Read of the Week

The 50 Greatest Dishes of the World

James Steen

Icon Books

Review: John Harvey

“Cultural appropriation” has become one of those walk-on-eggshell “trending” topics, the mere mention of which is likely to trigger a thousand Twitter threads.

For those not familiar with the term, it essentially refers to the adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of a dominant culture. Within the context of 21st Century discourse, where rights advocacy and outrage dominates micro-blogging sites and other social media platforms, cultural appropriation is a searingly hot potato.

While myriad pop stars have found themselves on the wrong end of the debate by “appropriating” traditionally African-American hip hop culture, the issue has also extended to food.

Last year, two white women closed their pop-up burrito cart in the United States after telling a reporter that they had “picked the brains of every tortilla lady” in Puerto Nuevo, Mexico, in order to come up with their recipes.

But when it comes to gastronomy, the argument is not nearly as clear-cut as say, Miley Cyrus twerking or Australian pop-tart Iggy Azalea rapping. And this offering by James Steen, known for ghosting the autobiographies of celebrity chefs like Marco Pierre White, reveals the proof really is in the eating.

Here, he takes the reader on a discovery of the world’s national dishes, many known but others less likely to roll off (or on!) the tongue.

Take for example Hákarl, the pride of Iceland. Preserved shark meat might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but nevertheless it is fascinating to learn of this “delicacy’s” history, and how it came to tantalise local palates. That its consumption is aided and abetted by large doses of a local schnapps speaks for itself.

There are some familiar favourites as well, of course. Hamburgers, fish ‘* chips, gumbo, Vietnamese pho – all known and enjoyed across the world.

And that is what makes the book so worthwhile a read. It is seldom the case that these globally-renowned dishes have a single point of origin, and frequently they are influenced by a coming-together of different cultures.

Pho (you pronounce it as you would ‘fun’ but without the ‘* ’) draws much of its inspiration from the French, whose occuptation of Vietnam was abhorrent in all respects – food being the obvious exception. And Beef Wellington, that most English of Sunday lunches long thought to be named for Duke Wellington, in fact has his origins across the pond in the US, and even then another nationality could lay claim to it.

Steen’s research is extremely thorough, but even he has to concede some truths are lost to the passage of time, with no written or oral records available.

In a strange way, that makes the history even more compelling, creating an air of mystery about the evolution of eating.