The Language of Food

Aleta Fimbres 21/07/2013

Cuisine is the language of a culture on a plate...

A look at three different culinary languages where beauty is born of simplicity.

Over centuries, the agricultural development, environmental disasters and triumphs of civilizations are recorded in the shifting landscape of its taste and style in regards to food. Budapest is becoming well known for the quality of its varied, international cuisine. Long gone are the days of goulash cafeterias, Chinese buffets and pizza joints. Turkish, Greek, French and truly high-quality Italian places abound, and jostling with them one can find steakhouses from the Americas and even some Irish and English offerings.

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But one would be remiss if two very interesting cuisines were not noted as capturing the fascination of Budapest. Mexican and Japanese cuisine is big here, as they both are worldwide. At first glance one might assert novelty as the driving force behind this trend, and it is a certainty that the new and unknown has a certain appeal. They seduce the world’s people wherever they land, much in the same manner that Hungarian offerings do. And, like Hungarian cuisine, they rarely exit a market, save for the treacheries of the human spirit in times of war or racism. However, let us take note of another factor in this phenomenon. Imported cuisines often last because they offer familiar staples, spices and meats in their own “languages.” Subtle and obvious at the same time, varied and yet familiar, the very essence of these foreign foods is mysterious and yet familiar.

Consider beef. Few would argue against the quality of Hungarian beef and the excellence with which it is crafted into goulash and any number of soups and roasts, excellent steaks notwithstanding.

The same can be said of Japanese beef. From the humble teriyaki beef skewer to the excellent and expensive Kobe steak, the Japanese have a special touch with beef. So, too, does one find that Mexican treatment of beef, from the humble beef stew in myriad varieties to the border favorite, carne asada (or carne de la plancha) and the rare but wonderful Mexico City steak, is impressive. Meats are crafted in their own culinary languages, each a branch of that same form of art known as cuisine. The butcher sculpts out cuts; the sous chef paints them in spices, (sometimes flattening his canvas a bit) and cooks it to perfection. Each step is the result of layers of tradition and innovation.

Even at the plating of the meal, culture enters into play. Whether a bento, a bowl, or an ordered presentation on a plate, all of these take the common far into the unknown, shaping a gallery of inscrutable motives. Long dead is the man who invented the bento, or who decided that the carne asada tacos are set in the center of the plate, garnishes around them, or that the goulash might go well on top of the rice.

All three cultures serve rice plainly at times, but there are distinctions even in this plain staple. Plain, white rice in Budapest will often fall apart easily, and is served more al-dente than Mexican. Japanese rice is almost always solidly sticky throughout. Mexican rice is usually served in a way that makes it looser, perhaps a bit drier (though by no means dry!). They are all similar. That one may use pearl rice, another Jasmine, is usually lost on the common diner. But when rice is served with its cultural divergences firmly in place, the mystery returns.

Mexican rice is a very distant cousin to Spanish rice, often cooked with tomato, chilies and any number of regionally preferred additions. Hungarian rice comes into its own when the tremendously flavorful sauces and meats seep into it. Japanese rice? Sushi, anyone? Of course rice does well with teriyaki, soy or sesame sprinkled on it, but Japanese sushi has been, and will likely remain, a worldwide favorite and a universally recognized cultural icon like the taco, or goulash.

Consider spices. For that matter, consider spiciness. Hotly spiced food looms large in each cuisine, distinctly expressed. Most spice in Hungarian and Mexican food comes from the chili, known to Hungarians as paprika. But they differ in many regards. Most Hungarian paprika is served powdered. Mexican cuisine favors whole or chopped peppers. The saying goes that “good paprika burns twice.” If you like the idea, try some dark brown paprika. If you’re going Mexican? Chow down on a couple of jalapeños or, better yet, serranos. The effect is the same, regardless. Japanese food has integrated some chili into its cuisine, but also has a longer tradition of using pungent garlics, horseradish, ginger and other aromatics to achieve heat.

Regardless the sources, they use their own familiar/alien ways to spice up the palate. Goulash and lecho, teriyaki and Japanese curry, Mexican sopes and caldos all play host to some scorchingly good spice profiles. None of them are obviously related to those who see novelty and adventure to be had. Simple differences in colors and forms, in combinations of flavors and combinations of ingredients unique to each, but constituents to all, has made these three cuisines successful internationally wherever they are found. When we look at art we see not paint and canvas or stone, we see expressions of it. When we eat these three cuisines, we do not taste simple beef and rice and peppers. We taste what the artists of each culinary heritage have created from those common elements, and in the case of these three, we come back to taste it again and again.

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