Secondary Cuisines

Traveling through the world, one gets to taste some terrific (and some not-so-terrific) food. Considering the wide availability of many of the same ingredients all over the world, it’s astonishing how much cuisines vary, from East to Southeast Asia, Southeast Asia to India, India to Iran, Iran to the Levant to Turkey, Turkey to Europe. The food, and the types and availability of restaurants, tell you a great deal about a place–the level of economic development, historical trading patterns and contacts, maybe even the character of a people. This post is, however, limited to one small category of food, which I call “secondary cuisines.”

A secondary cuisine is a cuisine once removed. Not Italian food as served in Italy, for example, but American Italian food. Not Chinese food as served in China, but Korean Chinese food. Not Indian food as served in India, but British Indian food. Secondary cuisines have interesting histories. Sometimes, they are just adaptations of an immigrant class, perhaps modified for broader consumption in the country of immigration. Other times, they are local visions of what a foreign cuisine is, or attempts to create such cuisines without proper training or ingredients. However they originate, some secondary cuisines develop lives of their own, perhaps not exceeding in quality and variety the primary cuisine, but differentiating itself sufficiently that even the primary cuisine would not serve as a substitute for someone looking for that particular secondary cuisine dish. An American tourist could easily be disappointed by pizza the way it is served in Italy, and I have heard from many who prefer American Chinese food over food in China. There have even been cases of transplantation of secondary cuisine dishes into the country of the primary cuisine, whether for consumption by locals or foreigners. Lest this sound rather abstract, let us move on to concrete examples.

The country in which the widest range of secondary cuisines exists is probably the United States, a country of immigrants. Chief among these is probably American Chinese food. Ever since Chinese workers first arrived in the United States in the 19th century, they have been cooking food (as Chinese emigrants do all over the world–see below), and a unique cuisine developed. The greatest concentration of American Chinese food restaurants is probably in San Francisco, the oldest Chinese community in the United States, where restaurants have big signs advertising that most American Chinese dish, Chop Suey. But not far behind are restaurants in big cities all over the U.S., and even in rural areas–Chinese food is omnipresent. Other dishes of American Chinese cuisine include such classics as General Tso’s and Sesame Chicken, and an entire range of American Chinese food is often available in cheap buffet or fast food restaurants in strip malls across America. I read that General Tso’s Chicken, originally a Taiwanese-American invention, has made it back to Taiwan–but I have not seen it on a menu in the Mainland… yet.

There are numerous other American-XXX cuisines. After American Chinese food, American Italian probably comes a close second. Indeed, Italian food served outside of Italy is often not an adaptation of Italian food from Italy, but of American Italian food. Whether served at Pizza Hut or numerous smaller local restaurants, American-style pizza is perhaps the single most popular food in the world. Pizza by the slice being sold in Venice looked and tasted suspiciously like New York pizza, leaving me to wonder whether pizza-by-the-slice is an American invention that has traveled back to Italy, together with the recipe for American pizza. American Japanese food also exists, to a small extent, in the form of newly invented sushi. I’ve read that the California, Philadelphia and Alaska rolls have all, to some extent, traveled across the Pacific to be served in sushi restaurants in Japan. Similarly, a cut of rib grilled for Korean barbeque is known even in Korea as “L.A. Galbi,” after its place of innovation, and I know of a pho restaurant in Saigon that imports “rooster sauce” (Sriracha Sauce), a tomato and chili condiment made by Vietnamese Americans and ubiquitous in Vietnamese restaurants in the United States.

America may be home to the the largest number of secondary cuisines, but the country responsible for seeding the largest number of secondary cuisines is, no doubt, China. “Chinese” food is among the most varied in the world (it is probably silly to call it a single cuisine, although of course regional differences are largely lost when exported to other countries), and among the most adopted in the world, not only by Chinese emigrant communities but by non-Chinese locals. We have eaten (some sort of) Chinese food in the U.S. (of course), Europe, Korea, Southeast Asia, India, the Levant, Mali and Madagascar.

Of secondary Chinese cuisines, the two most distinctive, from my perspective, are Korean Chinese food and Indian Chinese food. I am not sure how Korean Chinese food originated, but I believe it was created by Chinese immigrants to Korea (from Shandong Province?) who opened restaurants and modified existing Chinese dishes to suit local palates. Now, it forms a cuisine on its own, its dishes recognizably Chinese but prepared in a distinct style. Every Korean child’s favorite food is Jiajiangmyeon, similar to but different from the Beijing-style noodles, and anybody could tell Korean-style Sweet and Sour apart from its Chinese original. Given the lack of a significant Chinese population in India or Sri Lanka, I am inclined to think that Indian Chinese food is a local creation, a vision of Chinese food by (evidently skilled) South Asian cooks. I am told that some of the dishes, such as Chili Chicken, Chicken Manchurian, etc., are available in Indian restaurants in New York. In Madras we went to the restaurant that supposedly invented Chicken 55, another popular (and delicious) Indian Chinese dish. There are numerous other secondary Chinese cuisines–we were unsurprised to find at a restaurant in Sofia Bulgaria an entire page of Chinese dishes, some more recognizably Chinese in inspiration than others. I should also note that Chinese is often a premium cuisine in many parts of the world, surprising to big city Americans to whom some kind of Chinese food is available at highly competitive prices.

Western food has also been adapted. All over Asia there is some variant of adapted western food, such as pizza with corn as a topping (or thousand island dressing in lieu of tomato sauce, as is available at Pizza Hut Hong Kong), “hamburger steak” made of ground meat and various cream soups. The most well-developed, almost sophisticated version, however, is Japanese western. The Japanese adopted certain western dishes from their interactions with the Portuguese in the 16th century and with the British in the 19th, and some of the dishes have grown quite popular, served not only in Japanese restaurants in Japan but all over the world, including especially Korea. Foremost among the dishes of this cuisine are curry and katsu, both foods I grew up with and love. It was fairly late in my life when I recognized that my love of chicken fried steak and wiener schnitzel (and other similar dishes–every country seems to have its own) came down to their resemblance to Japanese katsu.

When I was recently in Milan, I had to try the local milanesa, the namesake of the breaded meat dish in all parts of the Italian- and Spanish-speaking worlds.

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