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The World on a Plate: Approaches to Localizing Global Food

(*Quotes lightly edited for clarity.)

Search for “food trends” on Google and you’ll find a dizzying number of articles opining on what’s gastronomically en vogue and what’s foodie faux pas.  Some focus on single ingredients (from Kale to Quinoa), others spotlight changes in how we partake in dining (from Food Trucks to the Fourth Meal), while many name entire cultures (from Japan to the Philippines).  It’s this last bit that I’m going to be sinking my teeth into in this post.

Food is Business and people understandably fixate on trends as they have the power to shift bank accounts.  Take as evidence attendance to the Summer Fancy Food Show.  With over 34,000 attendees, it’s one of the most well-known food conferences attuned to trends at a global level and the multi-day event can be overwhelming.

Articles were written summarizing the top trends from the Show and many contained all the requisites: Single Ingredients (Cauliflower), Categories (Carbonated Beverages), and Cultures (West Africa).  Play a game of “Which item doesn’t belong?” though and many will point out that this last one – the trendification/simplification of mistakenly monolithic cultures – doesn’t seem to sit well in the stomach.  The treatment of cuisines from faraway lands – often developing countries – as food trends to last a few seasons is as American as Pizza and for someone watching all the recent fanfare around Filipino Food, cultural trendification can fuel both pride and discomfort at the same time.  Is there a right way to “localize” global cuisine?  That’s the question I wanted to explore when I had the opportunity moderate a panel in collaboration with Advancement for Rural Kids, an organization focused on solving rural poverty in the Philippines, and Milan-based Seeds&Chips, a world-renowned Food Innovation Summit, during this year’s Show.

Featuring people I looked up to, we spoke about approaches to localizing global food in a setting that has traditionally focused on the delivery logistics, marketing, and production of global food.  Indeed our panelists came from diverse backgrounds and featured a microbiologist turned Natto (Japanese fermented soybeans) dealer, a traveling pop-up chef, a food historian-chef-writer, a pasta-maker, and a video journalist.  We sought to not only get a broad range of voices on an equally broad topic, but also showcase work that often gets lost in conversations couched in massive supply chains, razor thin margins, and the latest consumer trends.

We wanted to explore ways in which global cuisines and flavors can be brought to local tables without losing the original spirit, adversely affecting other communities, and still appealing to the consumer (this is the Fancy Food Show after all!).  Here are five things I learned from the panel (full video link):

Fancy Food Show Panel

[from L to R]: Ayesha Vera-Yu (ARK), Paolo Española (Hidden Apron), Yana Gilbuena (SALO), Caroline Shin (Cooking with Granny), Ann Yonetani (NYrture), Therese Nelson (Black Culinary History), Scott Ketchum (Sfoglini). PC: Stephanie Sampang.

1. Local Ingredients carry Global Flavors
Yana Gilbuena travelled all 50 American states in 50 weeks, cooking a Filipino kamayan-style (eating with hands, sans cutlery) dinner in each of them as part of her SALO Series.  Notwithstanding the sheer logistical nightmare of it all, introducing Filipino cuisine to a diner from the cornfields of the American Heartland is almost asking for trouble.  Where does one find the calamansi (Filipino lime), so prevalent in our cuisine, with no Fil-Oriental store for miles around?

“Filipino food has always been farm-to-table in essence and you would use what grew in your backyard.  I wanted to show people that by using what’s grown on local land, you can have Filipino food without overextending yourself to find some exotic ingredient”, Yana counters. Scott Ketchum of Sfoglini Pasta, a purveyor of pastas made with organic, American grains, adds “with our focus on supporting American farmers and experimenting with ingredients that are local and seasonal, we’re still keeping in-line with the Italian spirit of cooking what’s nearby even if neither my partner nor I are Italian.”

Yana Gilbuena

Yana Gilbuena, SALO Series

2. Trends Exclude, Stories Include
Trends are inherently exclusionary.  A trend adopted by everyone, after all, is no longer a trend.  In a time when food preferences have the power to be divisive – whether you’re cool enough to join the Tribe of Paleo or moral enough to subscribe to the Vegan Way – Caroline Shin highlights that focusing on food’s underlying stories brings people together.

Through her web series “Cooking with Granny” (CWG), Caroline highlights the stories of the unsung immigrant women who uphold our culinary traditions.  It struck such a chord with viewers that Caroline now hosts live events after they clamored to meet the grandmothers: “The heart of CWG is the stories and not just how “good” a dish is or how authentic the ingredients are.  They’re stories of struggle, sacrifice, cooking for your family, and the immigrant experience; stories we can all relate to.  My own grandmother’s cooking has changed as she immigrated from North Korea to South Korea and then the US but it’s my relationship with her that people can relate to”.

Caroline Shin

Caroline Shin, Cooking with Granny

3. Charge the Right Price
Food is an act of consumption as it passes from tables to our mouths.  But as food travels to our stomachs, we inevitably consume the stories, context, and people behind it, and it doesn’t always look pretty.  It’s far too easy in today’s world of global supply chains and showy food marketing to forget that there are real people, cultures, and traditions behind the dishes you prepare or the products you find at a supermarket.  Real respect for our food system includes acknowledging this and while Food has the power to “include”, maintaining human dignity when importing global food practices means that seats at the table are conditional.

“People paid for this experience and are ready to learn and share.  I tell them that if they don’t want this experience, I’ll gladly refund their money so they don’t ruin it for everyone else.  I don’t need them,” Yana recounts of guests who demanded tableware at one of her dinners.  “As people in the industry, we have a responsibility to think about how we’re putting our Food out to Consumers as that defines how people will see and engage with our Cultures,” food historian Therese Nelson of Black Culinary History adds in agreement.  “By bringing that degree of humanity in every interaction from pop-up dinners down to buying pasta from the store, we change how people engage with cultures on a plate”.

“Knowing why you’re in the food space and connecting that with your work ensures that you stand the test of time and makes your relationship more than just transactional,” she further notes, referencing Mary Cleaver’s (who spoke on a different panel that day) lifelong advocacy of local cuisine and for who farm-to-table “was fundamental to her identity”.  This was a big reason why her recently shuttered restaurant Green Table survived for 15 years in the well-trafficked Chelsea Market even during times when cooking local was “un-trendy”.

Therese Nelson

Therese Nelson, Black Culinary

4. It’s not Just Food
“It’s just food.  Relax,” I often get told when I get into one of my rants; that there’s nothing more to see here.  But it’s not just Food.  Scott explains how, by using local grains like Einkorn and Emmer to make their pasta, they not only provide a unique, high-quality product to the market but also play a part in growing a New York industry: “There’s not a lot of incentive to grow these special grains on land that they could be using for crops that make more money.  By telling this story and introducing the consumer to new tastes through our pasta, we’ve helped add about forty to fifty thousand pounds of local grains to the economy”.

Our consumption habits affect the economics, politics, and lives of people all over the world (see: the positive effect of the Quinoa qraze on people of the Andes , how Avocado Toast led to Avocado Cartels, and how child labor helps feed our love for Chocolate) and simply picking a product for its packaging or supposed health benefits when it may adversely affect the lives of others is ignorant at best, immoral at worst.  It’s not just Food…it is all about Food.

Scott Ketchum

Scott Ketchum, Sfoglini Pasta

5. We Write the Story
Towards the end of the hour, an audience member brought up the dreaded “A-Word”: Authenticity, and this highlighted how sharing and talking about food, especially those so tied to cultural identity, can be a tightrope walk between purists who insist on eating a dish using exacting specifications and the (willfully) ignorant who’ve bastardized a dish and its spirit beyond comprehension (Columbus-ers claiming authenticity, I’m talking to you).  However, cuisines are hardly static and are constantly evolving.  What seems “traditional” today was once considered “new” and it’s an evolution rooted in respect (for people and planet), sincere experimentation, and shared experiences that’s important.

“Natto is normally eaten in Japan just with a bowl of rice, some soy sauce, and a few condiments…for breakfast,” explains Ann Yonetani, co-founder of NYrture Natto, the only Natto producer in New York.  “However, that’s just not the context here in America and so I encourage people to really think of it as any new ingredient they’d use in their cooking.  My own father, who is Japanese, actually enjoys Natto with Japanese Curry Rice, curry in turn an import from India and that inspired our Turmeric Natto.  I’ve found that people are far more open-minded to trying new things than we sometimes believe them to be.”

Ann Yonetani

Ann Yonetani, NYrture Natto

While writing this piece, I came across a video featuring Amy Besa of the Purple Yam Restaurant.  A staunch anti-trendist who made me question the debate around Authenticity and its role in Food trends in the first place, Amy explains how there are countless Adobo variations in the Philippines depending on where you came from, all equally Filipino and delicious.  Perhaps in our fixation around trends and what’s “valuable” enough to sell for a quick buck, we’ve forgotten that the true value of food and its stories, is their power to bring us together in all our fascinating differences to the same table on this one planet.

Filed under: All Posts, Break Bread, Savor

About the Author

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Paolo Española is a wandering diner in search of a good meal and an ever-elusive identity. He started this blog during a soul-crushing stint as an Accountant and later co-founded Hidden Apron, his side project that’s dabbled in everything from private catering, hosting pop-up dinners, podcasting, and everywhere in between. He is a contributing author to the best-selling cookbook, “The New Filipino Kitchen” and believes that food is a universal language that can solve the world's most challenging problems, help people believe in their own potential, create communities to shared stories, and realize that in Breaking Bread, we Break Boundaries.


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