dinsdag 4 maart 2014

The Islami-Mex Mole on the Map

Recently I have been enjoying several pieces by food historian Rachel Laudan. Her recent book I have not yet read but here is an interview. She writes in praise of fast food and about the origin of our diet. The latter is especially interesting for the historic perspective it brings to our modern love for freshness. You can also take her to a supermarket near you. An older piece is The Mexican Kitchen's Islamic Connection that contains the following: 
When Mexico’s leading writer, Nobel Prize laureate Octavio Paz, arrived in New Delhi in 1962 to take up his post as ambassador to India, he quickly ran across a culinary puzzle. Although Mexico and India were on opposite sides of the globe, the brown, spicy, aromatic curries that he was offered in India sparked memories of Mexico’s national dish, mole (pronounced MO-lay). Is mole, he wondered, “an ingenious Mexican version of curry, or is curry a Hindu adaptation of a Mexican sauce?” How could this seeming coincidence of “gastronomic geography” be explained?


Paz was right to point out that mole resembled curry, he was wrong to imagine that Mexican cooks had created mole as imitation curry, or that Indian cooks composed curries in an effort to emulate mole. He would have done better to picture both moles and curries as vestiges of the cuisine of medieval Islam, a cuisine that was enjoyed from southern Spain in the west to northern India in the east.


In the early 16th century, as the Spaniards were introducing their version of Muslim cuisine to Mexico, the Mughals conquered northern India half a world away. They came by way of Persia, which had become the cultural and culinary center of the region since the Mongols had ruined Baghdad more than 200 years earlier. It was this Persian version of Muslim cuisine that their cooks adapted to Indian circumstances, creating the sophisticated Mughal cuisine of New Delhi. By the mid-16th century, then, a belt of high cuisine could be traced from northern India westward to Mexico. Although in every area it had been adapted to include local ingredients, the basic techniques and the basic dishes of medieval Islam continued to form the basis of all the local variants.
The article provides a brief glimpse into the way food-cultures wander, how tradition incorporates new ingredients without losing integrity, but also how incoming styles of food become naturalized and localized. Food history as study of the way old dishes are created from new and new dishes from old. By placing such processes in the context of state-making and empire building Laudan can write about cuisine-formation (what a word) within an evolutionary framework. 

Within evolutionary biology sits is the study of biogeography, the study of the geographical distribution of life, its most famous case study is the recolonization of Krakatau after its explosion. So if such a thing as gastrogeography can exist within the History of Food what would be its Krakatau? The introduction of the potato in the diet of the old world? The patenting of Coca-Cola? The release of Islamic cuisine in the new world? Or perhaps we should look at islands like biogeography has done since the time of Wallace and Darwin. Lauden provided for that too with her earlier book The Food of Paradise, Exploring Hawaii's Culinary Heritage which tells the story of Hawaiian gastrogenesis (yeah!) from three different cuisines meeting on the culinary clean slate of Hawaii.

If you would want to take this one step further you could look to formalize and describe events of cuisination (read cuisine speciation, the process of cuisine formation), cuisine radiation (the splitting of a cuisine into several cuisines), cuisine revolution (the sudden and drastic change of a cuisine), cuisine decay (the process of a cuisine losing its coherence), cuisine collapse (the complete annihilation of a cuisine).

Map your Recipe is my way to address these things and what else could I do but get a recipe for Mole and feed it to the program. The resulting map is above. In terms of food regions it brings together the two Indian and Mediterranean centers, the lateral extremities of the the Islamic empire, but there is also a very strong presence of new world ingredients as the graph below shows. It is extremely rare to find a recipe that exceeds the 50% use of new world ingredients and for this achievement alone I find Mole impressive.

I was how wondering how Map your Recipe would guestimate the Mole, would it recognize it as Mexican or maybe (also) as Indian or Indonesian or Moroccan. After a little adjustment it now recognizes Mole as Mexican.

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