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An article in this week's New York Times about Chinese cuisine in France has me thinking about national cuisines taken abroad. The Times piece, "Chinese Bear Paws Tickle the French," coincides with the exhibit The Seduction of the Palate, a look at "the traditions of the Chinese table through a hundred objects," according to the Quai Branly Museum website. Writing for the Times, Elaine Sciolino describes the artifacts and ancient recipes she encountered and how these relics got her thinking about Chinese food within the context of France. Sciolino cites a book about the differences between French and Chinese cooking and eating traditions, which lists four primary differences: economic, philosophical, aesthetic, demographic. For some reason "geography" is missing from this list, but as obvious as these factors seem they make sense and can be applied to many countries when you compare their habits and tendencies when it comes to food.
Along with the food critic for the French daily newspaper Le Monde, Sciolino set out to have some good Chinese food in Paris. And here's where I lost interest in the article, preferring to think back on memorable meals I've had in foreign countries where the meal was not originally of that country. Now, in our globalized world, the lines blur quickly, especially when it comes to food - techniques and spices have crisscrossed the globe for thousands of years, following trade routes and occupations.
Two meals in particular have stuck with me for years. In Mombasa, Kenya, I had amazing Indian food. This is not surprising if you look at a map and take history into account, but after days of overcooked goat and chicken and gravely rice, I luxuriated in the simple but different textures and flavors of staples of Indian cuisine, like a simple lentil dal and freshly baked, puffy naan. The restaurant in question was close to the port and had clearly been set up to accomodate a taste of home for crews from across the Indian Ocean.
The second meal is also easily traceable, but more surprising and memorable for the sheer quality. The Italian influence in Argentina is impossible to ignore. In Buenos Aires, pizza and pasta are just as popular as baked empanadas and grilled meat doused with chimichurri. While I was in the city, I had some pizza and pasta and it was fine, no different than standard Italian American food found in strip malls across the US. But in El Calafate, in the northern reaches of Patagonia, I had the best lamb ragout ever, served with stunningly delicate fresh pasta. I've eaten in Italy and I've eaten in notable Italian restaurants in New York and nothing has ever come close to the joys of this Italian meal I had in Argentina.
Of course, big cities the world over have plenty of excellent restaurants that serve authentic versions of other cuisines. But when traveling how often do you eat at such places? Typically, if I'm in a foreign country I want to eat like the locals. But sometimes you need something different, especially if you are in one country for a long time. At least I do . . .