22 January 2013

La cuisine fusion

Having been away from the U.S. for a year and a half, there are definitely foods and flavors we are missing.  Initially, we really missed Mexican food, improvising with chile peppers for jalapeños, and white or kidney beans for pinto beans.  We've gratefully accepted and frozen 100% corn tortillas from the U.S., yet we do appreciate the excellent avocados, coriandre (cilantro or fresh coriander) and seasonal tomatoes here.  More recently, it's the flavors of Asian food that we are craving.  There are several ethnic food stores in Aix, specializing in halal (food prepared according to Muslim dietary rules), orientale (Asian), and exotique (some of the above).  The one closest to us stocks the Asian foods we are most familiar with given our Seattle ties, and lately, I have been there more frequently than usual, adding tamarind paste, miso paste, and lemongrass to my regular purchases of fresh bok choy, soy sauce, noodles, and rice.  This is in part thanks to our purchase of a cookbook from the British-based restaurant chain Wagamama, which we visited twice while in London.  Certainly, Aix restaurants offer la cuisine orientale (Asian food), especially Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese, but what's missing are the Asian fusion foods that are so typical in the bigger U.S. cities, and that we so happily discovered in London.  We miss that amalgam of flavors and menus and ethnic specialties, where lemongrass mixes with soy sauce mixes with ketchup, and Korean noodles find themselves in Japanese miso broths alongside Chinese cabbage.  Some call this 'fake' Asian food, but what is authentic food anyway?

Here in France, one might say we are eating somewhat more authentic national cuisine, as it seems that everyone living here is intimately familiar with this cuisine, with its ingredients, how it's prepared, and how one eats it.  Traditional French foods we've eaten in the past weeks have included les entrées (appetizers) of escargot, or snails, main dishes of daube (meats cooked in wine sauces) or confit de canard (duck legs in their own fat), and plenty of cheeses and desserts.  Our kids' school meals are especially traditionally French, in the number of courses and what they contain.  In the U.S. on the other hand, we have grown up eating from a much broader plate, where meals, even single dishes, are comprised of a variety of ethnic flavors and foods.  When you think about it, all of American cuisine is fusion-based, since most 'American' foods have come to the U.S. via the movement of people across borders, from all directions.  (Much of it comes from immigration processes, but we also must account for the forced migrations and uprootings of peoples too, all of whom have and had their own food traditions.)  In the process, whatever traditional, 'authentic' recipes were brought by immigrants, or slaves, or indentured servants, have been fused to what is locally available (remember the stories of how the natives taught new arrivals how to plant corn?).  Later, the flavors of the meals become more complex with increased interactions with other new arrivals of different backgrounds.  In some respects many so-called traditional foods are not even so similar or authentic anymore to what is made back in the country-of-origin, such as the 'Chinese food' or 'Tex-Mex food' in the United States.  In my own ethnic traditions, even the processes have changed, in the opposite direction; what I learned to prepare from my immigrant mother were the Finnish holiday sweets, made 'authentically' from scratch, where butter pastries were laboriously mixed and folded over and over before being rolled out, and fillings were cooked from scratch, whereas my friends and cousins in Finland just go to the grocery store and buy the cookie doughs and fillings ready made.  The theme, of fusion, is something one recognizes with other social forces too, and not just in relation to food preparation and the meals themselves.  For example, this quarter in my sociology of religion course, we explore how the effects of immigration and the interactions and experiences with new people in a new place often result in new forms of immigrant religious practice.  Surely, these feel authentic to those following them.

As for France, its sources of immigration are much tighter geographically (coming mostly from the south and east), and thus, the external influences on its foods (and other practices) feel narrower or smaller.  There are certainly regional variations in the French cuisine that are influenced in part by the movement of people across borders, from the heavier German-style cuisine in the northeast Alsace region to the Mediterranean flavors here in the south.   Yet, it still seems to me that there is a tighter definition of what French food is and how it is prepared and experienced, and this is shared across the entire country.  Maybe it's because of the French school system's lunch offerings or standardized French geography lessons where children learn about the culinary and viticultural specialties of each region.  Maybe it's the relatively narrower range of foods available in regular grocery stores.  Or perhaps immigrants here face greater pressures to assimilate to French ways; people here are either French or they are foreigners, and fused, hyphenated, French-something or other identities are not as commonly expressed or recognized as they are in the U.S.  Whatever it is, as foreigners here, I feel grateful to be able to experience French cuisine, however authentic it is or isn't, in the place where it originated, while also satisfying my family's hankerings for foods from 'home'.

So, you can just call me a wagamama,* as I cook my way through my new cookbook, creating new fusions of la cuisine fusion, where tonight's Asian-influenced mackerel with soy and ginger was in fact pêche en Méditerranée (fished from the Med's waters) and the spicy vegetable stir-fry consisted of bok choy grown in the French town of Orange, west of here, and the peppers came from Vietnam.

*Or am I?  Apparently, a wagamama is not a mama at all, but a willful person, or even a naughty child, perhaps meant to signify the restaurant chain's philosophy of not following any one food tradition too religiously.  (http://www.wagamama.com/about-us)

No comments: