Column If you enjoy food from other cultures, how do they fit into a locavore diet?
When I travel, I love discovering a place through its food. Go to a market and you’ll immediately get a taste of what the locals eat. Food is also the impetus for a conversation. It’s the chance to get together with people for a meal. Because of this, food is one of the easiest vehicles for cultural exchange. The food on our plate, and where it came from, who produced it and who cooked it, is often an excellent lens for looking at the culture as a whole.
When we travel, food also often ends up being the thread that ties our travel memories together, and when we return, of course we want to recreate those memories, either in the kitchen or by going to a restaurant. You ate the best street food of your life in Bangkok and now you’re on a mission to find a place that does something similar. Or you had an unforgettable night of cheese and wine in France and now you are scoping the local market to see if by chance they import at least one of the items that you now feel that you cannot live without.
In a globalized world, it’s easier and easier to get foods from abroad. Almost any large supermarket nowadays has a section devoted to food products from various regions, and with specialty retailers, as well as the online world, there are few items from around the world that are absolutely impossible to get. We live in a world where if we want it, we can have it.
But should we have it? If you’re trying to stick to a largely locavore diet you can be sure that the can of coconut milk didn’t come from down the road.
I thought about this a lot in writing the book “Fika.” Swedish baking uses a lot of cardamom – grown nowhere near the Nordic countries – and shredded coconut and ginger are common ingredients. As somone who writes a lot about local foods, how do I come to terms with the fact that sometimes, the ingredients that I use come from afar?
The embrace of foods and ingredients from around the world is exciting. It allows us to step out of our own culinary comfort zones without actually traveling. New ingredients can spice up an old dish. Yet in this hyper-growth of availability of exotic cuisines, have we turned the focus away from our own?
We are quick to assume another culture’s diet than to fix our own, that’s why things like the Mediterranean Diet and the Nordic Diet have become so huge. Maybe this isn’t so surprising in a country like the United States, whose food culture has from the beginning been made up of the food culture of many other places. We are quick to embrace the foods from elsewhere, because that is hat we have always done. Globalization and cheap transport has only made that easier.
Unfortunately, when it comes to food from other cultures, we get so focused on doing exact replications, instead of taking inspiration. When your entire grocery list is made up of ingredients that come from an ocean away, a red flag should go off.
The ability to get different cuisines from around the world has spiced up many a bland food nation. The ability to get a diversity of food from different cultures is a nice thing. But in doing so, we’ve put all the focus on what we can get from elsewhere instead of thinking about what’s available closer to home. Goji berries, I am looking at you.
Just like with a healthy diet, it’s all about moderation and balance. To exist solely on a locavore diet is hard – and even if you go back a few hundred years people were already eating imported goods, like coffee, chocolate and spices – but most of us could deal with eating a little more locally sourced foods – particularly foods that do grown closer to home (buying apples from Chile and New Zealand is just silly) – and making the exotic foods an indulgence instead of a regular, everyday occurrence.
This just means rethinking some of our favorite imported dishes. Thinking in terms of inspiration instead of replication. How can you adapt a recipe from afar to include more ingredients from close by?
You might love a certain French cheese, but what are the cheese producers making in your region? You may be a fan of the Nordic Diet, but what about simply applying some of the general principles instead of making a mad dash for the Scandinavian supermarket and buying lingonberry jam?
Let’s not just import taste, let’s be inspired it by it, and adapt it, making something new in the process. Instead of just copying and pasting a food culture and calling it our own, we build a completely different one. Use a few exotic ingredients here and there, but let us not make them a staple of our everyday dishes. Let food from other cultures be an indulgence, and be challenged to think about how everyday, ordinary ingredients could be used in a new way.
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This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at www.foodieunderground.com.
Image: Anna Brones