2008-08-02

Cooking and traditionalism

I've been involved in the past few days in an exchange over an article which has turned mondo unpleasant for all concerned, which I feel a bit responsible for (though it's escalated way beyond anything I had in mind). I've been trying to defend my world-view that rich white kids like myself should stick to making music that is culturally our own and/or relay the music of others, but honestly, all I've been able to think about is cooking.

Because when cooking, I'm either being very hypocritical or I've somehow been able to arrive at a totally different set of standards that seem to be in complete conflict with what I say about music. And I'm not sure I can decide which.


When cooking, I behave pretty much exactly as the article writer describes. I try to immerse myself in the culinary culture of a place, learning its "language" of correct ingredients, secrets of how to prepare them, traditional uses for food. I buy ghee and jerk sauce and kaffir lime leaves at specialist stores. I know, honestly, that I'll never get it completely right, but I try to make other people's food anyway. And I try to do it to perfection and with full understanding.

And while I'm right there in the exchange above defending white kids who make their own thing out of influences from elsewhere, there's nothing I detest more in cooking. "Cross-over" is the cooking equivalent of "global fusion" in music, and it totally sucks. It generally means just bringing "wacky ingredients" from foreign traditions into standard western cooking, so "Indo-French" cooking is quite simply French cooking with a few extra spices. (The two are totally incompatible generally, with nouvelle cuisine especially being totally anathema to a lot of the ideas of Indian cooking.)

It makes me wonder a bit how I'd react if it happened the other way, ie. the cooking equivalent of so-called nu whirl music. I can quite seem myself reacting with less enthusiasm than when cultures in the third world pick up modernity in music, because modernity in cooking has often been given very negative connotations. Anything non-traditional, "processed" is considered inferior in general by a lot of writers, and I kind of semi-subscribe to that, too. (Though I am fascinated by molecular gastronomy, I'm sure I'd be very questioning of an Indian chef using its techniques, fearing they'd been "lured by westernised cooking". Compare with how great I think it is if an Indian musician uses synths.)

One thing I generally celebrate in music is when a culture casually absorbs influences from another, with, say, Colombians making "African music". But do I like Europeanised Chinese fast food? Hell no. I'm even suspicious of stuff-like Indian Chinese cuisine, which is totally between two equals, but which still seems like a watered-down second-rate to me. I'm so much more a folkie in cooking than in music! And this is while realising that all cooking, like all music, is in a constant state of flux and that even interesting and complex, deeply cultural cuisines like the Anglo-Indian one have been developed in a clash between traditions, just like good music does... Yet somehow I can't agree to the same process today.

So, am I being a big fat hypocrite? Should I start embracing processed foods, especially the ones made in China or somewhere? Or is there an intellectual way out? I can't tell, myself.

2 comments:

w&w said...

Processed foods? Ick.

As for the aesthetics question, it's an interesting one -- and esp for the disjuncture with your feeling about "appropriation" in music.

For my part, while I love to cook, say, trad Jamaican dishes inna trad stylee, I also like trying new combinations. If I hadn't, I'd never have stumbled onto the awesomeness of jerk sweet potatoes.

Birdseed said...

Actually, to play devil's advocate to myself on the processed food issue, can we really say the Tunisian use of canned tuna as a staple for a whole bunch of street dishes is a bad thing? While accepting "processed sounds" in Tunisia's popular music readily?

I'm not sure how far the analogy can be drawn but it's quite an aesthetic muddle.