From traditional Mediterranean dishes shared around a table with family and friends, deeply imbued with the culture of familial cooking present in much of western Europe, to the exciting theater that is Japanese Teppanyaki cuisine, styles of traditional cooking around the world are rapidly changing.
Over the past few years, I feel as if I have noticed subtle changes in how people are perceiving restaurants and cooking. Gradually creeping from restaurant to café, culinary magazine to recipe book, food has become more about experiences and pleasing the taste buds rather than sharing an enjoyable, fulfilling moment with friends or family. Whether this change is for better or for worse, I have no idea. Nonetheless, ancient styles of cooking born around a hot fire hundreds of years ago are experiencing this shift in perspective in a very distinct way.
As a result of economic globalization as well as the mixture and sharing of culture taking place at lightning speed around the world, Mediterranean dishes are being thrown in a melting pot together with recipes featuring food from the streets of New Delhi and the maize and bean staples of South America. Outlandish foods conceived with Back to the Future style cooking utensils are being presented in minuscule quantities on large white plates in the furthest corners of France’s most expensive restaurants. Not only are such dishes designed to tantalize the taste buds in a never before experienced way, but leave the diner searching for the chef with eager eyes, craving for more. Personally, I find such dishes to be purely for the enjoyment of billionaires or the once a year experience. It must feel so disappointing leaving a restaurant having eaten only a few tiny dishes, each of them barely covering a fifth of the plate they were served on.
This sharing, mixing and matching of culinary savoir-faire on such a vast scale is changing the traditional recipes that form the basis of regional cuisine. The term “cuisine a la provençale” can now be used to refer to dishes filled with exotic ingredients and brought to life using techniques that kitchen hands living in provençe during the 19th century never would have dreamt of. The traditional beliefs regarding food, painstakingly inscribed in ancient manuscripts and cookbooks are being shaken up and thoroughly challenged. It’s as if the very roots of our food and culinary culture across the globe are being built upon, recipe by recipe, as new ideas and combinations of ingredients, inspired by extreme travel and migration, are placed together in a pot by local chefs.
Overseas, in countries as wildly different as China, Belgium and New Zealand, the same changes are undoubtedly taking place. Cooking styles previously unique to their place of origin are being engulfed by and combined with similarly unique dishes from across the globe. Chefs are travelling farther than ever before, innovating and cooking dishes whilst possessing the ability to import specific types of produce from thousands of miles away and blend them using ingredients and techniques first used in the homes and hearths of locals, hundreds of years ago.
My favorite example of these crazy styles of cooking is gastronomie moléculaire. Having truly entered the realm of fashion in Paris during the late 1980’s and early 90’s, gastronomie moléculaire is a scientific approach to gastronomy that ends up turning kitchens into high-tech laboratories. By using scientific processes and equipment to conduct cooking on a molecular level, a trend in cooking was inspired that saw the size of meals decrease whilst emphasizing the taste and experience of dining. It became particularly fashionable among fine diners to try delicately orchestrated dishes prepared at length using substances such as liquid nitrogen (the smoky stuff that’s really cold) and featuring unique flavors unable to be found in any other form of food.
The main interest in molecular gastronomy among the average food aficionado was how pleasing it was to the eye. Shapes and colors never before seen in cooking could be placed in intricate forms, stacked upon a plate to create modern art that could be eaten. Foods that appeared savory could be made sweet and vice versa, allowing the chef to surprise the diner at any point in the meal (whether in a pleasant way or not was up to the chef). Ingredients could also be maintained at an extremely precise temperature in the same way that a chemical substance could be in a laboratory. This allowed chefs to create all sorts of delightful canapés using ice-cream or caramel in either a liquid or solid form. Beware, however. With gastronomie moléculaire, you never know. Just because a dish uses caramel doesn’t mean the caramel will be sweet, or taste like caramel at all for that matter.
Sadly, changes in the way food is created for enjoyment or appetite don’t always result in wonderful innovations that create a legacy of gusto. The hamburger, what used to be a not-so-unhealthy snack available at small vendors across the USA, has given way to mass produced “fast food” designed to be manufactured at the lowest cost. The fast food revolution that flooded the country, and then the world, was definitely one of the largest changes in food culture in recent times, completely transforming the way in which food lovers across the planet perceived restaurants and “food culture”. I can hardly drive past an intersection without seeing six fast food “restaurants”, all crowding around the same cross-roads, competing for people’s appetites (and their wallets).
Perhaps two parallel shifts are occurring: the creation of food purely for pleasure, “food to be consumed for the taste buds”, and food for the masses, designed to gloriously sate the appetite. Already, restaurants have begun changing focus. Particularly in city centres, businesses dedicated to the pursuit of gastronomie moléculaire are being opened in flamboyant fashion whilst some restaurants devote themselves to providing cheap and hearty, but not particularly refined meals. Unsurprisingly, this divide is gradually being exacerbated all whilst the innumerable fast food chains pervading our society continue enlarging their sprawl.
Interestingly, the nostalgia of the 60’s burger joint atmosphere or pub-style grill is being re-visited in some corners of the globe. Small, independent grill-shops and steakhouses are popping up all over the city of Melbourne, Australia, catering to those who can’t seem to find the original, family-owned vibe that was typical of traditional restaurants. Although these loud and vibrant, but still hole in the wall type establishments are often associated with a hipster sub-culture, they seem to be frequented by a much larger group of diners, all seeking a change in the way restaurants take part in their lives and a return to the hearty, wholesome, but not mass-produced food, found before restaurant chains starting monopolizing the scene.
With renewed interest in culinary innovation and thousands of budding cooks full of exciting ideas, who knows what delicious tastes the future will hold? Although modern advancements in science and styles of cooking may provide us delicious flavors and mouth-bursting experiences to die for, my favorite type of meal will forever be one cooked at home, shared between the best of friends whilst enjoying the fine rays of a cloudless sunset.
I can only hope that, despite the mass of rapid changes taking place around some of the world’s most intriguing and classical styles of cuisine, the recipes and culinary knowledge of yesterday will not be obliterated or lost to the innovations of today.