History, geography, food

Whatever your background, lifestyle, religious affiliation or political stripe, you probably have some strong opinions about the cuisine near and dear to the place you call home. Maybe you do not even call it cuisine. Maybe you just call it food.

Itís the food of your people. You may know it as well as you know your name. It is why youíll defend the merits of a good red, green or brown sauce, or the correct proportions in a vinaigrette or, God forbid, what constitutes good turkey stuffing.

Far be it for me, an Italian American with just as much eastern European blood, to define good barbecue, Eastern Indian, Mexican or Asian cuisine. I tend to like all four, but back in the day when I reviewed restaurants, I knew to tread lightly when I was wandering into foreign territory.

I described ingredients, cooking methods, serving styles and prices. If something was bad by any imaginable standard, I called it bad. There are train wrecks on a plate that are train wrecks, no matter who you are and where you sit.

But where do curious cooks go when they want to learn to prepare the food that is NOT the food of their people? Learning about the culture that created the cuisine is a good place to start. Know some geography to understand what grows abundantly where. Know some history to understand the trade routes, the marriages and the political wars that merged cuisines over time. Finally, learn about the religious customs and holidays that celebrated sacred events within a culture.

There was a time when I wandered through book stores picking up cookbooks as though I were travelling on a particular continent. Now I go to the library. While I may start in the stacks where the cookbooks are clustered, seldom do I remain there.

Like you, I want to understand why the food of Vietnam differs significantly from north to south. Lemon grass grows just as abundantly in neighboring Laos and Cambodia, yet the Vietnamese use it differently. Food from South Vietnam is sweeter. Is it because of the coconut milk thatís almost signature to neighboring Thai food? Or is it because sugar cane was an export crop in the south? Thereís more lime and shrimp in northern dishes, yet seafood is in all coastal areas.

Finally, is the banh mi, (popular Vietnamese street food sandwiches) really just an adaptation of the French baguette? Maybe thatís as far as the French were able to influence Vietnamese cuisine during their long occupation.

If you are curious about food, youíll study the history and the geography of the people and youíll begin to understand and really appreciate a countryís food.