I am what I eat

Categories: Behind the stalls

Vicky’s love of food was kindled at a young age by her father who is a chef, and the flourishing food scene in both Sydney where she grew up and London, which has been her home since 2008. In 2014, she completed a masters in the anthropology of food. Vicky writes a food blog, One Dish Closer, where she shares recipes, reviews and culinary travel experiences, as well as some musings on food anthropology—more of which will follow in this series

My name is Vicky and I am a food anthropologist. “And what on earth is that?” You might well ask. Most people do. Anthropology, very loosely, is the study of human culture and society. Food can tell us a lot about this world of ours. We all have to eat every day and so it makes sense that we attach special significance to food and the rituals around eating.

I am particularly interested in the importance that individuals and groups of people attach to the foods that they grew up with and the role this plays in defining who they are. 

Borough Market is a wonderful place to ponder all of this, since it attracts people from all over the world, traders and customers alike. If I were introducing a first time visitor I might take them to The Turkish Deli for mezze, The German Deli for a sausage or one of the many French cheese stalls.

They might ask me: “What about British cuisine?” and I would point them in the direction of Fish! Kitchen for fish and chips or Mrs King’s for pork pies. Neither of us would stop to question this categorisation of foods into national cuisines. It feels as natural as categorising ourselves in this way. But as a food anthropologist, I have been encouraged to see national cuisine as a concept rather than a fact and never to take anything at face value.

‘Tradition’, ‘history’ and ‘authenticity’
We tend to associate national cuisines with words such as ‘tradition’, ‘history’ and ‘authenticity’, with countries such as Japan, Italy and France. But what about countries like Australia or America? Do they have a national cuisine? Many people would say that they don’t, that their culinary traditions were poached from elsewhere. But this is also true of the more established cuisines.

Humans have exchanged culinary knowledge and food products with their neighbours for millennia. Gradually, these networks have expanded into the extensive global links we have today. Our global food system makes it very hard to speak of cuisines based on purely local ingredients, recipes and methods.

Defining cuisines with geographic boundaries is always going to be ambiguous. Where does ‘local’ become ‘regional’ and ‘regional’ become ‘national’? How do we distinguish between ‘national’ and ‘foreign’? Take potatoes and tomatoes, for example. These came to our tables from South America, but I don’t know any Brit who would label a spud a foreign food, nor would an Italian think of a tomato as anything other than local.

The whole concept of national cuisine only gained momentum in the 19th and 20th centuries. This makes sense when we consider that the ‘nation’ only really became the global political norm in the 19th century. The nation of Italy is actually younger than the USA! Nowadays, it is normal to tell someone “I’m Italian” or “I’m American”—prior to this, regional, religious, ethnic and class ties were more important means of identification.

Defining national cuisines
Our ideas about national cuisines are, to some extent, shaped by commercial and political interests. Governments, tourist boards, chefs and producers may all exploit national cuisine as a marketing opportunity, since it offers a way to mark out products or services as distinct or unique. Likewise, cookbooks, guidebooks, TV and other media play a role in defining national cuisines.

However, in this series of posts, I want to look at what is important to the individual. Eating food is a sensory experience; it has the power to stimulate memories and emotions. Smell and taste can transport you back to another time and place.

One of the reasons this area of study resonates with me is because I have always felt torn between two countries, Australia and England, and I have spent much of my time in both these places pining after foods that I associate with (my other) home.

You’ve probably heard the slogan “throw another shrimp on the barbie”. It comes from a 1980s advert by Tourism Australia to encourage the US audience to “come and say g’day”. Funnily enough, we don’t actually say “shrimp” in Australia; they’re prawns.

Sydney Fish Market
I’m sure people do barbecue them, but most of my friends prefer to buy whole cooked prawns from the Sydney Fish Market and eat them cold with a squeeze of lemon or a simple dipping sauce. I’ve never found prawns that taste quite like them in England. Sweet and tender, plump and fresh, dunked in a little of my dad’s “benchmark” aioli, they’re one of the things I miss most living on the other side of the world.

When I think about food from home, my memories tend to focus on the people cooking or sharing the food, particular events or seasons. Prawns with aioli is one of many seafood dishes I associate with Christmas. Just writing this triggers fond memories of sunny days on the northern beaches: friendly faces, silly games, Christmas “lunches” invariably served at dinnertime, dress ups, funny stories and lots and lots of laughter.

In this series of posts, I will be speaking to seven traders from different ethnic backgrounds about the foods that remind them of home. I will give them the space to define that; they might cite regional or national cuisine or, like me, they might place more emphasis on people and places. What I am interested in is the foods that are important to them and why.

Read Vicky’s recipe for king prawns with aioli here