When I travel, I don’t feel comfortable spending a large amount of money on meals. I love eating good things, but, to me, the price of the meal is part of the presentation and enjoyment of the dinner. That means I seek out great flavors at low costs. If there’s a $3000-per-gram ingredient that’s out of this world, I’ll never know about it except in legend.
I’ve been to places that offered very little in the way of affordable flavor and I’ve been to places where the locals put out impressive spreads. Not every culture or region shares the same attitude about food. That’s why, for example, Mexico’s cuisine is a UNESCO “intangible cultural heritage of humanity” and Russian cuisine isn’t. It’s not that Russian food is bad or objectionable in any way: it’s that Russians don’t have the same approach to eating that Mexicans do.
And before any Russians out there start plotting my demise for dismissing their national palate, let me defend my view of things. I consider Russian art and music to have few equals in the world. The Russian armies’ feats in World War Two were matchless. The Russian spirit is tough, indomitable, and forged in iron. The region simply hasn’t been blessed with a cornucopia of ingredients, that’s all. It’s cold there, so the growing season is short. That makes food more scarce than in tropical regions. The Russians also never developed a taste for spices, so their cuisine has more to do with subtle, muted flavors and interesting textures. And while I can’t get very excited about my next blini, I’m positively mad about Russian chocolates. If I was to write a book about chocolate, I’d be discussing instead how Chinese chocolate doesn’t stack up to the Mexican stuff and be saving the Russians for special praise later on.
You know what… one day, I’ll write about great chocolates of the world. Russia gets a big mention in that, guaranteed.
Right now, though, it’s about the food.
I’ve got a theory about the great cuisines of the world. While every region has a dish or two that can be pretty amazing, for a cuisine to truly stand out, it needs a large range of dishes that, time and again, in the hands of different preparers, cannot fail to deliver enjoyment. When I think of the differences between Mexican food and Russian food, I have to take into account the geography. I mentioned the cold and short growing season in Russia. Now consider the year-round bounty of Mexico. Add to that the fact that a huge range of fruits and vegetables will flourish in the warmth of Mexico that are simply impossible to grow in places where it freezes – like Russia. Face it, Russia is not known for its mangoes, pineapples, or papayas. If someone tried to sell you a crate of Russian bananas, you would greet the offer with disbelief.
Those fruits are exotic in colder places, but are common enough in warmer climates to be ground, pulped, and prepared in bulk sufficient to make them available as ingredients in everyday dishes. The same goes for spices. Warm places grow ’em like nobody’s business: they use ’em the same way. Colder places place such a premium on them that they will use a “th” where their warmer cousins toss in an apostrophe. Historically, the spices were harder to get to the colder places, so the people there either did without them or used them sparingly. Many is the time that I’ve looked at my pepper grinder, loaded with black peppercorns, and fantasized about traveling back in time to Europe to sell those very peppercorns for a massive fortune… and then use that fortune to sail somewhere warm, where I could enjoy food with big, bold flavors for the rest of my temporally-shifted life.
The other factor in these warmer places that makes their cooking something special has to be the warmness itself. Look, where it’s cold, there’s always an excuse to fire up the oven to keep the house warm. Want to warm up a pot of oats? Sure! No problem! You get the wood and I’ll rattle those pots and pans!
Try the same scenario where it’s sweltering. Oats? Seriously? You want oats? In this heat? Just oats? If those guys are going to actually cook something and make this place any hotter, it better be good. So how about instead of a bucket of warm oats, what say we whip up some lasagna? Or Szechuan chicken? Or tacos al pastor? Maybe some chicken tikka masala? Falafel, perhaps?
Right now, I’m thinking you’re drooling a bit more than when I discussed the boiled grains. That’s a sign of a great cuisine. Those places had plenty of stuff to eat, with an embarrassment of varietal riches, but it was so blasted hot in those places that when they made something to eat, it had to be amazing, or it simply wasn’t worth the rise in temperature. Those are the crucibles from which the great cuisines of the world emerged.