When TANK contacted
me about writing this piece, they did say they were ‘thinking
laterally’… I was quite surprised to be asked, since
I had just published a book that had nothing to do with food –
or so I thought. In fact, it was a direct attack to one form of
cookbooks: the architecture and urbanism cookbook. It was my attempt
at showing the limits of objective recipes that claimed to create
‘real’ places. Real people, not books, make real places.
Recipes are better left for culinary cookbooks.
Cuisine is to food what architecture is to shelter: it is the
specific cultural expression of an existential need. By ‘existential
need’ I mean both the physical need and the mental, psychological
need, that together are necessary to the survival of the individual,
and to the survival of his or her cultural identity.
That cuisine is the expression of cultural identity is a familiar
fact. What is more interesting however, is how the particular
way of presenting and sharing the food changes throughout space
and time and society.
‘One-pot’ cooking, which modern cuisine is re-discovering
is a curious example. The culinary cultures that have used it,
and continue to use it are various. Rice, Curries and soup in
the Eastern Asia , goulash in Northern Asia and Europe, mole and
carreteiro in South America, couscous in north Africa, or mansaf
in the Middle East, all have one thing in common: they all represent
one of the easiest and most basic ways to cook food.
Traditional – ancestral – one-pot cooking is the most
literal transformation of limited available ingredients and cookware
into a meal. It is no wonder that it is the most common form of
cooking amongst nomadic cultures, which were limited to easy-to-keep,
portable ingredients such as grains, and livestock meat which
is self-propelling food. They also had limited cookware, and were
not eager to use up the water they carried to do the washing up.
It is also the most immediate translation of food into cuisine,
with cooking and eating becoming social rituals crucial to the
cohesion of the group, the tribe, or the family… I would
even like to imagine that it is the enjoyment of these moments
of culinary entertainment that lead to the settlement of these
people and the eventual development of city life.
In such a view, the development of agriculture, which is generally
accepted as the catalyst of settlements, would be the result of
the search for more ingredients to cook with. The birth of cities
would be the fruit of a ‘research and development’
effort of new flavours and tastes.
The newly formed cities would grow into empires, and trade networks;
and the different one-pot dishes of the different settled cultures
would mix, and new spices and new vegetables would be exchanged,
and new cuisines would emerge…
Where a significant overlap of culinary cultures would happen,
interesting variations on the one-pot concept would develop. Take
for example the highly diverse mixture of influences that happens
in the Mediterranean and the Middle-East, where North meets South
and East meets West… instead of opting for one or the other
versions of one-pot meals, people of these lands have created
a fantastic concept: the mezze, epitomised in Lebanese cuisine.
With its fifty or more different dishes, the mezze (with its cousin
the tapas) does seem at first a far cry from the one-pot meals
of lore. Yet I believe the delicate dishes are but the sophisticated,
cosmopolitan, hedonistic city dwellers’ variation on the
theme. The every day mini-banquet retains the core social idea
behind the one-pot: a highly nutritious meal, and an occasion
for the whole family, or group of friends, to share. Instead of
a single pot everyone dips into, you have many little one-pots
everyone dips into. Instead of one taste, the table caters for
many… and of course, greedy as the Mediterranean sun makes
one, all this diversity is still often followed by an enormous
one-pot ‘main course’.
One such main-course one-pot is the paella, which borrowed its
name from the Arabic ‘ba’eya’, literally ‘leftovers’,
during the Arab presence in Spain. Leftover based one-pots appeared
way before the industrial revolution of course, before the development
of electricity, the fridge, and frozen food… but the industrial
revolution also brought with it mass manufacture of pots, fan-assisted
ovens, microwaves, and eventually the dishwasher; all the conditions
that created the traditional one-pot are gone!
Industrialisation also brought the concept of rationalisation
and subdivision, the surge and then the atomisation of the city,
and of the breakdown of the family as a social unit. The one-pot
survived as an easy-to-prepare meal for bachelors and campers
with little time on their hands.
In the last century, social scientists loved to blame industrialisation
for all the woes of modern life - I wonder if the current resurgence
of one-pot meals as social entertainment wouldn’t be again,
a symptom of the changes in our concept of the city. It wouldn’t
surprise me if, with the help of a good Chateau Musar, all our
physical and social sciences wouldn’t be able to mix again
in some sort of a one-pot primordial soup! As I said, real food
makes real people, makes real places…