Languages, just like cuisines, come in infinite gradations, each individual speaking or eating his own variant.  So how do linguists decide when two languages really are different?

One way of distinguishing dialects from languages  is to ask whether they are mutually unintelligible.  To most English speakers, British English (and its regional dialects), American English, Australian English and Indian English are mutually intelligible.  French and Hindi are not.

Can cuisines be mutually unintelligible?

I think so. I remember a Mexican meal served at the Oxford Symposium a decade or more ago, when Mexican cuisine was even less known outside Mexico than it now is.*   It included maize tortillas. The participants found them baffling. How did you hold tortillas?  Did you eat them before the meal or with the meal? And how did you judge whether they were good or bad? One of the most diverse, inquisitive, and knowledgeable groups of diners you could find anywhere was completely baffled by Mexican Cuisine, at least by the part of it that you might call the “maize cuisine.” Much the same went for the uchepos, the huazontles rellenos de queso and so on.  Harlan Walker, who edited the Symposium volume, described is as “one of the most extraordinary culinary experiences of my life.”

When a group of cooks and diners does not recognize the ingredients, nor understand the rules for combining them, nor have any idea of the context in which certain dishes would be used, nor of the meaning to be attached to them, then he or she does not understand the cuisine.  It is a different cuisine.

Today we pride ourselves on our cosmopolitan knowledge of food.  But how many of us would really know what to serve at breakfast in Japan or for a wedding in Peru or for the main meal in Ghana?

* Lourdes Nichols who pioneered Mexican cooking in England supplied the tortillas.  Bruce Kraig, historian, and food history entrepreneur,  set up the event.   Dudley Nieto catered it.  I was sitting with some of the most knowledgeable food people you could imagine.  On my left was Helen Saberi, the interpreter of Afghan food.  On my right was Anissa Helou, contemplating moving from art to food, a move she accomplished with total aplomb.

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