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In Other Words
The Cookbook Theory of Economics
Why Chinese and Mexican dominate the market.
When was the last time you came home hungry after a long day of work and reached for that Chadian cookbook? Could you even name a dish from Chad? It’s not that Chadian food is lousy. Anyone who has had its dish of gently stewed beef with ground peanuts atop rice would agree it’s delicious. So why is it that some countries’ cuisines are world famous and others are largely unknown? I’ve eaten splendid food from Honduras to Yemen and many countries in between, though you’d be hard-pressed to find a good Yemeni restaurant in most Western cities, much less a decent cookbook telling you how to prepare mutafayyah — fish braised in a spicy tomato paste — or how to master the finer points of making the layered, eggy Yemeni bread mutabaqiah.
Just try looking for foreign cookbooks in any American bookstore: The shelves will be littered with French and Italian fare, East Asian and Indian selections, and a smattering from places south of the equator. The very geography tells a story: Call it the cookbook indicator of economic development.
First consider global cuisines like Mexican or Chinese. You can find a handful of good cookbooks pretty much anywhere these days. It’s not just that we’re all suckers for guacamole or stir-fry. It’s development economics in practice — a foodie measure of how much these societies have moved toward greater commercialization, large-scale production, and standardization of production processes. Quite simply, it’s the recipe for economic progress.
I recall a trip a few years ago to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where I was surprised to find that virtually all restaurants were Chinese or Indian. They were excellent, but still I wanted some local food. In a fit of desperation, I paid the maid to make me a Tanzanian dish in the hotel kitchen, a kind of improvised room service, with a large tip attached. I ended up with a sort of porridge that looked quite simple but tasted delicious. As I was enjoying the meal, it occurred to me that writing down the recipe wouldn’t do much good, as I wouldn’t be able to reproduce it at home. The grain — perhaps a maize flour or millet — was unfamiliar, and the rest of the local ingredients were fresher and more delicious than anything I could easily get my hands on at home in Fairfax, Virginia. A recipe like "cook grain; add water and salt" wouldn’t get me far, not even with Whole Foods at my disposal. I’m a fan of East African food, but I haven’t seen this dish since. Even Google does not yield many useful leads for Tanzanian restaurants in the United States, and Amazon lists just three Tanzanian cookbooks, availability limited. Clearly, Tanzanian cuisine doesn’t extend far beyond the country’s borders.
Geography and circumstance play a role in this: Countries blessed with good soil and home to stable agrarian societies tend to develop richer and more interesting food culture than nomadic societies from hardscrabble lands. Take China and Turkmenistan, which are roughly similar in GDP per capita but on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to contributions to the world’s culinary tradition. We owe kung pao chicken and mapo tofu — not to mention thousands of other dishes perfected over thousands of years — to China’s natural bounty, culture of trading, and historically prosperous, literate, and farming society. Not being landlocked helps too.
So does textbook development economics. Consider how cooking evolves: It starts in the home and then eventually spreads to restaurants and on to cookbooks, along the way transforming a recipe from oral tradition to commercialized product. In the home, recipes are often transmitted from grandmother to mother, or from father to son, or simply by watching and participating. I’ve seen this in rural Mexico, for instance, when an older daughter teaches her younger sister how to pat tortillas the right way. When societies get richer, you start to see restaurants, a form of specialization like auto mechanics or tailors (see: Adam Smith on the division of labor). Restaurants require that strangers — other cooks — be taught the process. That means simplifying or standardizing ingredients so they’re easier to work with and, in many cases, available year-round. This, of course, means writing down the recipe. Once a dish reaches these commercial milestones, cookbooks will follow.
Thai cuisine hit U.S. shores in the late 1960s, thanks to American troops on R&R in Bangkok during the Vietnam War who brought the taste home, and it wasn’t long before restaurants followed. Soon, a booming economy and international trade made it a whole lot easier to find galangal and lemongrass, which allowed Thai restaurants to thrive. Today, any major U.S. city has at least a half-dozen places where you can find a decent green chicken curry. And once a cuisine proliferates, people want to be able to cook it at home.
But that doesn’t mean the Mexican mole you’re preparing in your kitchen, for instance, is necessarily like what you’d get in Oaxaca. Mexican food, as it is cooked in Mexico, still straddles being perfect for cookbooks and not being ready for cookbooks at all, depending on where you are. This reflects a deeper inequality and imbalance in the Mexican economy: In the United States, Americans tend to get a lot more northern Mexican food than southern (blame proximity), as well as food that would be more often found on tables of the wealthy or middle class in, say, Mexico City than in a rural village in Chiapas.
There is a series of 50-plus Spanish-language volumes (with likely more to come) titled Cocina Indígena y Popular (loosely, Common Local Cuisine). These books capture the eclectic and ancient world of Mexican cooking; they attempt to write up the indescribable. One recipe, palo amarillo ("yellow stick"), from the volume on the foods of the Tarahumara people, requires the fruit of a rubber tree and notes that the tree should be an old one and also that its brush can be combined with wool for sewing and knitting. Then we are told that the fruit comes in black and white, that the tree no longer grows in "the canyon" (which canyon is not identified), that the fruit ripens in May, and that the tree’s flower has an attractive yellow color. The rest is up to the chef. The takeaway of course is that most actual recipes, at least in their original pre-capitalist forms, aren’t very useful.
For a contrasting take on modern, globalized Mexican cuisine, see the excellent books by Rick Bayless, Diana Kennedy, and Marge Poore, among others. If you do exactly what these books tell you, the dishes will be very tasty, even if you still won’t be experiencing how most people eat in rural Mexican villages. Virtually all ingredients in these books can be found in a decent Latino grocery store in the United States. But that store won’t have half the variety or freshness of what you’d find in a local Mexican market, so these recipes tend to de-emphasize the role of fresh herbs — or substitute others — in soups, sauces, and other dishes. And forget finding the fruit of that rubber tree. That’s the price of progress, in Mexico and in our cookbooks.
It’s true for other cuisines too. In most made-for-Westerners cookbooks, ingredients are transformed by the needs of the new global consumer who is going to make the food. Consider any of Madhur Jaffrey’s seminal Indian cookbooks: You’ll need to pick up some turmeric, garam masala, and ghee, but she won’t ask you to consider which specific kind of cream or milk you’re using, even though she would need to do so to make the recipe really accurate in India, where much of the country has not yet entered the age of fully standardized, nationally marketed dairy products and there’s a bewildering array of them to choose from, not the globalized few to which a U.S. consumer is accustomed.
Julie Sahni’s monumental book, Classic Indian Cooking, clocks in at close to 600 pages, 95 of which are preliminary materials, covering what white poppy seeds are, what "curry" means, and how to squeeze water from Indian cheese. But Indian cookbooks for Indians, the kind I’ve picked up for $2 apiece on my wanderings through bookshops in Mumbai and Kerala, are intended mostly for Indian women, so the books take this kind of knowledge for granted. Once they stop doing so, we’ll know something else about India’s economic development — the point at which young working women no longer have time to learn from grandma the intricacies of making vindaloo or chana. It’s the cookbook authors who rescue the recipes that would otherwise be lost or homogenized in the frantic race to modernity.
Cookbooks can also tell us when we’ve reached some post-modern stage of economic development: It’s when cookbooks cease to be useful at all. Consider Susur: A Culinary Life by the brilliant Susur Lee, of Toronto and Singapore fame. His recipe for "Roast Duck Breast and Burdock Root and Duck Leg Confit Crepe with Spiced Caramelized Chestnuts and Goat Cheese" requires 51 ingredients and necessitates referring to six other pages of the cookbook, each of which stipulates still more ingredients. It works best for a coffee table, or as a memento of a restaurant visit — not for actual cooking. Or look to any of acclaimed Spanish restaurateur Ferran Adrià’s books — the doorstop-sized musings of a chef so brilliant and famous that he actually closed his only restaurant in 2011, like an artist going voluntarily into seclusion until inspiration takes him again. The worst offender, though, may be Nathan Myhrvold, the Microsoft multi-millionaire and patent troll. His latest whimsy is fine dining, and his six-volume cookbook, Modernist Cuisine, which came out in 2011 and lists for $625, is about as useful as having the instructions to make a superconductor in your home kitchen. It is pretty, though. Indeed, the ultimate luxury is when cookbooks aren’t about food production at all.
Cookbooks — the more practical kind — also turn out to be good guides to which countries and regions are on the cusp of economic progress. Look at chef Marcus Samuelsson’s African cookbook, The Soul of a New Cuisine, or Naomi Duguid’s Burma: Rivers of Flavor, both of which are vast improvements on earlier offerings in their respective regions. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that Africa’s economies are booming at near double-digit growth rates or that Myanmar is going through a fundamental economic and political revolution, moving from a closed society to a globalizing developing country.
Soon it will be possible to cook the dishes of the entire world, but only those, alas, that survive the process of commercialization and standardization. I’ve more or less given up hope of ever finding that unctuous Tanzanian porridge. Meanwhile, if you’re looking to see Adam Smith in action, go out and get yourself some Sichuanese peppercorns and some fresh Thai basil — that’s the true wealth of nations.