Back to the issue of food on the move. Here are some general observations about the origin and diffusion of dishes.

Independent invention versus diffusion

The case of North African harisa and Mexican adobo illustrates this nicely. Here you have two very similar techniques (soaking chiles, grinding with herbs and spices, adding oil). Were these two sauces invented independently on the two sides of the Atlantic. Or did someone travel across the ocean and then demonstrate the technique? We don’t know in this case or in lots of others.

Inventing new techniques

In thinking about the question of independent invention versus diffusion, I’ve come to the conclusion that new culinary techniques are incredibly hard to to invent, even ones that seem pretty obvious to us. Take the roux, for example, a mixture of fat and flour that is used to bind and thicken liquids. You would think that people would have been mixing fat with wheat flour and hot liquid from the time that fine white flour first became available, that is for at least a couple of thousand years. But I’m reasonably certain that every time you find a sauce based on a roux you can trace it to Western Cuisine (that is the cuisine of Western Europe and its former colonies) that was invented in the seventeenth century.

This is not to say that culinary techniques are never invented independently in different parts of the world. But it is to say that by and large I tend to be on the diffusionist side of the independent invention versus diffusion divide.

Transmitting recipes, techniques or dishes

It’s easy to imagine that for recipes, techniques or dishes to travel, there has to be a fairly large movement of people. One thinks, for example, of the migration of thousands and thousands of Italians to the United States or Argentina in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the transforming effects they had on the cuisines of those two countries.

I think, though, that this is the exception not the rule. Reading about the history of food I am struck by how frequently a few travelers can make a huge difference to foods: Alexander and his army in Persia, Buddhist monks in China, Syrian courtiers in al-Andalus all spread techniques and dishes in ways that were quite out of proportion to their numbers.

Recipe families and cuisines

I am quite in agreement with Adam Balic’s comment on my earlier post in this series that it make more sense to think of recipe families than recipes per se. It’s time to learn from evolutionary biology that in many cases it is far more useful to think in terms of populations with varying but related characteristics than in terms of sharp definitions that depend on essential characteristics. Indeed, I wonder if in thinking about the movement of foods it wouldn’t make more sense to think in terms of transmission of cuisines rather than particular recipes, techniques or dishes. Cuisines tend to be tight packages.

More on this and on what we can learn from other disciplines that study global movements in a few days’ time.

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