French cooking means more than just butter, right?
September 8, 2010 8:33 PM   Subscribe

Want to learn more about food, specifically regional cuisines. The big question here is: what counts as what? What is "French cuisine" or "Italian cuisine" or even "Californian cuisine"? What are the characteristics of different cuisines that make them distinct from others?

I'm curious about food from both a practical and academic level. I want to know more about the food I cook. I've taken a lot of time learning about where my food comes from and how it is produced, now I think it's time to learn about how people put food to good use.

I'm looking for definitions of all different types of cuisines, the more the merrier! Please help me learn all about food!

Types I've thought of (please feel free to add what I've forgotten):
New American
Pan Asian
Middle Eastern
Pacific Northwest
posted by carnivoregiraffe to Food & Drink (19 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
A few days ago I stumbled across this wikipedia article on the "Holy Trinities" of different cuisines and found it quite interesting. Might not be a complete answer to your question, but could be a start! I think I read about it in another cooking/food-related thread on Metafilter, but I can't remember.
posted by Squee at 8:47 PM on September 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

Southeastern and southwestern U.S.
New England food, particularly seafood dishes

I'm sure this is true for many countries, but I know from experience that different regions of Italy have quite different (yet all soo delicious) types of cuisine, so you'll have more exploring to do even within countries!
posted by Fui Non Sum at 8:55 PM on September 8, 2010

Squee has a good link, and that's generally a good way to approach cuisines. Aside from basic flavorings (European cuisines tend to use herbs found in Europe, like thyme, basil, rosemary, and so on), you also have technical differences in preparation. For example, the giant hunk of meat found in a lot of western cuisines (Roast Beef, bbq shoulder, for example) just doesn't exist in a lot of Asian countries, both for economic reasons and equipment differences. Not having an oven makes a huge impact on what you can and can't cook. Cooking at a high heat in a wok, thin strips of meat and veggies work fine. A hunk of meat wouldn't be all that great over a super hot fire.

So, yeah, locally available spices/herbs, and the tools available in the local. Learn those, and you basically have a grasp of the cuisine.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:04 PM on September 8, 2010

I'm going to kind of skirt the edge of acceptability here-- one of the contributors is a friend of mine-- but the Orange County Weekly down here in SoCal has a food blog that does an occasional "Ethnic Eating 101" series. They've covered Vietnamese, multiple types of Chinese, Korean, Peruvian, Ethiopian, and Persian cuisine so far, with a little bonus bit on Colombian.

Amazon keeps a handy list of James Beard Award winners; you may want to start there as far as reading material.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 9:08 PM on September 8, 2010

You could spend days reading the articles found under the Cuisine category at Wikipedia.
posted by elsietheeel at 9:22 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

You may enjoy the blog Serious Eats. It's a great food blog all around, but they also have special columns on regional cuisine. If you poke around, you'll find regulars like "Seriously Asian", "French in a Flash", and "Tastes of the Mediterranean", among others.
posted by phunniemee at 9:31 PM on September 8, 2010

Well, "Latin" can be broken down into many, many different cuisines. Cuban is not Ecuadoran is not Peruvian. Also, Mexican is technically one of the Latin cuisines.

One of my favorites is Spanish cuisine, and Mediterranean overall. But as Fui Non Sum mentioned, regions of various countries often have different local fare.
posted by cmgonzalez at 9:53 PM on September 8, 2010

Not only can Latin be broken down, but Mexican is very regionalized. I heard it said that only China has a more diverse set of cuisines.

You also don't have to break down food by nationality. There are many variations on BBQ that exist in the world and you could seriously spend tons learning about the variations that exist solely in the United States.
posted by mmascolino at 10:02 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Learn those, and you basically have a grasp of the cuisine.

Squee's link is a great starting point. I've found it helps to grasp the family resemblances, the substitutions and slight tweaks in technique that, say, separates a paella from a risotto from a pilaf, or the boundaries between black pepper and red pepper, or oregano and basil. The distinctions are sort of linguistic in character, going from regional dialects to "language families" with wide variations but shared ingredients. For blanket terms like "Mediterranean", you might think about olive oil and lemons and tomatoes and red peppers, and how the pimenton de La Vera of Spain relates to the harissa across the water, or how ratatouille relates to gazpacho or to the shakhshukha of Algeria and Tunisia.
posted by holgate at 10:10 PM on September 8, 2010

Oh, and Japanese food has a holy 5-some. Sa Shi Su Se So, or Sato (sugar) Shiyo (salt) Su (vinegar), miSo (uh, miso). Strangely enough, se is for Shoyu, or soy sauce. Occasionally you encounter things like Shiso (a very strongly flavored herb that I regard as the devil).

Cooking styles involve stewing, grilling, and deep frying, with the occasional stir-fry type thing thrown in.

There is obviously a ton more to Japanese food, but these are the absolute basics.
posted by Ghidorah at 10:14 PM on September 8, 2010

Not only can Latin be broken down, but Mexican is very regionalized. I heard it said by someone who's never been to India that only China has a more diverse set of cuisines.

Just sorta teasing with the FTFY thing there, but it points to what I'd suggest is your best way forward, which is to ask yourself if you want to go broad or deep. You will find a staggering array of regional cuisines everywhere, and you can either aim to learn a bit about each or really dive in where your tastes and interests take you. Wherever you stop, you will find bottomless variety.

Squee's "holy trinity" link is not a bad start, but since Indian's one of the cuisines I know best, I immediately took exception to such a sparse single-line definition of it:

Garlic, ginger and onion (the first two usually ground or mashed into "wet" pastes) are often sauteed to form the flavour base for much of the cooking in Indian cuisine.

"Much"? No way, dude. Doesn't begin to address the vast difference between the broad subdivisions of North Indian (meaty, with heavily spiced, buttery gravies) and South (lots of coconut-based sauces and ground-lentil concoctions). Ignores fierly vindaloos from Goa entirely. Doesn't even mention the importance of your masala, which in my experience in the north is what really differentiates regional dishes, how much tumeric vs. coriander seed vs. cumin vs. mustard seed vs. chili determining the dominant flavour of the dish. Doesn't get into the whole idea of Mughal cuisine, which traces its origins to the court chefs of the Mughal empire and contributes many of the most famous Indian dishes on the standard First World Indian restaurant menus. Gujurati vs. Punjabi vs. Bengali vs. Tamil. "Indian Chinese," which is so much its own thing - with origins in the Chinese community in Calcutta - that Indian communities in some North American cities reject Chinatown's version in favour of it. The lovely cuisine of the Indian diaspora in East Africa. The thoroughly anglicized Indian food based on the very idea of curry - a word you'll find used to describe a dish virtually nowhere in India itself. The entirely separate culture of street food, from Delhi's sublime chaat stalls (Om Hari Om Fruit Stall in Connaught Place, if you're listening I think of your aloo chaat at least once a week and quiver just a bit) to Bombay's legendary bhelpuri wallahs and beyond.

Oh, I could go on and on. You can go deep, is what I'm saying. You will never get definitive answers. There's a whole sort of publishing subgenre almost of Italian cookbooks, starting with the endlessly fascinating and failsafe-recipe'd works of Marcella Hazan, arguing over what any number of traditional dishes' ingredients and prep methods are. Part of the fun, if you embrace it, is recognizing that the journey you're proposing for yourself is potentially endless and will lead nowhere but more pleasure. Happy travels!
posted by gompa at 10:53 PM on September 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Once you take the "Pan Asian" out of Thai and Vietnamese, they're highly distinctive and can easily be rated amongst the world's great cuisines.

It's easy enough to get a good grasp of where both are at today by picking up an authoritative cookbook. David Thompson's Thai Food is a veritable bible (with a focus on traditional ingredients and dishes). On the Vietnamese side, Pauline and Luke Nguyen's Secrets of the Red Lantern is similarly awesome.

But if you wanted to get to the pure essence of either cuisine, you'd need to be learning the languages involved so as to avoid the westernization that inevitably comes with writing/reading cookbooks and commentary in English (mistranslations, ingredient substitution, techniques modified for western kitchens, etc)

But once you're getting that keen about it, you probably also want to make sure that you're only reading historical cookbooks, because anything written in the past 100 odd years is likely to have been substantially influenced by colonialism and the globalization of everyday culture.

Of course, one can take things too far... ;)
posted by Ahab at 1:31 AM on September 9, 2010

You have Pacific Northwest as a cuisine but not Soul Food? Heck, the Midwest has more culinary identity than the Pacific NW.
posted by mhum at 3:00 AM on September 9, 2010

Middle eastern cuisine is also pretty reductive- Turkish? Lebanese? Syrian?
posted by jojobobo at 4:38 AM on September 9, 2010

Check out Kitchens of the World charitable cookbook created by the Canadian Council of the Blind.
posted by KathyK at 6:14 AM on September 9, 2010

As others have pointed out, your categories are already too broad.

French? Italian? These only seem like one cohesive cuisine to outsiders but they vary regionally, just like Mexican and Indian and well any region of sufficient size.

In Italy, for example, take a look at this map and you'll see what I mean. I'm not a fan of Tuscan cuisine, for example, but I love the Piemontese agnolottis or the Ligurian focaccia and pesto dishes. In France, you'll be hard-pressed to get someone from Bretagne that they have anything in common with someone from Provence.

It is easy to be deceived into thinking that cuisines are more unified than they are because if you go to big cities like Paris or Rome you can find pretty much anything. But, just because you can find BBQ and Tex-Mex in NYC, doesn't mean that the cuisine is unified in any way.

In Mexico, every state pretty much has its own style of cooking. And, in big states such as Michoacan, the styles of cooking and ingredients will vary from town to town. The people in southern Michoacan (and not the North), for example, use white rice in all their dishes and are famous for a white rice dish called Morisqueta. Knowing this, a comment from the guy who runs burritoeater, for example, that he never has white rice in his burritos because white rice is not traditionally Mexican, is laughably misguided in both its simplicity (that there is one Mexican cuisine) and its ignorance.

Digging into cuisines, digging deep as gompa says, is a great adventure but you have to start that food, cuisine is more often tied to the land, the natural crops, the people and the geography more than to the national borders.
posted by vacapinta at 6:16 AM on September 9, 2010

I think one of the only ways to really develop a sense of what makes different cooking styles is to travel to those regions / countries and actualyl eat the local food.

Anywhere else you never quite get the 'real' thing.

Also i'd want to point out that there is often a lot more to it than just the food itself. but the way in which different people eat varies so very very much from region to region.

the seemingly simple question of "What time is dinner / lunch" is amazingly variable just across Europe.
posted by mary8nne at 9:12 AM on September 9, 2010

burritos because white rice is not traditionally Mexican

How about that burritos are (probably) not traditionally Mexican.

Speaking of Michoacan cuisine, I could go for some Birria.
posted by wcfields at 4:29 PM on September 9, 2010

If you look in Mollie Katzen's Enchanted Broccoli Forest cookbook, near the back, she has a couple of pages titled Improvisational Notes. She lists seasonings, marinade ingredients, fats and dairy products that are used in different cuisines. It's too long to type in here, but you can find EBF at any library or bookstore. I don't think it's ever gone out of print.

Note: I'm looking at my copy from the early 1980's. I know it's now called The New Enchanted Broccoli Forest, but I'm assuming that this section is still in there. Hope I'm not leading you astray.
posted by marsha56 at 9:14 PM on September 9, 2010

« Older Why is it all so hard?   |   Skype + Router? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.