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.

June 23, 2013

When Local Turns Ethnic

I recently read in an article that, according to an Arabic proverb, homesickness starts from the stomach. Sure, I can relate to that. I have also read that globalization of food starts from our taste buds. Not a bad way of looking at it. It's proven that humans are constantly driven to look for new foods and flavors to excite our palates, but at the same time we tend to like what's familiar and thus deemed safe. There we have it: the omnivore's dilemma.

Numerous articles and books have been written on the effects and impacts that globalization has on our food system. Concepts such as Mc Donaldization, de-territorialization and ethnic foods set the tone of many of these works. Some scholars even argue that globalization is the number one cause of the demise of regional and local cuisines and culinary traditions. If the world we live in keeps getting smaller and smaller and culture is getting more and more homogenous, then why would food be an island and remain untouched by these forces? It's a legitimate fear by all means, but it's not all black and white.

Food sure hasn't been left unaffected, quite the opposite. Food has been traveling around the globe for centuries and is doing so as we speak. The fact that we no longer need to travel halfway across the world for a spicy Tikka Masala, a greasy Pad Thai or fresh sushi is just the simplest evidence for this argument. As a result of globalization, ethnic foods have comfortably arrived to us and become extremely common. We can both savor and prepare Indian, Thai or Japanse delights in the privacy of our own homes whether we live in Italy, the United States or Finland. So what happens to local cuisines and food cultures as result? Will they be gradually replaced and eventually forgotten? Or will they resist and prosper?

In countries like Finland, Thai food has become so banal that it might as well be considered Finnish by now. Similar trends prevail in the other Nordic countries. Of course the Thai food à la Nordique has little or nothing to do with real thing, but it seems not to be of concern. A modestly spicy coconutty sauce with chicken and veggies served with white rice is Thai enough for the Vikings. In fact, it's exactly what they look for to relieve their Thai -cravings. Consequently, these pseudo-Thai dishes have been to a large extent, if not totally, naturalized into Finnish food culture for example. Whether they can be called Thai in terms of authenticity isn't the point. Accepted and liked by the grand majority, these dishes are somewhere between ethnic and domestic. Prepared using Finnish raw materials, spiced up with imported flavors and reproduced in Finland, makes the result technically more Finnish in the end. Obviously it's more the idea of it than the actual food that has been globalized. Again, the idea of eating Thai is satisfying as it is.

But this is nothing new, nor is it about Thai food per se. Whether it's pizza, kebab, sushi or biryani, Finns have been stuffing their faces with foods from all four corners of the world for years. I would even like to go as far as to claim that most Finns have not eaten proper Finnish food in... yes, can one even remember? Can one blame them though? Real Finnish food has become rare for a number of reasons. First of all, many considers it to be too expensive. Secondly, Finland is geographically speaking one of the trickiest countries in regards to agriculture. To get Finnish produce the year around is close to impossible. Thirdly, we sure have the purest nature with its abundant fruits, but let’s face it, which average working Finnish adult has the time or energy to go foraging and exploring the many lakes and forests. It breaks my heart a bit, but so it is. Finally, in terms of availability, the number one sources of food in Finland are the two big supermarket chains S-Market and K-Market. These chains hold more or less the exclusive control of the supply and trade of commodities. As a result, an absolute majority of Finns buy all the same apples from Italy, peppers from Spain, meat from Sweden etc. For a people who used to be so in touch with nature we have went awfully astray.

Recently however, an intriguing trend has started taking shape in my country largely thanks to the hyped New Nordic Cuisine movement ushered by the success of Noma in Copenhagen three four years  ago. In tone with their Danish colleagues also Finnish chefs and food professionals started to rediscover the purity and deliciousness of their own land. And gladly, the masses have (finally) started to follow along the same lines. It's certainly very romantic and "authentic", some might even called it culinary nationalism at the get-go. The apostles of this "back to the basics" -philosophy might explain it as a counter reaction to both Mc Donaldization and de-territorialization, but most of all it's simply cool to know how things were done before and especially how these traditions can be upgraded and given new life today. Of curse it's also a reaction to the fact that for years, food culture in the respective Nordic countries was the last thing on people's minds. Something had to be done.

For years, if not decades Finns thought very little of their own food. Descriptors such as 'bland', 'uninteresting' and 'unworthy' were the rule. This isn't a simple reflection of a state of fact, but it's also directly linked to the Finnish modesty distinctive to our culture. What strikes me as extremely interesting is that only when recognized globally as something trendy, new and fascinating the Finns have started opening their eyes (or should I say mouths) to the pure tastes of their land – 'pure' being the key world. What was referred to as 'bland food' still five years ago is now upgraded to 'pure cuisine'.

This has globalization written all over it. When the rest of the world started craving for 'Nordic', only then Finns started to grow a taste for it too. 'Nordic' is becoming as generic of a term as 'Indian', 'Thai' or 'Japanese'. The concept of something 'Nordic' has become a commodity and people travel to Finland for a Finnish or should I say the  'Nordic' experience. Like I mentioned before, food hasn't been left untouched in this case either. The irony is that even Finns living in Finland who are intrinsically Nordic now seek to consume 'Nordic' food. It had to travel around the world before it started to be appreciated and perceived by the people physically living in the midst of it all. This is yet another perfect example of how an idea gets globalized and formed through a global lens.

So when I am asked whether globalization equals to the devastation of local food cultures, I'm not sure what to answer. In the case on Finland, globalization made the local somehow ethnic, hence something new and (re)appreciated by the locals. Maybe Finns nearly had to lose their culinary identity in order to find it. What isn't entirely sure though is the motive behind this sudden new love for domestic deliciousness. At a first glance it seems rather genuine and positive: Finnish food culture has never been as vibrant and alive as it is today. On the other hand however, I can't help but wonder whether it's just another ethnic food trend that just conveniently happens to be Nordic thus easily accessible and comfortable; familiar and new at the same time. Of course these kinds of claims of culinary hypocrisy would be crushed in a blink of an eye if uttered out loud in Finland. Most Finns have never been as proud of their food culture as they are now.

Still, I can't help noticing that the restaurants known for New Finnish/Nordic Cuisine in Helsinki still serve duck, snails and artichokes. Last time I checked none of these are typical for Nordic cuisine.

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