KOLKATA, India—I’ve been reading a lot lately about what makes a food your own. At home in Missouri before leaving for Bengal to research my next book, Green Chili & Other Impostors, as a U.S. Fulbright-Nehru Global Scholar, I would have a peanut butter-banana-chocolate smoothie as a treat. High brow eating, I know. But consider this: breaking down its ingredients is a trip around the world in one glass: cacao (South America), bananas (Southeast Asia), peanuts (South American/ when creamed into butter, North American), and yogurt (Middle East/Central Asia). And the smoothie combination? That’s another thing to consider.
Some cultures have robustly declared their place on the stage of world cuisines, claiming certain tastes or techniques their own, but other cultures have been quieter, burbling along unsung in the background, yet deliciously complex all the same.
I nod as I read in Utsa Ray’s work, Culinary Culture in Colonial India, that Bengali cuisine never aspired to the public character of French haute cuisine. Recipes were private, belonging to the people of Bengal: a history of a home-kitchen resistance in code (recipes) to colonial dictates elsewhere.
This makes sense to me when I think that this beautiful tradition is relatively unknown in places like the U.S., Britain, anywhere else outside of India. Bengali food emerging out of colonial times was emphatically regional, refusing a national spotlight.
Think about the emphasis these days on southern food in the U.S. There is a Southern Foodways Alliance and many celebrated chefs and writers and tasty foods hang their hat on that name. To be sure, the mouth-watering delicious soul food of the South carries with it tales of strife, scarcity, particular systems of agriculture, and a history that binds. If you look closely, the food itself holds the story of the southern U.S. and a people, and indeed it is a marker to be reckoned.
Some of what’s on my plate here in Bengal this year has aged into its claim to heritage by stealth, tastiness and the ingenuity of the people it touched. They made it their own. Cuisine almost everywhere is a result of change and foreign ingredients—sneaky impostors like the tomato and potato from South America (or cacao for my smoothie), okra from Africa, sugar and spice from India, and so many others—and, as Ray says, importations of ideas. I see this is so in Missouri, too. And, when I taught food writing courses in Italy, it was so clear. Clues have always been right there on the plate in plain sight.
When following a food trail, you’ll find yourself crisscrossing oceans. You'll be on my absolute favorite kind of journey—involving a tale of land and culture, picking through lost tastes with recipes as codes to everything from political resistance to comfort food and much more. Pinpoint the entry of the Portuguese in India by following green chili trails; find the origins of tomato sauce in Italy by way of Spaniards bringing salsa to Sicily from cultures in South America. Food history is a world heritage story that has all the drama of a tense thriller or maybe a mystery. Whose food is it? Who gets to tell its tale? This has become an issue in the West as appropriation is debated. But if there's respect for food history and origins maybe that's not so much a concern, especially when it comes to taste and health. But what is at stake as food traditions ebb away with changes in soils, in biodiversity, is the great, and not-always-good, story of us.