Crossing cultural boundaries
Be a taste explorer!
A couple of months ago, I decided to try an experiment where every main dish I made for the week had to be cooked in a wok. If you haven’t tried limiting yourself in ways like this, I highly suggest giving it a try. It’s hard to know exactly what you will take away from the experience, but it almost always comes with a revelation.
This particular week, I primarily cooked from Grace Young’s Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge. Her Instagram name is stirfryguru and working through one of her books will leave no doubt in your mind that she lives up to that title. What I found particularly interesting in this book were some of the dishes that were specific to a region where immigrants brought their native ingredients or techniques with them and blended with the local cuisine in really interesting ways. Many of the dishes I cooked that week were amazing, but one in particular was so good I swear it created a new flavor pathway in my brain. Macanese Stir-fried Chicken.
Chicken thighs, garlic, soy sauce, Shao Hsing wine, Chinkiang vinegar, a touch of sugar, all things you would expect from a Chinese dish. But then…. coconut milk, Spanish or Portuguese chorizo, turmeric, sweet paprika, tomatoes. Read that list of ingredients again. The combination of flavors from the chorizo, the spices, tomatoes, coconut milk, and standard flavorings of soy and black vinegar combine to create a whole that is so much greater than the sum of its individual parts.
This particular dish is from Macau, a small coastal city in the western Pearl River Delta, by the South China Sea. Now a special administrative region of China (meaning that it is operates with a high-level of autonomy from the central Chinese government), it is most popularly known as a premier gambling destination. The gambling industry in Macau is seven times larger than that of Las Vegas and sports one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. There is something really special about this city, beyond its love of the dice. In 1557 the Ming Dynasty leased Macau to Portugal as a trading post. It remained under lease until 1887, when the Portuguese gained perpetual colonial rights. It stayed under Portuguese control until 1999, when it was officially returned to China. In the 442 years of Portuguese control, you can imagine how much of a cultural influence the Portuguese brought to the area. As is common any time there are instances of bulk immigration, cultures fuze to create something that is a combination of the two, but at the same time new and special.
So all of this got me thinking about how ingredients have found their way around the world. The food of the American South wouldn’t be the same without the influence of African slaves. Modern day Southern Italian food is tomato rich, an influence brought by Spanish explorers returning from Central America. Ramen, a quintessential Japanese comfort food, wouldn’t exist were it not for the influence of Chinese immigrants in Japan. I’m not interested in the argument of what makes a food “traditional” as almost all cultures of the world are the product of integration and blending of different influences acting upon the ingredients which grow in that region, whether natively or otherwise. What I am interested in is whether something is delicious.
We live in a time that is different than an other time in history in that we can access information about the food of a region we may never even have the chance to visit. If you live in a major city, it’s even likely you can find a restaurant that specializes in that country’s food. Get out and explore. I encourage you to open your mind and your palate. Celebrate the region for what it considers authentic, but don’t let that stop you seeing how you can adjust something to your local ingredients, equipment, or personal dietary needs. We shouldn’t let culinary gatekeeping keep us from discovering, or creating the next delicious expression of a dish.