Food as Instructive Historical Document

Travel Blog  •  Michael Yessis  •  10.14.11 | 11:48 AM ET

Felipe Fernández-Armesto, author of the excellent Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration, looks at how food illuminates history. From the Asia Literary Review:

When the tides of empire ebb, returnees and counter-colonists travel with them. So Britain has become, in the post-colonial era, a springboard for the worldwide projection of Indian food. The Netherlands has played a similar role for Malay dishes and France for those of the Maghrib and Vietnam. In the same period, globalisation, long-range mass tourism and worldwide migrations have demonstrated that the West is highly receptive to exotic innovation, while beyond the Middle East, the peoples of the eastern and southern extremities of Asia are far harder to wean onto alien cuisines.

McDonald’s and Starbucks buck this trend - though one doubts whether their popularity has much to do with their food. Their customers in India, Japan and China seem rather to be choosing a “lifestyle option”. In the West, by contrast, even the most introspective food cultures - those of France, Spain and Italy - have failed to resist the intrusion of cuisines with which they have few or no imperial links, such as those of Lebanon, Thailand, Japan and Turkey, from where the kebab has become a global rival to the burger and the burrito. Western food has registered no comparable counter-coups - apart, arguably, from the Irish pub, which seems to be a concept with an infinitely elastic range - although I hear there is a Bauernstube in Beijing and one of the best views of Tokyo is to be had from The Peak Lounge at the Park Hyatt Hotel, which bills itself, rather unconvincingly, as an English tea lounge.

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