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.

Sport
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Life and Style
Mark's crab tarts are just the right size
food + drinkMark Hix cooks up some snacks that pack a punch
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
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: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all