In a landscape where our culinary options have never been as global and yet our insistence on culinary individuality has never been more pronounced, food and travel writer Anya von Bremzen serves a richly woven narrative. Best known for her intensely investigated cookbooks, including an iconic collection of Soviet Union recipes, she navigates a broader panorama in National Dish: Around the World in Search of Food, History, and the Meaning of Home.
Taking us on a journey of cities as diverse as Tokyo, Paris, and Naples, she hunts for the very dishes that capture the essence of a place, whether it be a comforting bowl of ramen or a perfectly prepared, slightly charred pizza. As she comments, “nations and their cuisines are a lot more complex — and fascinatingly so — than we could ever imagine.” Her exploration, then, is not merely about delicious food, but an earnest probe into how certain meals etch themselves into a country’s ethos.
Von Bremzen’s culinary expedition sets sail in France, often hailed as the cradle of national gastronomic discourse, where food is an unadulterated French cultural manifestation. Yet, she astutely observes that the proud French culinary exceptionalism has suffered a dent, facing numerous challenges including the march of global fast food enterprises.
Continuing her exploration in the lively city of Naples, von Bremzen unearths the humble 18th-century origins of pizza, a delicious and affordable street food. She sheds light on the potentially fabricated tale of the beloved pizza Margherita, named after a queen known for her affection towards this ‘tricolore pie’, suggesting a nationalistic myth rather than the truth.
Our gastronomic journey does not end here. As we turn the pages, we traverse from Oaxaca, Mexico to Seville, Spain, and finally, land in Istanbul, the author’s part-time home. Here, she draws inspiration from the nostalgic culinary tapestry of Ottoman cuisine.
Intriguingly, certain dishes celebrated as national symbols have traversed an arduous journey, spanning centuries from being dismissed as lower-class food to their contemporary prominence. Others owe their existence to foreign culinary influences, and surprisingly, a good number were propelled to the national stage through systematic efforts.
The narrative reaches its poignant climax with an epilogue on borscht. With the backdrop of the ongoing Ukraine conflict, von Bremzen, who departed the U.S.S.R in the 1970s, elucidates how this traditional Ukrainian dish, now a Russian staple, symbolizes more than just food. It carries the emotional resonance of a nation’s flag and anthem, often veiling a more layered story.
In the end, National Dish emerges not merely as a captivating nonfiction piece, but an indispensable gem for anyone intrigued by culinary history or those with a fervor for cultural exploration. It’s a stimulating reflection on the interplay between food, locale, and the significance of flavors to both the creators and the seekers. More so, it’s a testament to how food shapes our identity, a realization von Bremzen brings home with the final examination of borsch – a chapter she wishes she hadn’t had to write, but one that underscores, in deeply intimate terms, the integral role food plays in our sense of identity.
WORDS: Scientific Inquirer Staff.