x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Global craving crazes

Food Mayonnaise in Japan, Welsh fruit cake in Argentina and Worcestershire sauce in Shanghai - some foods thrive in the unlikeliest of countries.

A blend of vinegar, tamarind, molasses, anchovies and spices, Worcestershire sauce has become a staple cooking ingredient in Shanghai.
A blend of vinegar, tamarind, molasses, anchovies and spices, Worcestershire sauce has become a staple cooking ingredient in Shanghai.

Is there really such a thing as a purely national cuisine anymore? While every country puts its own stamp on whatever it cooks, world food traditions are so jumbled up nowadays that it's hard to say where one ends and another begins. Even in France, with its apparently untouchable gastronomic tradition, the most popular dish is now the originally North African couscous, while fish and chips has been booted off the top spot as Britain's favourite food by that Anglo-Indian hybrid, chicken tikka masala. But this cross-pollination of world cuisines is of course far from being an exclusively western phenomenon. All around the world, cooks have long been taking foreign influences and bending them to suit local tastes. But while obvious choices like hamburgers and Coke are now practically unavoidable worldwide, the world is also full of far more unlikely borrowings, with familiar foods cropping in the places you'd least expect. Here is a round up of just a few.

The healthy Japanese diet has gone ever so slightly pear-shaped since the Second World War, much like the Japanese themselves. Certainly, they still eat far more healthily than, say, the average American, but the nation has hiked its consumption of protein and fat considerably. But while many of the usual suspects are behind this relative increase in corpulence (chips, pizza and Coke are all predictably popular) there are also other hugely successful western food imports around which might come as a surprise - like mayonnaise. Apparently, the Japanese are crazy about the gloupy high calorie egg sauce, with an average consumption on 1.65 kgs of the stuff per person in 2006. There are even whole restaurants devoted to it - like Tokyo's Mayonnaise Kitchen, where every single dish comes slathered with a Japanese version of the stuff. After offering such breathtakingly bland treats as tofu with mayonnaise, the restaurants menu then graduates to mayonnaise ice cream. Yuck - the mere thought of it is enough to make anyone long for a strip of raw seaweed instead.

While British purists often whinge about how inauthentic Anglo-Indian cooking is, the Indians themselves don't think twice about reshaping foreign cuisines to suit their own tastes. Chinese Indian - or Chindian - food is currently a major craze in the country, especially among the more experimental middle classes. Using Chinese cooking methods like stir-frying and steaming, Chindian food takes classic Chinese dishes (Manchurian chicken and stir-fried noodles are both popular) and customises them with local spices, such as turmeric and cumin. And while Chinese cooking ranges from the fiery to the extremely mild, Chindian food usually has far more chilli and garlic thrown in. Originally developed by the large, long-established Chinese community in Calcutta, Chindian food at its best can be rather delicious, if rather heavy, although your average Chinese diner would have a hard time recognising a single dish. But seeing as it tastes good, does it really matter so much that it's as authentically Chinese as Mickey Mouse?

Given that Britain and Argentina fought not that long ago over the Falklands, those obscure little islands in the South Atlantic, it's surprising to discover how popular many British traditions are in the land of the pampas. A stream of well-to-do 19th century immigrants to the country left it with such anglophile features as the only international branch of the department store Harrods and a fondness for afternoon tea. One of the most prized treats for this decidedly un-hispanic ritual is torta galesa negra, or black Welsh cake. Introduced by Welsh speakers who turned up in semi-arid Patagonia under the mistaken impression that it was as lush and damp as Snowdonia, the recipe is a dead ringer for a typical British fruit cake, made with treacle and dried fruit. Seeing something so typical of the British Isles thousands of miles away in South America is an odd experience - like coming across the Queen dressed in a cowboy hat and poncho.

Salty-tasting custard tarts, butter-less mashed potato and Ovaltine for breakfast? Hong Kong's "Western-style" food is anything but. While the former colony's lengthy occupation by Britain may have pumped its eating habits full of European influences, the ways it processes these influences are decidedly local and not a little quirky. Take Horlicks and Ovaltine, for example. Seen in Anglo-Saxon countries as cosy, decidedly retro bedtime beverages for preteens, Hong Kongese look on the malted milk drinks as energising food for adults, most commonly drunk first thing in the morning and invariably found on the menus of tea-houses. Seeing elegantly dressed people whiling the hours away over a cup of something originally designed to render 1930s children soporific can be a perplexing sight for westerners visiting Hong Kong. What, you might find yourself wondering, do these people drink just before going to bed - a cup of tea?

It seems fitting that the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko was allegedly poisoned at a London sushi bar: while thallium is still a mercifully rare occurrence on Russian menus, the country's wealthier classes seem to be absolutely addicted to raw fish. Many of Moscow's most favoured posing spots are upscale sushi palaces, charging jaw-dropping prices for their super-sleek decor and occasionally superb food. So what exactly is the appeal? It could be that for Russians, sushi offers a perfect balance between familiarity and exoticism. While in America and much of Western Europe uncooked fish was regarded as little more than a health hazard, Russians have traditionally prized cured (and sometimes raw) fish as a delicacy, while the little dabs of red roe you find adorning much sushi maki recall that other great Russian luxury, caviar. But despite this relative familiarity, there's also something attractive about sushi's exoticism, which is even stronger in landlocked Moscow, where fresh tuna and squid have to be flown over thousands of miles. This may not be ecologically sound, but Moscow's wealthier diners seem to place a premium on fish that's well-traveled.

Believe it or not, the country that invented soy sauce also has a great fondness for Worcestershire sauce, a spicy, slightly strange condiment first brewed up by accident in rural England in the 19th century. The sauce, a blend of vinegar, tamarind, molasses, anchovies and spices, was originally created when a barrel of spiced vinegar was left unsold in the basement of a Worcester chemist's shop. Re-opening the cask a year later, staff discovered that accidental fermentation had improved the contents enormously, and started to purposefully recreate it for sale. It's widely prized across East Asia for the savoury umami flavour it gives to food. In cosmopolitan Shanghai, however, the brown stuff is so popular that it forms a cornerstone of the local cooking. Creeping into everything from steamed dim sum to meat buns, it's a key ingredient of yet another improbable example of the city's culinary melting pot, Shanghai Borscht.