For my beloved Brother who introduced me to the art of cooking, who taught me how to taste and truly love food. Without him I'd never be able to be where I am today.

February 5, 2012

Reveal Yourself

Have you ever thought about what happens to food and the raw materials when they're being cooked? Have you ever pondered what a specific  way of preparation means and signals? Have you ever realized that when food is cooked and prepared it gets a label and it carries a marker of something? Known for his famous work Physiologie du goût (Physiology of Taste) published in 1825, epicure and gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brilliat-Savarin said "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are". Do you think the food you cook tells the others the truth about you?

I've many times thought about what kind of image and idea I convey of myself through my cooking, my food preferences and my eating habits. I've always considered myself as a very incoherent eater, but maybe I do, after all, follow certain patterns.

It's fascinating to see the variety of dishes the exact same ingredients and raw materials can result in when they're being cooked by different people with different culinary backgrounds. We turn food into cuisine with our hands. I for sure would love to base my understanding of another person solely on his/her eating and cooking! I wonder what I could find out only based on a cooked dish. Food habits and preferences matter and what a person decides to eat and how he cooks his food could definitely give off some interesting secrets.

I wonder how close to reality a judgement made through food could be. Could I tell whether it's a man or a woman, a Swede or an Englishman, whether the person is young or old, fit or unhealthy…Some elements are certainly more obvious than others. Anyone who has worked as a waiter in a restaurant knows this. At some point you just know who ordered what. But not everything is as clear. And I'm sure each and everyone of us has some very contradictory and incoherent vices.

I have a feeling that naming a person's cultural background based on his cooking and food preferences might be a bit trickier. It's not like food stays within any cultural boundaries nowadays. Besides, how much do we know about foreign countries' cuisines except for the common stereotypes? A year and half ago, I was jumping up and down of joy when I first found out that I'd be living with a Greek when moving to Sweden. I had always wanted to learn how to make an authentic Moussaka. Turned out the only thing that Greek ate was hamburgers and other junk food! I think this proves my point.

But if we stick to cultural markers only, not only do we eat foods from many different countries, but our eating habits can have multi- and/or transcultural origins. Until recently, I was sure that the Finns could boast with being the only people to make smoked cheese. A while ago a friend of mine living in Vigo, in Spain made me try a Galician speciality, smoked cheese – Another one bites the dust.

So if it's no longer what you eat that reflects your cultural origins, I'd like to suggest that it's the way you cook and prepare food that still can reveal your cultural identity. I'm saying this because a few days ago as I was watching a cooking program on TV, I realized that it's enough that you add one crucial ingredient or do something that no one else would do and you're busted. The chef on TV was showing how to make fajitas. I was surprised, a Finnish TV chef preparing fajitas in February, ok, why not. The ingredients he would use all seemed to respect the authentic recipe. And then as he had almost convinced me, he blew it.  I quote "in order to make it easier and faster" (to two 'musts' in Finnish everyday cooking) he empties a plastic bag of deep-frozen mixed "Mexican" veggies on the frying pan together with the ready sliced and ready marinated "Taco & Fajitas" chicken slices. Sigh.

In some strange way you just got to love it though. I mean it's simply a means to make an otherwise pretty foreign dish seem more familiar. In the best of cases, the Finn eating the Finnish fajitas à la Finnish TV chef might one day have the will to try the real thing because he got a "smooth landing" to a whole new world of tastes through the version suitable for Finnish taste. One sure can hope for the best.

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