The Silliness of Foodies

In this recent post I talked about the “Irish” word craic, and how very recent the word is to the Irish (and English!) language. So now I’d like to poke a little fun at “foodies”.

Most of us probably have that one friend who always insists on getting “authentic” cuisine. Run of the mill Chinese, Mexican or Thai just isn’t good enough for this guy. He’s got to find the most obscure, back-alley restaurants that serve “authentic” cuisine, and where he’s the only white guy there.

See, what’s funny about that is that there’s really no such thing as “authentic” cuisine, at least not in the sense of centuries-old recipes. Sure, there are some basic dishes which haven’t changed for centuries: good ol’ meat-on-a-stick shish kabobs probably go back tens of thousands of years, as does roast beef. And there are some Chinese dishes where the basic preparation goes back a couple thousand years. After all, dumplings are dumplings, no matter what you’re putting in them, right?

But stop and think about most of the dishes you see in international restaurants. You probably think that southern Italian food has used tomatoes forever. But tomatoes were a New World food that didn’t arrive in Europe until after Christopher Columbus’ voyage of 1492. and they weren’t actually cultivated in Italy until 1548. So if you ever had some notion of Julius Ceasar sitting down to a plate of spaghetti and red sauce, you’re mistaken. Aloo mutter – an Indian dish made of potatoes and tomatoes – had to wait for Europeans to bring tomatoes and potatoes to Europe first, then export them to India; it wasn’t until the late 1700s that either was regularly cultivated in India. And pad thai, the national dish of Thailand? That has peanuts, also a New World crop, which didn’t reach Siam until the Spanish started exporting them from Mexico to the Philippines, where they made their way to southeast Asia. In fact, pad thai didn’t become a national phenomenon in Thailand until the 1930s.

I was thinking about this the other day as I looked at the menu for an Indian restaurant. I lamented the fact that it’s nearly impossible to find pork vindaloo in the United States… which is the meat of choice for the dish.

You see, vindaloo comes from the Goa region of India, and Goa was colonized by the Portuguese. At the time, the Portuguese made a dish called carne de vinha d’alhos, which was a stew made of pork simmered in wine with mild chilies. In fact, the dish was something of a national obsession with the Portuguese. So Goan chefs tried replicating the dish, but used vinegar instead of wine and spicy chilies instead of mild ones. And thus, vindaloo.

Goa remains the most Christian state in southern India, with around 26% of the population claiming to be Christian (Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Manipur, all in northeast India, are significantly more Christian, but they either didn’t become part of India until the 1960s or didn’t become their own Indian states until around that same time). Thus, Goa is one of the few places in India where one can easily buy pork.

It’s just amusing that vindaloo, which so many Americans and Britons think of as a classic Indian dish, was actually an Indian rip-off of a popular Portuguese dish.