Saturday, September 24, 2011

A national cuisine is a quilt, not a blanket

Countries don't spring up all assembled into a unified culture, and cuisines and habits vary according to ancient tribal borders. Some cuisines find their way across the nation, like hamburgers, I suppose, but others are ubiquitous in some places and endangered in others.

We found this out the hard way when we discovered the tomato-topped tostada (that I wrote about earlier) in Cartagena, Spain. We thought that our second-breakfast was set for the remainder of our visit. Soon after that, we left Cartagena and worked our way north. We should have seen it coming. First, the breakfast specials stopped including the tostada. They'd make one for us, if we asked. As we moved along the coast, the tomato puree would be wrong. Then the tostada disappeared.

But you always gain something (we've been gaining a bit too much all summer) when you leave one set of food customs in one region and find another in the next. For example, as we crept north, the montadito appeared. This appears to be the result of interbreeding between tapas and sandwiches. A bit of fish or cheese or meat is placed on a slice of baguette. You eat as many as you like. Often, they're impaled with sticks (for accounting purposes, apparently) and priced at something under two euros. You might take them to your table on your own, and the waiter simply has to count sticks and empty bottles to figure out what you owe (a bit too close to the honor system to work in the US.)

Montaditos appeared when we arrived in Alicante, but only in the form of "100 Montaditos", a restaurant chain that will be opening thousands of worldwide locations even in the US (called by Business Week "the Spanish Starbucks of Sandwiches".) By the time we were in Barcelona, montaditos were everywhere, and nary a franchise in sight. They're lovely to look at even only as a still life, and delightful to eat. Just don't expect to see them in Galicia.

The lesson we drew from this is that cuisines aren't national; they're very local. The folks on one side of a mountain range will eat very differently from the people over yonder. And if you really like to eat a certain local dish, get as much of it as you can in the place that it's on every menu. Because you never know if you'll see it again.

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