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What’s the best cuisine?

What’s the best cuisine?

Stephen Schiff, Sandra Gilbert and five others champion their favourite

Stephen Schiff, Sandra Gilbert and five others champion their favourite

January/February 2015

STEPHEN SCHIFF AMERICAN

Most of the world’s great cuisines arise from the principle of mélange. Chinese food is essentially stuff thrown together. Indian, Thai and Ethiopian: curries. French is all about the alchemy of sauces. Italian is delicious flotsam ensnared by grains.

But American cuisine begins with one thing at a time. The hamburger. The hot dog. An ear of corn. A wedge of apple pie. Yes, most of these things derive from other places, as most of us Americans do, but no matter where we come from, we wind up in a culture that we have made our own, a culture of individuals. We are about one thing, then another, then another. We are about procession. We love a parade.

Ah, but don’t we call ourselves a melting pot? It’s a term to be used advisedly. We melt less and less these days. If once we were a patriotic wave, we are now a nation of particles. Yet, like the crowd that spills into the street and mingles after the parade has passed, we eventually come together. That, I suppose, is what we mean when we talk about the New American Cuisine. We now have restaurants that call themselves American, on whose menus you find French food, Thai food, Mexican food, fusions of every variety. What begins as one thing at a time later longs for mélange.

In my neighbourhood, TriBeCa in Manhattan, one of the best restaurants is Marc Forgione, named after the chef who runs it. My favourite dish there is an appetiser, Kampachi Tartare. Not very American-sounding? That’s just the point. It’s a parade of immigrants high-stepping towards you one at a time, combining only at the end, when you feel good and ready.

Each ingredient is mysteriously separated on a big plate; fortunately, the waiter is on hand to give you your marching orders. On one side, nestled on a white Asian soup spoon, sits a Szechuan button, a tiny thing that looks like a caraway seed. You roll it in your mouth before doing anything else, and it makes your palate tingle and buzz. Next there’s another spoon, silver this time, which the waiter will tell you contains “the perfect bite”: raw kampachi (a kind of amberjack), avocado mousse, sprigs of microgreen cilantro. Then you’re allowed a Saratoga potato chip. Finally you can plunge into the thick of it: a big disc of kampachi that sits in a bowl in the middle. Underneath, a bed of avocado mousse; on top, more cilantro microgreen; all around it a citrus honey vinaigrette dotted with a few friendly pine nuts. You mix them yourself, in your own way—you can use the Saratoga chip if you want. Every bite is now the perfect bite.

So: one thing after another, working from isolation towards an ecstatic mixture. It’s not only American cuisine, it’s the American ideal.


JOSIE DELAP IRANIAN

Take some walnuts, no, more—an extravagance, and then some. Pound, grind and toss them in a pan. Gently roast them and toast them to coax the flavour out. Fry onions until their harsh heat has mellowed and they have warmed to gold. Same with some duck legs.

Back to your walnuts. Apply water, heat and an hour’s patience, and their oil will ooze to the surface and give up their flavour. Stir in pomegranate molasses, sticky, sweet and sour. Bring it all together. Hours later the sauce will be ready, thick as paint and dark as chocolate. Finally take your pomegranate, its skin flushed and unyielding. Run a knife around its waist and prise it open. Let the juicy bloodbath begin as you pick through the gleaming seeds and scatter them across the surface. Serve your fesenjan with rice, and let your guests fight over the tah-dig, the crispy, buttery, sun-like disc that clings to the bottom of the rice pan.

Politics has kept Iranian food tucked away in the Tupperware box of the Islamic Republic. Other Middle Eastern cuisines are brazen. Lebanon flaunts its sophistication. Morocco flourishes its tagines, with their fruit and meat, so cleverly combined. Turkey brandishes its breads and flashes its kebabs. Who thinks of Iran?

And yet this is the source of it all. Cultivated over millennia, enhanced by numerous invasions both launched and endured, Iranian food has a subtlety and intricacy unrivalled but unrecognised—at least by outsiders. Who knows of its jewelled rice, studded with ruby barberries, flickers of sour sweetness, amid rice gold-stained with saffron, run through with shards of pistachios? Who has heard of caramelised sohan, a nutty brittle, produced mostly in Qom, Iran’s holiest city, its buttery excess so at odds with the austere piety of its creators? What of kuku sabzi, an omelette thick with fistfuls of coriander, parsley, dill, chives, tarragon, fenugreek? The world is missing out.


BEE WILSON  FRENCH

In 1931 the food writer Marcel Boulestin was struck by a “blinding” difference between the French- and English-speaking worlds. The Americans printed calories on menus; the British worried whether “they dare risk this dish or that drink”. But the French, Boulestin observed, ate well effortlessly. “We never hear in France all these sermons on vitamins, calories and the like, because the French people of all classes eat as a matter of course this or that food which they grow or buy. They do this instinctively, like a cat who, feeling out of sorts, eats a blade of grass in the garden.”

French cuisine can be seen as passé and unhealthy. Sure, it’s delicious, but who wants to eat all that heavy meat in fancy Escoffier sauces any more? To dismiss it in this way is to neglect the fact that it has always been about much more than Michelin pretension. Its genius can be seen in delicate fish soups with a dollop of fiery rouille; rare onglet steak and salads of green beans; tiny wedges of big-tasting cheese. It’s there in the habit of avoiding snacks between meals, not from self-denial, but because hunger is the best sauce. French cuisine is the best because it’s founded on an understanding of how to square the circle of pleasure and health. It is tragic that, instead of imparting saner ways of eating to the rest of us, the French now seem to be heading down the Anglo-Saxon route of fast food and guilt.

But the wisdom at the heart of French cuisine hasn’t quite vanished. Recently I met a health psychologist working with families in various countries to get children to eat more veg. Across Europe, the only parents she had met who talked about training a child’s palate to enjoy the bitter flavours of vegetables such as globe artichokes were the French. They’re the only ones who see that the way to eat better is to cultivate an enjoyment of everything the table has to offer.

 

FUCHSIA DUNLOP  CHINESE

There’s only one emperor among cuisines: the others are all pretenders. Chinese cuisine is peerless in its range of ingredients and cooking methods, the diversity of its regional flavours and sophistication of its gastronomic culture. It has something to offer every palate and predilection. Partial to French haute cuisine? Try a banquet in Hangzhou, whose food markets dazzled Marco Polo. Keener on pasta? Look no further than the astonishing noodle arts of Shanxi province. The thrilling spiciness of Indian or Thai? Head for Sichuan, where “a hundred dishes have a hundred different flavours”. Aside from its multifarious regional cooking styles, China has Buddhist vegetarian, Muslim and medicinal culinary traditions—not to mention the cuisines of its 55 ethnic minorities.

Many of today’s food crazes have their antecedents in China, including the physical transformations of molecular gastronomy, the esoteric ferments of New Nordic cooking, and the playful wit of Heston Blumenthal. The Chinese make noodles out of fish, ferment overgrown vegetable stalks into relishes and conjure vegetarian banquets resembling meat. They create delicacies out of odds and ends like chicken gizzards and pomelo peel. Outsiders scorn the Chinese for “eating everything”, as if their adventurousness stemmed from desperation. Actually, it comes from passion, discrimination and curiosity that finds pleasure almost everywhere—in particular, in the realm of texture, largely neglected in the Western world.

The Man-Han imperial banquet, a three-day extravaganza featuring whole suckling pigs and bear’s paws, supposedly represents the pinnacle of the Chinese culinary arts. But Chinese cuisine isn’t just for the rich; the love of good food runs like a vein through society, untroubled by the hang-ups about physical pleasure bequeathed to Europeans by medieval saints. China’s street food is just as amazing as its banquets.

And it’s good for you. No other culture lays such an emphasis on the intimate relationship between food and health. The everyday Chinese diet is based on grains and vegetables, with modest amounts of meat and fish, and very little sugar—a model for healthy and sustainable eating. A good Chinese meal is all about balance: even a lavish banquet should leave you feeling shufu—comfortable and well.

 

SANDRA GILBERT  ITALIAN

I pledge allegiance to the cucina paradiso of Italy, a land of gastronomic diversity, democracy—and dreams.

Diversity: from the butter, polenta and risotto of the north to the olive oil and pasta of the south, Italian cookery differs deliciously from place to place. Is this because Italy was so recently unified that the old city-states still define many dinners? Or is it because, from the chill uplands near Merano to the sun-soaked cliffs of Sicily, geography shapes gastronomy? Either way, Italy’s culinary powers date back to the Roman Empire, with its scandalous banquets and racy garum. And even after the empire fell and its excesses gave way to austerity preached by medieval monks, the Renaissance recovered the riches of the kitchen.

Democracy? Rome had a quotidian cuisine and so did the Renaissance city-states, but their great accomplishments were courtly dinners, as spectacular—and exclusive—as they were sweet or savoury. By the 19th century, though, popular cooking gained in strength, and what we know today as Italian cuisine is likely to be the food of our grandparents—in my case Sicilian and Ligurian: caponata, arancini, lasagna, pasta al pesto, ravioli, gelato and, almost everywhere, pizza. True, there are Michelin-starred Italian restaurants, but not that many. Yet our home cookery has flavoured daily dishes in almost every country where vitello piccata is served or pasta dressed with those versatile dream vegetables, the tomato and the eggplant.

Dreams—or do I mean myths? Italian cuisine is haunted by fantasies. One example: Marco Polo brought pasta back from China when a sailor of his named Macaroni learned how to make it from some locals. Another: when Catherine de Medici married Henri II she travelled over the Alps with a retinue of gastronomers who taught the clueless French to cook.

Sometimes I get hungry just thinking of Italian food, especially the luminous pizza moon, made from sturdy Parmigiano-reggiano and melty mozzarella with a good Italian crust.


DOMINIC ZIEGLER  JAPANESE
Tokyo has more Michelin stars than London, New York and Paris together. But it all begins somewhere quite different, with the Japanese genius for fast food.

Go to the shitamachi district, the “lower town” near Tokyo Bay. In summer, festivals spill out of the temples, and in the brimming lanes are specialist stalls and tiny shops, waiting for the grazer. Dengaku are fish dumplings or chunks of tofu simmered in a dashi broth, threaded on bamboo skewers, grilled over charcoal and served with a dollop of miso. Onigiri, triangles of seaweed-wrapped rice filled with salted salmon or pickled plum, were picnic fare back in the tenth century.

Wander on. Tachiguisoba, standing bars for soba (buckwheat) noodles, yakitori joints, stalls-on-wheels doing grilled fish or ramen in myriad styles: the range is intoxicating. And that is before you reach Tsukiji, a fish market 20 times the size of Billingsgate. In the pure, zinging sushi, you taste the ultimate fast food.

Food on the run, yet rooted in place. The bento box, artfully arranged, derives from this—whether made at home or at stations across Japan serving their own speciality, the eki-ben. Sometimes, though, you want to linger. In a typical izakaya, you draw open the hanging curtain, and enter a tiny world. The food is prepared before you: fresh fish (sashimi); something grilled (yakimono); a steamed dish (mushimono); something simmered (nimono); something fried (agemono); perhaps a vinegared salad; to finish with, rice, pickles and miso soup. When you leave that tiny world, you take with you a connection—with fellow guests, the master of the house, the food and warming sake—which, in the po-faced professionalism of other cuisines, can get lost in translation.


KATHERINE RUNDELL  BRITISH

Our food is haunted. Here and abroad, “British cuisine” summons the spectres of food when it was least sane: the 1970s, the Tudors. Gelatine salads stick in the memory after 40 years. Henry VIII is hard to forget: I grew up with families who stuffed one bird inside another every Christmas, like damp Russian dolls. But the 1970s and 1980s are as much history as the 1500s, and an unfair slur on the beauty of our food. Bacon, as we know it, originated in Britain, and no food compares to it. It elevates everything it touches. It tastes witty.

British cuisine is best in autumn and winter, food to see a nation of optimistic misanthropes through to spring. It is at its sweetest when least showy: meat cooked to bleed a little, potatoes with butter, quiet triumphs of apple and cream. And the tastes coupled with the meat are gloriously bold—horseradish to galvanise the plainest beef, English mustard to add its sting. Falstaff says Poins has wit “thick as Tewkesbury mustard”, and as strong. I grudgingly like the sideline Britain now runs in clever cooking—Heston Blumenthal and his uber-foodie prestidigitation—but it’s more brain than heart, and British food is best when it has heart, literally as well as figuratively. There’s so much to love in offal: the name smacks of Victorian orphanages, but what it actually stands for—inventive cooking, bone-deep resistance to waste—is noble, and the cuts are a rough delight.

The best British menus are sketched out in fields and shorelines—the woody flavours of field mushrooms; cockles, eaten raw, straight from the sea; scallops, with that sweetish salt taste of distilled freshness. It’s storybook food for adults. There’s a wisdom here; a calm trust in simplicity and lower decibels.

 

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