Seeking culinary Utopia

Writing love notes in History class? After all, you figure, the past can bury its dead. It’s far more important to get yourself a date for dinner, right?
Well, it might surprise you to know how dramatically your dinner – irrespective of what you’re eating – has been influenced by history.
Every kind of cuisine — whether it classic French, hip Californian or traditional Indian — is shaped by its past. By invaders, traders and rulers. Peace, wars and politics. Love.
Think that sounds like the voiceover to some cheesy historical drama (preferably accompanied by a sweeping Oscar-winning musical score)? Well, then take the story of Catherine de Médicis, a princess from Florence, Italy. When she married King Henry II of France in the early-1500s, she moved with an entire entourage of talented Italian Chefs, who proceeded to impress everyone with their sophisticated food. Of course what was served and eaten at the palace set the tone for dining tables across the country.
Food is arguably the most powerful expression of culture. However since food customs are so sensitive to external influences, traditional recipes, ingredients and cooking methods are rapidly being influenced by quick-fix methods and the addictive all-pervasive trend of global cuisine. The most accessible foods of every culture — Mexican nachos, American burgers, Indian curry — are conquering dinner tables the world over.
But, simultaneously, taste-tourists are travelling the world in search of food thrills, culinary epiphanies and cooking discoveries.
So where’s the next food frontier? Try the relatively undiscovered countries of South Eastern Europe. Also known as the Balkans, stretching across Albania, Bulgaria, Montenegro etc.
Countries like Bulgaria unwittingly managed to preserve much of their traditional food culture thanks to Communism, says gorgeous Chef Vita Bozadzhieva, who travels the world introducing people to the food.
At the Raintree Hotel, in Chennai, where she’s conducting a Balkan food festival, she talks of growing up in a very different environment where people worked hard, ate at home and used only local products and produce. “I am 33 years old now,” she smiles, “When I grew up, it was like Coca Cola, ‘Wow!’ Restaurants then served mainly either Turkish or Balkan food. “The Turkish were in our city for about 500 years. So we have super-mixed culture,” she says, adding that nevertheless, even now the Balkan countries have a cuisine culture that is distinctly different from the rest of the world.
“Our country is not so economically developed,” she says, “Still we believe that the wife must cook for her husband. I’ve grown up in that culture.” As a result, she says, their food is more homey. After all, it evolved in kitchens, not restaurants. In the hands of housewives not Chefs. And because of Communism, it marinated in tradition, undisturbed by outside influences for about three decades.
“Till about 15 years ago, it was very closed,” says Chef Vita, “People were not travelling so much. It was also very difficult to go out of the country.”
Hence the cuisine, influenced by a host of ancient invaders including the Romans, Greeks and Turks, had time to steep and simmer for a while. Appropriately enough, that’s how a lot of their food is prepared. “We use lots of herbs, and the food takes a long time to cook, to soak in all their subtle flavours,” says Chef Vita. “We also bake a lot. Every kitchen has lots of ovens.” They’re also one of the few places left in the world, besides India, where they set their own curd, instead of just buying tubs from the supermarket.
This food is necessarily rare right now. After all the Chinese and Indian emigrants travelled the world with baggage bursting with of home-made spices and recipes, thus getting huge chunks of the world enamoured with their food. Meanwhile, places like the USA, Britian and many Europian coutries (think Greece, Spain, Italy) gain converts thanks to mix of pop-culture and tourism Meanwhile, dishes like Chef Vita’s fragrant stewed lamb, served with chunky potatoes in thin gravy, remain undiscovered since it’s only recently that the people of the Balkan’s started to travel, and welcome visitors. There’s one more hurdle. “We’re a small country. For example you take a car and drive for six hours and you have reached the other end,” laughs Vita.
This, however, means Chefs like her have a distinct advantage that sets them apart.
“For me, I believe we are born and grow up, where we must be born and where we must grow. If I was born in a Communist regime, it was because that was what was right for me,” she says. “Now I realise it is an advantage. I’m different!”
Which is really the most exciting thing about food cultures, when you come to think of it. This is history that you can actually taste.

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5 responses to “Seeking culinary Utopia

  1. Shrinath

    Ah, Eastern Europe. If not for certain small details called “career” and mostly “money”, I would gladly settle down in Prague. Quite close to Bulgaria. I now must check out this fabulous chef. One small hitch though. I quit eating meat a few days back. Hmm. I shall marinate, I mean ruminate on that thought.
    *exits*

  2. shocase

    Tell me about it! I dream of becoming a hippie hitchhiker and wandering across europe dividing my time between museums, shoes shops and bakeries. *What! Hippies don’t shoe shop?*

  3. marc

    hey thr
    shonali.this is marc. u mentioned something about hippies.of course they shop.where do u think the term hip and happening came from? earlier, it was hippie and happening. but space was an issue.

    • shocase

      are you serious? you just don’t associate hip with hippie these days… though i have to admit i love the hippy chic look. though the only place i can get away with it is Goa!

  4. wow….just wow…. wonderful writing…. love it…

    Visit mine… Plz post your comments… Thank You…

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