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.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

    Recruitment Genius: Transportation Contracting Manager

    £33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A global player and world leade...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

    Recruitment Genius: Payroll and Benefits Co-ordinator

    £22300 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This museum group is looking for a Payro...

    Day In a Page

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy