Stream of consciousness-y post about some ideas (probably bad ones) that I have accumulated on this subject.
Food Pairings vs. Spiciness
Simas et al. (2017) – Food-Bridging: A New Network Construction to Unveil the Principles of Cooking
1. There are cultures that pair ingredients with shared flavor compounds, and those that contrast them instead (Ahn et al. 2011).
High food pairings:
- North American
- West European
- East European
- Latin American
- South European
Low food pairings:
- South-East Asian (though with they have high “food-bridging” – including ingredients in between contrasting flavors to mitigate the sharp contrast, see Simas et al. 2017)
- South Asian (see Jaim et al. 2015, though there are regional specifics: Maharashtrian and Gujarati cuisine has the lowest food pairings, while Central Asian-influenced Mughal cuisine has the highest)
- East Asian
Interesting pattern. A few exceptions regardless, most notable South Asians, could Caucasians and Mongoloids have evolved to generally prefer similar/assimilar flavors, respectively?
We know that this sort of thing does go on. Most famous example is ofc lactose tolerance. But Indians are also more adapted to vegetarianism (and IMO, they’re the only people who know how to do vegetarianism well).
2. Different levels of spiciness (my classification as I don’t fully agree with that map).
- Low/bland: North American, European (West, East, South), Middle Eastern
- Intermediate: African, Central Asian, American American, Chinese (but the north and coastal areas are Low, while Sichuan is high; though that said, its hotness isn’t based on capsaicin)
- High: South Asian, Southeast Asian (but Indonesian is intermediate)
The evolutionary drives behind this are pretty obvious. Hot, humid climes, especially in densely populated areas = more spices to prevent spoilage. No such pressing need in northern areas, where in any case salt was traditionally the key preservative. Curiously, Asians (and Africans) are more salt-sensitive than Caucasians, so this might also explain this differential (e.g. Koreans are pretty far north, but their food can be pretty spicy).
Drastically simplified, the resulting schema would look something like this:
|High Food Pairing||Low Food Pairing|
|Hot||Central American||South Asian|
Europeans might have made far bigger achievements in science, literature, etc. than all the world’s other civilizations put together, but we do sort of fail at cooking.
Apart from desserts and booze. I don’t think anyone even comes close to Europeans there.
Health and Russian Cuisine
There this impression that Russian cuisine is highly unhealthy.
I’m not sure if it’s really true, though.
The soups are basically a vitamin hothouse. You could probably live on just, say, sorrel soup (“green borscht”). And it’s trivial to make it ketogenic (just remove the potatoes).
Then there’s also kholodets, which is a form of aspic. It looks disgusting to Westerners, but it’s really nothing more than a congealed meat broth soup.
French Cuisine is Overrated
I don’t dislike it by any means, but I think they just invested more than anyone else into making their food seem hip and elite.
The Brits were too self-deprecating to try.
Most likely Russia could have done the same if the Bolsheviks hadn’t forcibly “proletarianized” Russian culinary culture. Nor did they have any hope of international success amongst the American-dominated lowest common denominator, because a stolovaya can’t compete against the Mackie D or Colonel Sanders.
As I have frequently noted, Russians don’t do spices. Hot chillies or cayenne aren’t even sold in the typical supermarket. To approximate the levels of hotness you get at a typical British or American Indian curry house, you have to demand and emphasize that they make it “extremely hot”/”like in India” – and even then, it’s not a sure deal. (To date, the only places that have satisfied on this front in Moscow are Khajuraho and the Moscow Deli vegetarian Indian place).
I suppose this is the result of Russian being a northern country that hasn’t been acculturated into heat like the UK and select parts of the US through Indian immigration.
OTOH, there’s still some fascinating patterns. My dad, who is pure r1a master race, doesn’t do spices at all. Hates them. I love them. So does my mom. And even her mom (my maternal grandmother) enjoys them. Even though she lived most of her life in the USSR, where the culinary culture was bland as potatoes and mayonnaise. I wonder if this could be genetic, namely, my grandmother’s Jewish and Italian maternal ancestors from Odessa.
Hopefully global warming will make Russia as hot as India by the next century (Tropical Hyperborea), with matching developments in culinary practices.
Nothing to write home about, even – especially – though it had the highest prestige in the USSR, and enjoys lingering respect in modern Russia despite the proliferation of better (and cheaper) establishments from other countries.
One partial and amusing exception [to good service]: Georgian restaurants, especially those with a long pedigree for supposed “excellence.” My theory is that in the USSR, Georgian cuisine was considered to be the most exotic cuisine accessible, at least to people outside the high nomenklatura, so those establishments continued to be patronized by Soviet people, with their less demanding requirements. Since people with the Soviet mentality primarily went to restaurants to network and to show off how rich they are, as opposed to just having a good time, you tend to get much less enjoyment for the ruble at those places.
The food itself seems overrated too. Khachapuri is just bread + cheese + egg. Khinkali are another variety of dumplings – big deal. Wontons are better in soups, while pelmeni are superior as just dumplings. Adjika is a saltier and less spicy version of salsa. Really, the best thing they have is kharcho, IMO.
It seems to me – in Russia, at any rate – that the only cuisines which “make it” there are from regions in broadly similar climate zones.
- Central European/American beer culture
- Tex Mex
Curiously, Vietnamese and Thai seem to be enjoying modest success, even though they’re southern and highly spicy (in my experience, you actually have a better chance of experiencing a nice capsaicin kick at Korean and Vietnamese establishments in Moscow than at Indian ones). Possibly on account of many Russians holidaying in those areas. But Goa is also a popular holiday and downshifting destination, but Indian food isn’t making any headway.
Biggest missing opportunity: Poutine.
There’s a place where you can get Boston clam chowder in Moscow. Ergo for philly sandwich. Several places where you can get Mac & Cheese.
No place, so far as I’m aware, where you can get poutine.
Which is pretty strange since poutine is Canadian and possibly one of the most naturally transferable foods there is so far as Russia is concerned.
Perfect bland, high caloric food for a cold northern clime.
I suspect the businessman who opens up the first poutine chain in Moscow or SPB could make quite a killing.