We Didn't Invent Fish and Chips: Gourmets Say "Traditional" Dishes Are Being Bastardised, but They Are Missing the Point

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Although ostensibly a means of securing sustenance and pleasuring the palate, food often has the capacity to bring out the nationalist in people. Regard the manner in which the French boast of their excellence in the kitchen, haughtily deriding the Americans for their sorry excuse for a national dish: McDonald's. Witness Italians sneer at the imitation pizzas found in Britain and the US, or how Indian visitors recoil in horror from menus found in curry houses in the UK, with their strange, mangled neologisms. Food can be a source of pride, and it can thus be distressing when restaurants tamper with national dishes.


Gastronomy continues to be a source of anxiety. Earlier this month Terence Conran made known his displeasure at the barbarisation of restaurant menus in Britain, excoriating the proliferation of "franglais" gibberish. The restaurateur David Tang has since expressed his own concerns about the state of Chinese food here, lamenting "chop suey" and "foo yung" as "ridiculous" inventions of the 1960s.

It is odd how cooking brings out the Platonic essentialist in culinary connoisseurs. After all, one of cuisine's defining features is its capacity to evolve and innovate, with one culture appropriating a dish from another and fashioning something entirely new from it. What is more, the idea that there is such a thing as a "traditional national" dish is phoney, first because many of them are borrowed or adapted from elsewhere, and second because the idea of "authentic" national food is just as erroneous as that of an "authentic" national culture.

Consider the pizza. In 2004 the then Italian ambassador to the UK, Luigi Amaduzzi, complained about the fare being served in Britain in his country's name. "A pizza base covered with pineapple or with curry is no more Italian than a steak-and-kidney pie covered with chocolate is English." To Italians, a pizza simply consists of flat bread, tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. Although some claim that the pizza dates back to Roman times, tomatoes are a New World fruit, and the pizza as we know it may not have been invented until the 18th century--which is before the creation of the Italian state itself.

Other "traditional" Italian dishes are even more suspect. Fettuccine primavera was invented in New York. So was chicken tetrazzini. And caesar salad and spaghetti with meatballs are similarly American creations. As one observer put it: "By the 1950s Italian-American food was all but unrecognisable to visitors from Italy. A businessman from Turin might peruse a menu in an Italian restaurant in Chicago and not be able to decipher a single item. …