It is hard to imagine the food scene as it exists today without the benefits of immigration. Not just the usual nod to the legions of dishwashers, line cooks, farm workers and others that make up an integral part of our food system. Nearly every dish on every menu, no matter location or national origin has been touched by immigration. In terms of the American experience, if not for the culinary influence of immigrants, we’d all be eating salted smoked venison, salted dried fish, pemmican and perhaps some dried corn mush augmented with beans. Food drives cultural experience, and to understand a culture, you must understand their food ways, and ultimately, the influence of immigrants and emigration.
Author Clifford Wright wrote “The Mediterranean Feast” which was published in 1999, and garnered a James Beard Award for Cookbook of the Year. This beautiful text is a compilation of recipes and stories of the development of what we call Mediterranean food in the modern world. In reading this book, I was somewhat surprised to learn that other than in the fertile crescent (also known as the cradle of civilization) between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, most cultures around the Mediterranean had quite limited and often less than desirable food supplies. This region (modern day Iraq and Syria) brought us many of the dishes we associate with the Mediterranean, not to mention such contributions as irrigation, gardening/farming, cultured dairy products (cheese), wine and grains. Imagine if early governments had decided to bar entry to citizens of these nations, as is being suggested today? According to the author, citizens of what is now southern Europe subsisted largely on fermented and moldy breads and porridge (thought to be the origins of beer, on another note), spoiled meats and fish (due to the warm climate and no processes for preservation) and foraged green vegetables. Not exactly the Provencal, Spanish or Italian food we enjoy today. All the things we take for granted in the Mediterranean market basket have their origins in the sailors and traders of the near east, who traveled the perimeter of the sea bringing their foods, their tradespeople and their ideas to the largely underpopulated areas along the northern shores of the sea. It is difficult to imagine our culinary scene today without the contributions of these early travelers and immigrants.
Consider the term “horticulture”, whose base “horta” also means garden or farm. In Greek, it is the word for salad. Translated to Spanish, it is “huerta” or orchard. The origins of the word hail from the eastern Mediterranean, when the concepts of gardening were brought to the Greek islands and Sicily by middle eastern traders.
Almost everyone has heard the story of how Catarina de Medici brought the use of the fork as well as classic cuisine with her to France upon her betrothal to the French king. What many do not know is how such modern innovations came to Italy. You guessed it, immigrants. The Renaissance did not just spontaneously emerge, it grew slowly and surely as the gardens of the immigrant traders moved up the spine of Italy’s boot to the northern plains. With an abundance of food and wine, there was time for the pleasures of the arts and sciences, and civilization flourished.
Another example of the reach of the diaspora was discovered when I was researching an authentic recipe for tacos al pastor for a private client. A “traditional” street food from the Mexican province of Michoacan, this flavorful pork shoulder is sliced very thin, marinated in a sweet and spicy paste of chilis and annatto, then formed into a log around a spit and roasted in a vertical roaster before being sliced off and served as a taco. This process very closely resembles shawarma, a middle-eastern preparation, usually goat or lamb, also known in Greece as gyros, and in Turkey as doner kebab. In reading up on the origins of the recipe, I discovered that the original “pastor” or shepherds were actually immigrants from Lebanon. Of course, the original was most likely not pork (a meat considered unclean in many middle-eastern cultures), but Mexican cooks adapted the method to the omnivorous and wide-ranging pig. Who knew? As a native Californian, I have prided myself on my somewhat indigenous palate for the recipes of the Mexican mothers of my numerous school friends growing up in the Central valley. I had no idea that one of my favorite dishes had its origins in the same part of the world as my immigrant Greek islander grandfather!
How ironic is it that recipes and traditions have spanned the world, impacted and influenced numerous cultures and delighted innumerable diners as a result of the movement of immigrants? Japanese tempura has its origins in the Portuguese and Spanish sailors who enjoyed batter fried local fish during the Lenten season, known as the Quatra Tempora (40 days). Chinese lop cheong sausage has origins in luganica or as some know it, linguica. The spicing in all these sausages reminiscent of the spice roads of the near east; turmeric, saffron and fennel seed. The signature chili peppers came via its journey through the New World. Marco Polo is reputed to have brought pasta to Italy via the noodles of northern China. How many cultures can you think of that have a tradition of dumplings, meats or vegetable fillings wrapped in a simple grain dough and either fried, baked, or steamed? From English pasties and Scottish hand pies to empanadas of Spain and Latin America to the ravioli of Bologna, the brik of Tunisia, spanakopita of Greece, the beirok of eastern Europe and the momos of Tibet, the gyoza of Japan to the myriad of dim sum delights from China. It is difficult to say where it starts and where it ends.
Rather than being threatened by immigrants, our food ways and our cultures are enriched by them. It is too easy to forget or even ignore the immeasurable impact on our way of life that has been borne by the waves of immigration over centuries. In some ways, though it sounds trite, we are all immigrants of a sort. So, the next time you open your mouth to enjoy your favorite dish, open your mind to the contributions of the generations of immigrants that have brought this to your table, and take the time to pass it on to another generation of food lovers to come.
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