnight, even at this late hour lively with groups of teenagers and tables of smartly dressed old folks. Getting my ticket, waiting for my number to come up and choosing my two scoops from the dozens of options - for me this experience is part of the patchwork of Buenos Aires. Just as when I think of Tokyo I think of spicy wasabi with soy sauce, and slivers of vivid pink pickled ginger, and just as Morocco brings back memories of steaming tagines of lamb and apricot, and sweet, hot mint tea in colored glasses.

I have always been intrigued by food, recipes and cooking styles, and their inextricable link to a country’s history, culture and character. This is why, for me, The Brazilian Table is the perfect recipe book. Combining delicious Brazilian dishes, with an in depth knowledge of their origins and influences and an obvious passion for the country and its flavors. All this in one delectable and beautifully written full-color package. Time to cook!