Rachel Laudan

Cuisine & Language 3. Families and Subfamilies of Cuisine

Linguists group languages into families and subfamilies. Is it possible to do the same with cuisines?  What would those families and subfamilies be? For a linguist, language families are related in just the same way that the human families are: they have a common ancestry. It seems entirely plausible that groups of cuisines have developed from a common ancestry.

Take a simple example, the cuisines of the Pacific Islands. These cuisines depend on one cooking method (the underground oven), half a dozen ingredients (taro, breadfruit, yam, coconut, fish), have little in the way of storage or fermentation techniques, and have a meal that consists of cooked pounded starchy stuff with a relish of fish or coconut. They are found from New Guinea to Easter Island, from the South Pacific to the Hawaiian Islands in the North Pacific.

In recent years, linguists and geneticists have established that the peoples who settled this vast stretch of the earth’s surface set out from (probably) New Guinea as early as 1000 BC and that settlement was essentially complete by 500 AD.[i] Since almost none of the islands they settled has anything edible except fish, the only reasonable assumption to make is that the cuisines have a common origin in New Guinea and owe their similarities not to similar resources given by the environment but to a common heritage spread by human migration.

It seems highly probable that one could establish other such family groupings: the maize cuisines that started in Mesoamerica; or the rice-fish-coconut-tamarind cuisines that depends heavily on processing coconut and sugar palms, drying or fermenting fish, using tamarind as the souring agents and so on that ring the Indian Ocean, or the cuisines of modern western Europe.  Is it possible that we can see traces of an Indo-European Cuisine by the otherwise curious distribution of milk drinkers in India, parts of the Middle East, and Europe and its colonies?



Of course cuisines can diverge and reconverge more easily than human families. Roman Cuisine leaves different traces in Christian and Islamic Cuisines, these converge in (say) Medieval Europe.

I’m also touching here on the controversial Renfrew-Bellwood hypothesis about the co-spread of farming and languages.  Huge issues.  Just one quick comment.  Language speakers don’t begin by spreading farming.  They begin by wanting to preserve their known ways of making food (something cooked).  They have to farm to get the raw materials.

This may all be a bit enigmatic.  I will happily expound at length but I want this to be a blog post not a Ph.D. dissertation.

[i] Geoffrey Irwin, “Human Colonization and Change in the Remote Pacific,” Current Anthropology 31 (1990), 90-94; Peter Bellwood, “The Austronesian Dispersal and the Origin of Languages,” Scientific American (July, 1991), 88-93; Patrick Vinton Kirch, On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Contact (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2000).  For cuisine, see Nancy Pollock, These Roots Remain (Laie, Hawaii: Institute for Polynesian Studies, 1992).

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19 thoughts on “Cuisine & Language 3. Families and Subfamilies of Cuisine

  1. Naomi Duguid

    oh, Rachel, you always tantalise, writing about subjects that fascinate me. here in SE Asia the threads are entangled. I think one way to think about things is: what do people do with their (seasonal) surplus? Here in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, there is the salt-preservation/fermented fish product tradition that yields fish sauce and its less refined parents Padaek, prahok, etc. It probably comes from the fish surplus the Khmer learned to deal with when the Tonle Sap Lake drains in October. Peoples further north, not in close contact with the Khmer, such as the Tai Yai (Shan is the better-known name for them) do NOT have a fish sauce tradition, which does argue for its having come from the south. Instead the Tai Yai use salt and also fermented soybeans dried into cakes (tua nao).

    So there can be fine-meshed or closer-cousin cuisine families, and then broader cuisine familes, don’t you think?

    Mexico reminds me that just today I had a steamed corn food that came wrapped in corn husk like a tamale, lovely aroma, but is made from a quite wet dough of roughly crushed fresh corn kernals mixed with rice flour. It can be steamed, and can also make a gently fried flatbread. Food travels, and we travel through food!

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Southeast Asia is really difficult to handle, partly because its history is only beginning to be written, partly because it is such a cross roads area (like say the Balkans and Eastern Europe).

      I love your example of the division between the fish sauce tradition and the fermented soy bean tradition cutting across the region. I wish I knew more in detail about that part of the world. Another marker that Sucheta Mazumdar once mentioned to me was the shift from sour plum/apricot to tamarind (and perhaps unripe mango) as souring agents as you go south from China.

      Yes, definitely levels of families.

      What a lovely corn dish. I love the idea of binding the crushed kernels with rice flour. So much to learn. And taste.

  2. Adam Balic

    There are also Cuisine Latin, Greek or Church Slavonic. There are lots of examples of foods or ingredients that are anachronistic or otherwise outwith their orginal context, but are used for special occasions or to emphasise continuity of cultural identitiy.

    I guess that if this could be defined under “families and subfamilies” if there were enough cultural “units”, but in some cases this threshold isn’t acheived.

    Eating Mince pies and a whole swag of other special Christmas items doesn’t make my Christmas Catholic, although that might be the origin of many of the items.

    What happens in the situation say where a group of (hypothetical) Pacific Islanders arrive in a location that actually does have an abundance of native resources? How much of the “Pacific Islander Cultural Kit” can they loose before they loose there identity of “Pacific Islander Cuisine Family” and become “Pacific Islander Cuisine Sub-Family” etc etc? Are there specific items that could be used objectively to define these groupings. Is the earth oven as important as pounded starchy stuff?

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Oh my goodness Adam, so much to reply to. Yes, foods do hang on and customs too. Think of fish on Fridays.

      On the Pacific Islanders, hypothetical or otherwise, I’d say most of the island groups are in fact sub families. Some, for example, have ways of fermenting the starchy stuff unknown to others. Most have only subsets of the original package.

      Obviously all this gets really difficult when you try to apply it in detail. Difficult or not, I think the virtue is that you begin thinking in terms other than the nation or the region, two categories that really confuse food history.

  3. scribo

    It all boiles down to soil and climate, and the way we (people of the earth) process/combine the food possible to grow in/under these conditions; soil and climate. Our instinct tells us what we need to do to keep alive. Then culture steps in, but still we need to obey soil and climate, if left to make do with the resources near to us.
    Just look at potatoes and what we do to them to make them eatable, in different parts of the world; not at all so different.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks Terskler. Couldn´t agree more that soil and climate are constraining forces. I´d suggest, though, that if we are committed to a cuisine we will do what we can to overcome these forces. Every imperial power has tried with greater or lesser success to project its cuisine overseas. Would you agree?

  4. Cooking in Mexico

    With globalization, food customs are merging. This can be good and bad, but sometimes to the detriment of today’s generation, who no longer know how to make the food of their grandparents’ table, and sometimes to our benefit. Is it a good thing that I can buy tofu in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico? I don’t know, if this means the cuisine of Mexico is slowly losing it unique distinction.


    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      I agree they are merging perhaps faster than ever before. I would suggest three things, though. (1) Although the pace is perhaps faster, this goes back to Antiquity when Roman and Celtic merged, when earlier Persian and Babylonian merged, and so on. And (2) that of course we lose parts of or entire cuisines. But that this is not necessarily a bad thing. It allows new cuisines to emerge. And (3) we are not becoming more uniform but more diverse. I’ll try to defend all these in the coming weeks. Thanks for the comment.

  5. scribo

    Yea, I agree, food-culture is deeply rooted in us. Here in Norway food and food language has become more and more international, but there is a tendency to “reinvent” the old norwegian kitchen, both in use of traditional products and the way to prepare them.
    The scandinavian countries are now working together on a project called Ny Nordisk Mad (New Nordic Food), focusing on ways to communicate our food to the rest of the world. Ecology and terroir is here very much in demand when trying to catch the nordig tastes.(http://www.nynordiskmad.org/)
    See also NOMA, a restaurant in Copenhagen serving this food (http://www.noma.dk/main.php?lang=en)
    The imperial powers has also taken with them impulses and new food back home, making food and food culture very interesting.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks for all those links, especially to Ny Nordisk Mad. Fascinating to see the convergence between modern experimentation and the search for local roots. I look forward to seeing how it works out.

  6. Cooking in Mexico


    Yes, you are so correct to point this out: globalization is not a new thing, it just seems to be on a much larger scale.

    I look forward to reading your thoughts on cuisine becoming more diverse, rather than uniform. I hope this is the case.


    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Faster at any rate. I will have to write up my thoughts on food becoming more diverse. Many forces are pushing that way from nationalism (a cuisine per country), regionalism (ditto, often invented), to the increasingly complex history of every spot on the globe.

  7. SP Hamilton

    > Language speakers don’t begin by spreading farming. They begin by wanting to preserve their known ways of making food (something cooked).

    The other thing about farming is that it is a collective activity. It requires a shared language. You might take the comparative Indo-European word lists for animals and agriculture as a snapshot of early central Asian/north Indian/Anatolian farmers’ preoccupations: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indo-European_vocabulary#Animals. They have words for cattle, sheep, horses, geese, dogs, pigs, bears, wolves and mice. And the common agricultural vocabulary is about wheat and cattle: ploughing, sowing and milking.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Agree about the Indo Europeans, Sheila. But why did they spread wheat and cattle instead of depend on “local bounty.” Because they had ways to turn these items into food. At least that’s the idea I am working with.

  8. SP Hamilton

    That figures – back to what Naomi said at the top about cuisines being defined by what people do with their surplus.

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