If it isn’t broken, should we fix it? The debate around adapting traditional cuisine

By Emma Walker

Jamie Oliver: some love him for his accessible ‘15 Minute Meals’ series, Jamie’s Italian restaurants, and the frankly iconic names of his five children (definitely something worth looking up if you’re not familiar with them).  Others may dislike him for his seemingly incessant desire to rid school dinner menus of their only enjoyable items, and to ban 2-for-1 food deals. Regardless of your opinion, it is fair to say that his career is certainly not immune to controversy.  One such example of this came in 2016 when he took to Twitter to share his reimagination of the traditional Valencian dish, paella.  He may have been anticipating praise in the form of likes and retweets for his pared back version of the classic, which used only chicken and chorizo, sparing the reader the expense and hassle of sourcing some of the rarer paella ingredients such as rabbit or snails.  The response was much to the contrary, however, as he received ridicule and even death threats from angry Spaniards for his inclusion of chorizo, which is not typically used in paella.  It goes without saying that the death threats were indefensible, but the criticism he faced poses an interesting question: is food an unalterable part of our culture?  We wouldn’t interfere with other cultural traditions, for fear of being disrespectful and culturally appropriating, what – if anything – makes food different? 

In a time where, thanks to Instagram, we eat with our eyes more than ever before, food has become a vastly different experience.  In order to achieve success within the fine-dining industry, chefs and restaurateurs must be truly innovative.  Therefore, it is intelligible that fusion cooking (the combination of ingredients and culinary techniques from a range of global cultures) has rapidly grown in popularity.  So much so, it would seem, that out of the four establishments in London that received their first Michelin-star in 2020, three were food fusion eateries.  Another food trend on the rise is the plant-based diet.  Vegan Society statistics for the UK indicate that the number of vegans has quadrupled between 2014 and 2019, and that the plant-based market was worth £443 million in 2018, making veganism a highly lucrative market.  Vegans have long been able to enjoy global cuisine in the form of Indian and Middle Eastern cooking, which typically use few meat and dairy products.  However, the presence of meat in many tapas and other traditional Spanish dishes means that they’re not easily accessible to vegans, or to the growing number of the UK population trying to cut down their meat consumption.  In this case, an element of creativity in substituting and adapting cultural dishes to suit the population’s taste and dietary requirements is essential not only to businesses and consumers but also to the cultures themselves.  By gatekeeping cultural food, countries risk limiting the appreciation of it to those who have the means, in terms of both budget and diet, of enjoying the food in its original form. 

That said, it would be quite easy to conclude that Jamie Oliver was perfectly entitled to put whatever he wanted into that infamous paella.  However, whilst writing this, a vague memory resurfaced about someone who saw a café abroad selling ‘British fish and chips’.  Clearly it was a case of mistranslation, as served alongside the crispy, battered cod were not the classic chip-shop chips they were expecting, but instead, a handful of crisps.  Despite never having been a huge admirer of fish and chips myself, I could instantly see why Jamie’s paella angered many Spaniards.  Whilst fish and crisps may not be inedible per se, it certainly is not British- just as Jamie’s chicken and chorizo rice is not paella.

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