Authenticity in Appetite

I find it interesting that definitions of passion conflict with one another. For instance, on one hand passion can mean ardent affection or strong sexual desire but, on the other, it can mean an outbreak of anger, as in a crime of passion. Yet one’s passion for grapefruit never, to my knowledge, equates with citric anger (nor is it synonymous with a sexual attraction to its fleshy segments). In the right mood, I can enjoy the inconsistencies of language to the point that I get a sense that language was invented as a means of expressing whimsy. But, of course, whimsy is a concept that requires language for its expression, so language could not have been created to conceive of a concept not yet conceive. I suppose, though, whimsy can be expressed in art or even in facial expressions, so language isn’t necessarily a precursor to whimsy. According to Merriam-Webster, the first known use of the word whimsy, defined as whim or caprice, was in 1605. But the online version of the definition goes no deeper; I’d like to know precisely how, in 1605, the word whimsy was used. Context, please! But, no, M-W chooses to be mysterious and seductive. If I let myself yield to my curiosity, I will find myself immersed in a pool of etymology, drowning in obscure words whose histories will pull me deeper and deeper into a never-ending search for meanings. “The autopsy revealed both lungs were filled with scraps of dead language, many syllables of which had Grecian origins, leading us to the conclusion that his death was a Greek tragedy.” Passion and whimsy seem an unlikely pair of words, don’t they? Whimsy is an annoying word that I associate with bored, intellectually deficient, stay-at-home-concubines or sculpted male paramours who paint wall-hangings that read “Home is Wear the ♡ Is.” I know. I intended to write “wear.” I ran from the room, screaming, as they called after me with witless aphorisms.

***

Usually, after I read articles on BBC.com, I feel at least moderately enlightened, as if I have been infused with new information that improves my knowledge of the world. Yesterday, though, I read an article that concerned me a bit. The article suggested, in an oblique sort of way, that the Indian food recognized the world over as Indian food is not truly “authentic.” That is because many of the ingredients Indian food aficionados expect in their Indian food dishes are not indigenous to the subcontinent. Potatoes, tomatoes, hot chiles, cabbages, cauliflower, peas, and carrots are not native to the region, yet they are essentially required in many Indian dishes today.

The article suggests/implies/hints that the only truly native Indian cuisine is that prepared for meals once each year by the family’s eldest male on each of the death anniversaries of immediate family members for the religious shraadha rite. Ingredients used in those meals have been native to the subcontinent for at least a millenium.  The author says, “the food eaten after the religious shraadha rite showcases the indigenous biodiversity of the Indian subcontinent. It’s a rich medley of unripe mangoes, raw bananas, cluster and broad beans, sweet potatoes, banana stems, taro roots and a succulent called pirandai (veld grape). These ingredients are flavoured with pepper, cumin and salt, while soft yellow mung dal provides much of the protein.

To be fair, the author never says, specifically, that today’s Indian cuisine is not “authentic.” But I think that perspective is implied. And, to that, I say “nonsense.” Cuisines everywhere evolve over time and as new ingredients become available and as sources of traditional ingredients disappear. I think it is impossible to point to any “ethnic” cuisine and say it is “authentic.” At least not when that word suggests the cuisine has not changed since its creation. I think we ought to think of cuisines in temporal terms. “Contemporary Mexican food.” “Late eighteenth century Afghan cuisine.” That sort of thing.  The food of India changed with the advent of trade with Europe and South America and so forth. I vaguely recall reading that the availability of ethnic foods in the U.S. increased dramatically beginning in the late 1960s, when significant changes in both trade and immigration policies took place. I wish I remembered where I read it; I’d like to explore that more. It would be interesting, I think, to compare the number of ethnic restaurants in the U.S., by ethnicity, year-by-year, to the changes in trade and immigration policy. I suspect someone has already done it, though I’d love to replicate the work just to see if the concept holds.

The more I think about “authentic” ethnic foods, the more certain I am that there is no such thing. The foods of all cultures are always in the midst of radical transitions, a result of enormous changes in agriculture, transportation, immigration, trade policy, deforestation…the list could go on forever. My interest in “fusion” foods is nothing new (except to me, and even for me it’s actually an old interest); fusion foods are the cuisine of planet Earth, thanks to human adaptation.

Speaking of passion, and I was, I have a passion for food and a thirst for information about it. I find food intriguing to the point of lusting after knowledge about it. Thirst. Passion. Lust. There you have it. Language doing its thing, creating intellectual passageways in the brain that connect unrelated concepts. Another light bulb just went off in my head. How is it that the term “sexual appetite” came into being? I equate appetite with food. So, a passion for food must be the result of a sexual appetite, right? I’ve leave it there.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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