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Snobbery Helped Take the Spice Out of European Cooking (2015) (npr.org)
67 points by Tomte 29 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 52 comments

One of the best jokes I have heard is - English invaded most of the world looking for spices and still have not figured out how to use them.

I'm reminded of an exchange from Futurama:

Zoidberg: Goose liver? Fish eggs? Feh! Where's the goose? Where's the fish?

Elzar: This is what rich people eat; the garbage parts of the food.


People blend lobster into butter just so they can make other things taste like delicious sea insects. And it works so well because butter carries flavors really well while being pretty mild itself. It's the last thing you'd use to mask flavors.

Fresh shellfish is delicious and doesn't require anything. I'm going to speculate that you didn't grow up near the ocean. I catch and cook (or in the case of clams, don't even cook) my own, and it's at its most delicious with nothing added.

> giant sea insects like lobster and crab

Technically, lobster and crab are crustaceans, not insects ;)

that's not technically, that's arbitrarily

I mean, I'm using the commonly accepted taxonomical classification…

The idea both are arthropods is certainly a fact, but the idea they are significantly different is contraindicated by numerous DNA studies at the present.

Crustaceans make up an entire subphylum, while insects are a class within a different subphylum. That would seem to indicate they are more differentiated than mammals and fish.

Things have changed. You might like to take a look at https://www.nature.com/articles/nature08742.

Nope. "Our results strongly support Pancrustacea" which is in line with the taxonomic hierarchy I was making reference to.

Thai crab fried rice or crab soup beg to differ.

I can’t defend lobster.

In Boston it's still possible to buy lobster literally out of the back of a truck.

Lobster was so plentiful off the coast of New England that it was historically a common man's food -- marketing elevated its status significantly.

Not in Europe. Lobster has always been an upper-class food, since the 16th - 17th century.

Good article here: https://munchies.vice.com/en_us/article/xy7vzw/lobsters-deli...

You should really buy better, fresher crab.

It's not bad at all. However, one of my favorite crab dishes is 간장게장.

if you're curious, it's https://www.maangchi.com/recipe/ganjang-gejang or "Raw crabs marinated in soy sauce"

I've never in my life eaten crab or lobster with butter. Is this some retarded American thing?

I am surprised by the judgmental nature of the article, as if the author sides with the spice-ful type of cuisine, as being the “non-snob” and “delicious” one. And that it should topple the “supremacy” (really?!) of French cuisine.

This varies a little from my understanding I learned in school that food used to need to be heavily spiced because it was old/rancid, and that died down as fresh ingredients became more available.

I have to imagine that was it at least in part.

As best as I can tell this is an oft repeated myth.

The best evidence against it is that spices are expensive, if you could afford them, you could afford fresh food.

But actually, that's part of TFA's argument.

As spices became less expensive, TFA argues that became popular among poorer people. And so richer people instead came to emphasize the intrinsic flavors of foods.

But for that to work, those foods had to be high quality, and unspoiled. So, by TFA's argument, it was poorer people who came to use spices to mask low quality and spoiled foods.

Depends on the spice and the part of the world you're talking about. Chilli was/is used heavily in Mexico and India to add or mask flavour but, also they also have antibacterial and anti inflammatory properties in countries were you have / have had large concentrations of poor people.

Classical French Haute cuisine is heavily flavoured with fats (butter and creame) which required a lot of milk to create, i.e. the yield is low considering how much precious milk one had to put in. That was something that was at the time exclusively for the wealthy.

> food used to need to be heavily spiced because it was old/rancid

This is often said but I really doubt that it was ever true. Nobody ate meat that was old/rancid, because (1) that was a great way to get ill, and (2) a cook who let the meat go off would surely have been fired, meat was super-expensive. They knew damn well how to handle it without wasting any.

I'm sure the peasants sometimes ate cabbage that was past its sell-by date, but if that was all you could afford, then clearly you could not afford spices brought from across the world.

Here in the UK that is the case but, not for spices but for herbs. If you're from the UK you'll know that mint source with your Sunday roast is very common. It was invented by the Welsh to make their old lamb/mutton taste better.

> to make their old lamb/mutton taste better

I find that hard to swallow.

I think if you are brought up on mutton, then mutton tastes great! Although mutton or hogget is hard to find now.

I generally dislike most European beef dishes because they use tasteless (to me) veal or wintered(?) cattle. I prefer grass fed - probably because that is what I am used to?

And then it seems the same crowd get excited about wild pork or venison - strong flavored - the opinions just seem dissonant to me.

Although I do find ram, billy goat, and old glandy boar are rather too tasty for me!

Note that he said "old" as in, probably well past any "use-by" date (that wouldn't have existed back then). :)

As per @nrki's comment;

> I think if you are brought up on mutton, then mutton tastes great

No one has been "brought up on" any kind of meat further ago than the last 100 years or so, people couldn't afford it. People kept animals until they were old and had no other purposes (like milk or wool) before they were killed for meat.

That's definitely not true.

I never got the whole "white people food is bland" meme, seems like an American thing to me. If everything you make and eat has the same spicy curry mix, well then isn't that kind of bland as well?

When using better raw ingredients, there is less rot and foulness to mask with spices. Also better storage and refrigeration makes some spices have less of practical benefit.

I've long wondered if Europeans and their descendants have evolved a more intense affinity toward meat that other cultures have, by virtue of having a lower population density for so much longer than Asians have -- thus, they could "afford" a less efficient diet rich in meat.

We know that tastes are related to genetics. Most famously, is the understanding that Asians dislike cilantro at a much higher rate than Africans, and we know a single gene is heavily responsible for the aversion to the specific aldehydes in cilantro.

It's not crazy to think that humans may have a "carnivorous" gene, which controls ones love of meat.

It wasn’t too long ago that Europeans were mostly peasants working the fields, including my ancestors. They rarely ate meat and if they did it would be on a holiday or very special occasion. Killing a chicken means you can’t get eggs and it’s the same for milk producing animals like goats, sheep, or cattle. Not to mention you couldn’t hunt on the lords land. I’d say it’s been less than 200 years since Europeans could afford to eat meat.

The article is comparing Indian food to food that was only eaten by the European elite. I don’t think it’s an apples to apples comparison. It does give us a history of western food as we eat it today. Lots of good food history comes from the haute cuisine of the 1700s to early 1900s.

You're thinking in hundreds of years, while I'm talking in the tens of thousands of years.

We know that neanderthals ate a diet that consisted of 80% or more meat, while humans had a much more varied diet. We also know that neanderthals did contribute to European human DNA. A genetic affinity toward the taste of meat it certainly a reasonable thesis.

Tens of thousands of years? Give us proof that even 200 years ago Europeans ate more meat than Asians as you claim.

I'm not going to wade into this petty European vs Asian pissing contest but I'll offer that there was plenty of meat in the Viking diet (roughly 700-1100).

The difference is that Asia has had intense centralized agricultural economies for something like 6,000+ years while (north/west) Europe was primarily pastoral until around the Roman empire.

Agriculture spread throughout Europe during the Neolithic, like the rest of the Mediterranean basin (and possibly towards India), and brought along massive deforestation and demographic growth. Those were deeply agriculture-centric societies far before the Indo-Europeans came around, not even mentioning Romans.

And in what parallel universe agriculture was centralized in Asia in 4000 BC ?

The big advantage of Asia was double or even triple crops.

It took a long time for agriculture to spread. Crops that work in a Mediterranean climate do not work in Northern Europe. You have to breed new varieties. That can take hundreds to thousands of years. Heck, it’s still hard to grow certain kinds of fruit up here in the rainy parts of Oregon and we know how genetics and inheritance work.

and it wasn't too long before that when we hunted the megafauna out of existence... probably took us a while, too. Orders of magnitude more time than the duration of agriculture.

When they talk about rich meaty Indian curries, that was the food of the elite as well.

> I've long wondered if Europeans and their descendants have evolved a more intense affinity toward meat

European diets changed drastically after their discovery of the new world and the introduction of grains such as potatoes and corn from the new world to Europe. Due to the introduction of these new starches, Europeans were able to diversify away from wheat and also cultivate food exclusively for animal consumption - something that led eventually to an increase in meat consumption.

I thought the difference was that Europe is dairy upland county, the land dictates the diet. Much of Yorkshire is unsuitable for arable farmland for example - but great for sheep, goats, and cows. Thus a cheese and meat diet. Same for alpine regions, parts of Germany etc.

Leading to genetic differences in lactose tolerance.

At that point in time I think the main use of meat animals was converting unfarmable undigestable grassland biomass to edible meat. Not all land is farmable. And given the cold winters wool justifies itself nicely over flax linens.

Notably when previously vegetarian peasants become wealthier they tend to add meat to their diet implyinh their previous diet was involuntary vegetarianism - they wanted it but couldn't afford it.

Depends on your definition of "Asian" :)

People in the Indian sub-continent eat cilantro heavily and use in various ways. Thai food uses cilantro a lot, and I believe it is also present in Middle eastern food, though I'm not 100% sure.

>Europeans... by virtue of having a lower population density for so much longer than Asians

I can't find any good numbers for historical demographics beyond about 100 years ago, but this sounds backwards. i.e. I think Europe would have been more dense for most of history, especially factoring in arable land.

I'm suspicious of the genetic taste for cilantro. In Asia only Koreans and Japanese tend to dislike it while Chinese, Thais, and Vietnamese eat tons of it. Koreans and Japanese have other strong tasting herbs like minari and shiso that they happily eat. I'm not convinced it isn't just culture and familiarity.

There is a specific flavour (or flavours) in cilantro that can only be tasted by certain people. That ability is genetically linked. The flavour apparently tastes like soap. Similarly the ability to smell the really offensive odour of natto is also genetically linked.

However, I think it's a stretch to go from that (the ability to detect certain substances) to the idea that all tastes are genetically linked in a substantial way. For example the rate of ability to detect the soap flavour in cilantro is quite low (between 4-14 percent of the population based on random google searching) -- geographical variations in that ability might affect it's use in regional cuisine, but it's low enough that it might not. Most food doesn't have any similar obnoxious flavours, so I think you are correct that regional variation is more cultural than anything else. For example, the peoples of Korea and Japan are not really so different (and are even very, very close geographically), but Korean food tends to be incredibly spicy while Japanese food is decidedly not spicy.

There's a SNP which affects if one finds cilantro to taste like soap[0]. For many people where it tastes like soap, they don't enjoy cilantro. I'e come across people who profess it to taste like soap and like that, but not many.

[0] https://www.snpedia.com/index.php/Rs72921001

Sugar was ubiquitous in the middle ages ! I think not

The article states only that sugar was ubiquitous among the dishes of those who could afford it, not that it was generally ubiquitous.

It was phenomenally expensive then the BBC did an interesting history of sweetmaking though history.

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