a map of italy with bowls of pasta placed over different regions

A Case for a More Regional Understanding of Food

American food media's focus on national cuisines turns cultures into monoliths as it ignores regional differences in cooking and eating.
Bettina Makalintal
Brooklyn, United States
November 20, 2020, 12:00pm

In the culinary establishment of the United States, French food is no longer just one nation united under baguettes and Brie; it's the varied culinary traditions of Alsace, Bordeaux, Brittany, and Provence. In the cookbook aisle, you'll find volumes inspired by the foods of a countryside France farmhouse alongside many versions of Parisian cuisine, from bistros to home kitchens; another title that's Monét-inspired proffers the foods of the village Giverny alone. "French" food is not a monolith, but a grouping of far more specific types of cookery.

Italy has cookbooks devoted to the dishes of Calabria, Rome, Sardinia, and Tuscany; the sweets of Basilicata, Campania, and Puglia; and the pizzas of Naples, which are a religion in their own right. Cookbooks about Mexico are beginning to diversify into deeper explorations of the foods of Mexico City, Oaxaca, and Yucatán; so are those focused on China, as they explore the distinct traditions of Hakka, Jiangnan, and Sichuan cuisines. A scope that examines regions, instead of just nations, broadens the understanding of global foodways, revealing how geographical and cultural differences in a single country give rise to different practices of eating. 

This complexity in understanding, however, isn't one evenly afforded to international food cultures. The American food landscape distills many global cuisines into singularly national identities, and food media tends to frame cuisines from countries it deems "less familiar" to most Americans through generalizations. In doing so, it shuffles the localized foodways—and the diversity of the people that create them—into an amalgamation of national culture, and that's if it recognizes those nations at all. While Italy gets treatment that sees the cream sauces of the North as a tradition distinct from the tomato-based sauces of the South, the complex and varied cuisine of a nation like Argentina may be vastly oversimplified into a short, easily navigable menu that favors asado and chimichurri.   

"It was amazing that such an important gastronomic area—a region the size of a European country—was being seen as not worthy of separate attention."

The evidence suggests that inroads into regional nuance correlate with countries that are considered more familiar to more Americans. According to a 2019 AAA report, France, Italy, and Mexico were among the top five international travel destinations for people from the U.S., and outside major food hubs in the U.S., restaurant options are limited to a handful cuisines. The American perspective tends to simplify countries outside this short list, and cookbooks provide an easy way to see how Americans understand global food. "Books really reflect the general Western culture of what outside cultures are okay and accepted," said Ken Concepcion, co-owner of the Los Angeles culinary bookstore Now Serving.

For outsiders, national cuisine provides a starting point through dishes that can be found all over a country, despite clear distinctions in regional techniques, ingredients, and histories. "The world is infinitely complex and we have to, to a certain extent, generalize to be able to cope with it and to be able to talk about anything at all," said Fuchsia Dunlop, a London-based food writer who's regarded as one of the leading English-speaking experts on Sichuan food. "In some contexts, it's useful to make generalizations, but at the same time, you have to be aware that they are generalizations and that they have their limitations."

Among authors in Western food media, Dunlop has been particularly successful in highlighting regional food around the world. Her work—the point of which she describes as "to try and argue for the merits of the region and for its richness as a culinary culture"—has homed in on Sichuan, Hunan, and the lower Yangtze region, and although her book Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking draws from different parts of China, she has no intention of collapsing "Chinese food" into a single work—at least, not until she's allotted an enormous tome. "I don't think it's really possible to sum up Chinese cuisine in a [single] cookbook. It's like doing a book about 'European cuisine,' in a sense." Still, singularly "Chinese" cookbooks are common in the American market.

Inspired by the food she ate while living in Sichuan for a year as a student, Dunlop published her first book in 2001, and it was picked up in the U.S. two years later as Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking. But when she first sent the proposal to publishers, all six rejected it. "All of them said in different words: This is too niche for British readers; no one is going to be interested in a regional Chinese cookbook," she said. Britain didn't have a noticeable presence of Sichuan restaurants at the time, and though Chinese food was popular, people didn't understand it very well. "It was amazing that such an important gastronomic area—a region the size of a European country—was being seen as not worthy of separate attention." 

Despite publishers' initial misgivings, the success of Dunlop's specialized books showed consumer interest in a more specific approach to food. Over the past 20 years, regional Chinese cuisine has picked up in Western countries, with Sichuan food especially gaining prominence in the past decade. Immigrants from different parts of China have diversified restaurant options in places where "Chinese food" previously meant Cantonese food, like London, New York, and California's San Gabriel Valley, and the internet has made information about lesser-known branches of Chinese cuisine easier to find.

Authors who want to explore global food outside the broad strokes of national cuisine still face big barriers, though. First, there are public preconceptions, Dunlop said: "You're fighting against the stereotyping of cultures and cuisines, like the old stereotype of Chinese cuisine as being monolithic." Add in the white, European sensibilities that dominate publishing; the food world's framing of French and Italian cuisines as its pinnacle; and the potential challenge of finding specialized ingredients in the U.S., and regional cuisine can be a tough sell. 

Thinking about food through regions assumes a baseline understanding of food in terms of nations—but for many countries, even that understanding is lacking in the States. When customers at Now Serving look for books on Cambodian or Colombian cuisines, for example, Concepcion has to tell them there's not much available. "You have to think, well, what parts of the country, how many Colombian and how many Cambodian restaurants are there?" he said. 

"With all the different regions that can be represented, it's impossible for one person to bear the burden."

After Virginia-based food writer Patricia Tanumihardja published The Asian Grandmother's Cookbook in 2009, she shopped around a proposal for an Indonesian cookbook, to no success. "[Publishers] said either that I don't have a big enough platform to promote a cuisine that was relatively unknown in the U.S., or that in general, people in the U.S. are not familiar with Indonesian cuisine," Tanumihardja said. Though she's published three more cookbooks since then, this project has eluded her. 

In the U.S., the understanding of Indonesian culture is limited. "I remember always thinking people talk about Bali as being all of Indonesia," Tanumihardja said. If people know the food, they tend to think of a handful of dishes that have familiar parallels: grilled, skewered satay; rendang, which she compared to Thai red curry; and nasi goreng, fried rice. She wants to expand the idea of Indonesian food, but she understands that even her perspective on it is a specific one, having been born in Jakarta and raised in Singapore to parents from the island of Java.

The American cookbook market has seen inroads into Indonesian cuisine in the past two years with Eleanor Ford's Fire Islands last November and Lara Lee's recently released Coconut & Sambal, and Tanumihardja plans to try again with her proposal. She sees presenting Indonesian food as a responsibility for a community of Indonesian chefs and writers. "As with any cuisine, it's so subjective, and with all the different regions that can be represented, it's impossible for one person to bear the burden," Tanumihardja said. Generalizing global cuisines limits not just our understanding of them, but also who's telling the stories. 

Amid this summer's conversations about racial inequity in food media, cookbook author Tara O'Brady explored the effects of the industry's tokenization for Epicurious, after receiving an assignment to create a dosa recipe. "I decided not to tell stories of childhood dosas, lest the particulars of my family suggest a homogeneity of Indians or the diaspora," she wrote. "It is irresponsible to generalize the subcontinent’s staggering breadth in reductive terms. There is no single Indian language, there is no single Indian cuisine, there is no single food writer who can represent the entirety of the Indian experience."

Preconceived notions of global cuisine affect the types of stories Buenos Aires-based food writer Kevin Vaughn is able to tell about Argentine food. The dominant narrative is "always beef and Malbec, and that's it," Vaughn said. Having spent 10 years in the city, where he runs a pop-up and a food tourism business, he's seen the many facets of Argentine food: The country's sheer size—its southern tip basically touches Antarctica, while its northern edge borders multiple countries—means its diversity of people, altitudes, soil types, localized produce, and foodways is huge. It's more common, however, to hear the story of Buenos Aires as the "Paris of South America."

From his experience, the American perspective on Argentina often confuses Buenos Aires and its European influences as representative of the whole country. Though popular media frames Buenos Aires as a city of immigrants due to European migration at the turn of the 20th century, it downplays the influence of recent influxes of migration from Latin America, Vaughn said. "What's projected both in local media and international media is this very European thing. Anything that runs counter to that—that is considered Indigenous, native, or from other Latin American countries that don't have that Eurocentric leaning—is completely discounted from the narrative."

An increased understanding of regions can be a way to acknowledge how national identity comes at the expense of cultures outside the dominant one. Who fits into that image is always contested, as all over the world, groups in power have challenged the claims of Indigenous, enslaved, and immigrant people. Anise to Za'atar blogger Eric Ritskes pointed to the problems in this premise this summer in a review of Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation. "Why is the nation a given?" he wrote. "Why must food be bound by the nation at all? What does the project of a 'national food' culture accomplish?" 

The nation itself is divisive, and the people who have written the popular histories of various nations have historically taken an ethnocentric approach, to the disregard and marginalization of minority groups. "There's nothing wrong with the idea of national cuisine, but it just makes life more interesting to see that a nation is a kind of construct based on a more complicated reality of different regions and traditions," Dunlop said.

Manila-based food writer and cook Angelo Comsti understood Filipino foods through what he ate at home: his dad's adobo; his mom's leche flan; his Lola Nene's caldereta, a meat stew. As Comsti began to travel and eat at restaurants, he realized that the Filipino food he knew was limited. After visiting 22 of the Philippines' 81 provinces, Comsti wrote the cookbook Also Filipino: 75 Regional Dishes I Never Had Growing Up, which was published in the Philippines last year, to introduce people, both locally and abroad, to the diversity of Filipino cuisine. 

"I believe that every cuisine will have its rightful time in the spotlight, and I think for regional food, it is now."

Comsti learned something new in every province: how to to cook the chicken piaparan of the Maranaw, the Indigenous people of the Southern Philippines; how to use burnt coconut in dishes of Malay influence; how people in mountain regions made kinilaw, like ceviche, with jackfruit instead of seafood. He hopes his recipes can immortalize regional food through younger generations. "I decided on the title Also Filipino to suggest that the cuisine goes beyond the usuals like adobo and sinigang, and that regional dishes are as much Filipino as them," Comsti said.

Even if people like Comsti create works that deepen their understanding of their country's cuisines, that broader knowledge doesn't necessarily make its way into the international market. For American publishers, for example, it boils down again to the value proposition, especially for books written in other languages. "I'm sure there are amazing regional books about Chinese food, about China, or regional Pakistani books, but they're not written in English," said Concepcion. "I think it takes a lot of muscle for a publisher to be like, well, why should we translate this? Is it gonna sell, basically?"

As Dunlop's success in the regional niche has shown, initial expectations about what the market wants can be wrong. To assume consumers only want the most generalized narrative about global gastronomy can be to underestimate the power of specific knowledge and lesser-told histories. "It has got to do with people wanting more of what is out there," Comsti said. "I believe that every cuisine will have its rightful time in the spotlight, and I think for regional food, it is now."

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