Food for thought: Every item on your plate has probably travelled a lot more than you

Amidst the flurry of cookbooks and books on food that are now regularly being published, the recent book Cooking Cultures: Convergent Histories of Food and Feeling edited by Ishita Banerjee-Dube definitely warrants a read by every food enthusiast worth his/her salt.

Cooking Cultures is essentially a collection of 11 essays on food and cuisine in various cultures at different times in history. The essays cover a gamut of subjects pertaining to food and its various implications, written by social scientists, food and cultural anthropologists and food historians. In this book Banerjee-Dube presents convergent histories of the globe, kneaded together by food and cooking, “offering a tale strewn together from a variety of smells and tastes, peoples and places and their multiple mixtures”.

The Hummus Wars that were raged for the appropriation of the food between Israel and Palestine have the potential “to turn foes into enemies” and give peace a delectable chance in the Middle East

The opening essay of the book is an intrinsically complex question of indigeneity of a species, specially if the species has been introduced many generations ago such that it has ingrained itself on people’s minds and tables. The species in question in the essay are the brown and rainbow trout. The author of the essay presents his case by recollecting a harmless letter published in 2002 in The Complete Flyfisherman, a South African fly-fishing magazine about the presence of trout in South African rivers and series of responses to the letter which in this case open a can of trout! When the magazine editor PJ Jacobs suggested that trout should be reclassified as “indigenous” species as they had swam and bred in the rivers for more than 100 years, hardlined conservationists had taken a rather hard view of the matter forcing the editor to partially backtrack his suggestion. This leads the author to look deeply at the terms “alien”, “indigenous” and “indigenised”. Although the debate on trout has not fully settled, for the near future they will continue to be “on the menu” for South Africans.

The essays that follow are as fascinating. The Hummus Wars that were raged for the appropriation of the food between Israel and Palestine have the potential “to turn foes into enemies” and give peace a delectable chance in the Middle East. Another one that is unusual is on the brief history of sweets in Japan. The author of the essay presents a wondrous account of how the Japanese almost zealously guard and follow the lesser known traditions of wagashi — which are sweets made from Japanese ingredients and form an important part of their tea ceremonies.

Such hidden and popular tidbits of information are stuffed in this hearty compilation that would take the reader from Africa to Mexico to Bengal to China and other interesting places where food, cooking and cuisine binds and defines people.