As we watch, agog, the streets of Bangkok patrolled by soldiers securing the military takeover, it is an apt moment to look at the histories and myths encoded in everyday food. It has been recalled this month that Pad Thai owes its popularity to its adoption as the national dish by Thailand’s ultra-nationalist military dictator back in the 1940s, Plaek Phibunsongkhram. Some have it that the attempt was to curb consumption of rice, whose export was (and remains) a key source of income, but so popular is the dish around the world that Mina Holland says she’s chosen not to be repetitive and include its recipe in her encyclopedic survey of everyday food, The Edible Atlas: Around the World in Thirty-Nine Cuisines.
A peculiar tension informs this book, one that Holland, an established food writer, consciously plays on, between the specialness of everyday food consumed in its native place, as it were, and its recreation in kitchens elsewhere. Part travelogue, part personal history (Holland’s father was born in Nigeria, her grandmother in Nainital, her grandfather retired to Pattaya in Thailand), part literary overview (food-related and other quotes from writers, Arundhati Roy on India, Orhan Pamuk on Turkey, Mario Vargas Llosa on Peru, etc), The Edible Atlas strives to show how local cuisine is of its place, how a dish catches in its ingredients and recipe geography, history, custom, local temper: “Why do people eat as they do in different parts of the world.” How there is no telling when a particular meal or snack will define our recollections of that moment.
But alongside this handy guide to how to enjoy everyday food, thoughtfully and informatively (and always pleasurably), Holland includes recipes for a couple of dishes from that country (or in case of countries with exceptionally rich and varied cuisine, India, Italy, France, China, etc, its different regions). You know the ambition — you know that you will never find a kulcha like those in Amritsar’s dhabas, or that pretzel in Munich’s beer gardens, but never shall you give up trying to find one that approximates it.
To read Holland’s book is to be reminded that every cuisine has its narrative. In a book for popular readership and with space permitting short introductions, she finds different threads. For north India, for instance, the Grand Trunk Road provides a route for surveying food from Kashmir, through Punjab and UP and on to Bengal, the shift in flavours, ingredients and styles of cooking finding reflection in conditions on the ground. For Vietnam, the colonial backdrop and its geographical location inform its hybrid cuisine, perhaps best encapsulated in banh mi (the French baguette made “lighter and airier”, so that its thick crust can hold locally available fillings). The food of Italy’s Veneto region becomes comprehensible by dwelling a bit on Venice’s place on old trade routes. The traditional taboo on consumption of meat in Japan explains the curious table settings, “one soup, three sides” (that is, a hearty soup, surrounded by side dishes of rice, pickles and a third that varies). “We don’t cook for one, we cook for 10,” a Brazilian cook tells Holland, highlighting the habit of cooking in just one large pan. The hybrid cuisine of Jamaica is, of course, a reminder of the its violent imperial past, but invoking Nobel laureate Derek Alcott, Holland says food is one of the aspects of Caribbean life that makes “the sigh of history dissolve”.
She could add that the ever ongoing attempt to find locally substitutable ingredients to make dishes from elsewhere is also our way of making distance and barriers dissolve.
This story appeared in print under the headline Food That Travels Well