Food and Drink: Give me plain home cooking, not foreign stuff

There must have been something terribly irritating in the relatively blank map of Africa that sent 19th-century explorers up and down the Limpopo, trekking from Addis to Asmara and checking out the sources of the Nile. It has not exactly been proved that we are better off for knowing about some of the alien places these travellers put on the map, but we did get a vivid sense of the exotic, of what is not us, and this may be salutary for the smug and egocentric.

Much the same sort of thing goes on in our restless times in the world of gastronomy. It is a rare person who could have predicted 40 years ago, when we were emerging from our culinary Dark Ages, that we would be seeing a series about African cooking on American television. Interesting to gastronomic voyeurs as this undoubtedly is, it is fairly impractical. You cannot make a civette of kudu if you have not got a kudu, and trout wrapped in vine leaves just isn't the same as the river fish of Zaire steamed in banana leaves.

But we are eclectic these days. 'Choice' is the word; we pick and choose among the things we think we can be, and no tanner's son is now a tanner. In gastronomy this means tradition is being engulfed by a kind of artsy-fartsy dipping into everyone else's cuisine. Forget that cuisine has roots binding it to its own culture and materials; there is nothing we cannot imitate.

The cuisine of Latin America - Ha] As though there were one - is currently in vogue, and the sociological roots of that are not hard to discern. Californians, those experts at self- publicity ('The Most Expensive Earthquake Ever'), have long been gastronomically weightless. If you had eaten in California before the Second World War, as I did, you would have been served very ordinary stuff. In those days, Mexican cuisine was subversive indeed: of the digestive tract as well as of the taste buds. It had not yet been 'filtered' into California, its violent tastes tamed and its spices homogenised.

Thus I note with no surprise at all that the newest item on the gastronomic scene is Puerto Rican cuisine. Puerto Rico is a small island in the Caribbean, 110 miles long and about 40 wide, that exists in an uneasy and unstable relationship with the United States. Its principal export, besides rum, is people. I lived on the island for three delicious years, and still go back regularly, so I have a clear notion of what Puerto Rican cooking is: in terms of the materials available, a paradise; in terms of the cooking, pretty routine.

Our diet was rice and black beans, a bife encebollado (steak in onions), sometimes an asopao (rice soup with vegetables or fish, heavily flavoured with coriander), plantains (which I love, both ripe and green, the former fried to sweetness, the latter tied to pepper or stewed), land crabs, lechon (the baby pig we would buy at road stands on the way to and from the beach), and arroz con pollo.

Terrific was the bread, the Spanish pan de agua, baked by a Spanish republican baker in Hato Rey. Wonderful, too, was the fruit: every kind of citrus, splendid avocados, four or five varieties of mango, guava . . . On lucky days, someone on that blissful island might have gone fishing; the sea was teeming, but sailors were few.

One did not eat out. Restaurants in San Juan were for tourists and were vaguely Swiss or as vaguely Italian. Puerto Ricans are not a restaurant people. They are munificent, generous, noisy, wonderful home eaters, hospitable to excess. Forced to drink the strongest Spanish wines that could survive the steamy heat - Marques de Riscal was on every table - one ended all meals with one of the three great coffees of the world (the others are the Italian espresso and the Brazilian cafezinho).

Now Puerto Rico is nouveau chic in New York. It must be something to do with a new form of cooking poor, since the basic dishes of this island are simplicity itself, heavy, not a little fattening and - if you want to be critical - somewhat crude. The overwhelming flavours are of coriander and achiote (a sort of poor man's saffron), and of salt, which is often (even in a hot climate) abused. As almost everything that Puerto Rico produces is available in New York's many food shops, not to speak of supermarkets (there are nigh on a million Puerto Ricans in the city), one can eat excellent Puerto Rican food there.

It will not, of course, be as good as in Puerto Rico itself. It is a sunny cuisine, to be eaten in sweat and good conversation and in contemplation of hibiscus. But this is an old story: that we ransack the gastronomic treasure-chest of local traditions (look at the number of 'regional', 'peasant' Italian and French cookbooks) and miscegenate. I fear the day when someone opens a fancy Puerto Rican restaurant (the island knows none such) offering a Franco-Chinese-Mexican rice 'n' beans cuisine.

Like explorers, we are basically predators. We think we can own the cuisines of others. It ain't so. Cooking is inseparable from place, inseparable from the culture that produces it.

Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Manager

    £50 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Mana...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits