Friday, August 13, 2010

The World Cup of cuisine

I'm jonesing for the World Cup. I can't stand waiting another 4 years for an event where professional athletes actually play with passion.

One of many conversations I got into during the Cup was the relationship between a good food country and a good soccer country. This year, there wasn't much except at the top, because Spain is probably the hottest food country in the world right now. But the Netherlands? Uruguay? Not so much.

So I got to thinking: What if there was a World Cup of cuisine? Who would be invited?

First I had to define my terms. I'm talking about cuisine, not restaurants; otherwise Singapore would qualify. And that means cuisine has to be exportable. You might be able to eat really well in Georgia, but it's hard to find great Georgian food outside the former Soviet Union.

I started counting up countries and discovered 16 would be the right number of nations. Eight is too few and 32 would be too inclusive; there's a big dropoff after about the first 20.

One big difference between soccer and cuisine is the status of Asia. A midget in the soccer world, Asia is a colossus in cuisine, with 6 of the 16 spots and the overwhelming favorite to win the whole thing. Africa, which got 5 bids to the soccer World Cup, doesn't have any good bets to make the quarterfinals. And South America was completely shut out, possibly because I'm not a big steak eater.

Here are my bids to the mythical World Cup of Cuisine

North America

Cuba: Best food by far among the Caribbean nations, kept vibrant by the diaspora in Florida. Extra points for the rocket-fuel coffee.

Mexico: No longer dominating CONCACAF, but still the regional power in this group. And they're also cooking all the food for the US team.

United States: When you talk about exportable cuisine, you can't ignore the ubiquity and influence of American fast food. I guess I'm guilty of creating the standards in such a way that the US qualifies. Would I root for McDonald's over, say, Italian pasta or Japanese sushi in the quarterfinals? I'm pretty patriotic, so maybe. That must be what it feels like to be a Yankees fan.


France: If this tournament were actually played, the French culinary team might embarrass themselves as much as the soccer team did. This traditional power is resting on its reputation, and has gotten stuffy and uncreative. Ripe for a first-round upset.

Greece: The diner repertoire is what makes it famous, but Greece also prepares cephalopods as well as anyone in Europe.

Italy: A certainty for the semifinals; the real European food power.

Spain: Great ingredients and the most experimentally minded chefs in the world make this Spain's culinary moment. One glaring weakness -- where are the vegetables?

Turkey: It's controversial to give bids to both Greece and Turkey when their cuisines are so similar. But which one do you deny? Turkey does a slightly better job with shawarma meats, and while Greek cuisine is more influential in the USA, Turkey is more powerful across Europe.


Ethiopia: It's ironic that a country that can't feed itself has the best cuisine on the continent. Love that injera bread, a napkin you can eat.

Morocco: Couscous and tajine are great, but something I wish was exported a little more is mint tea made from the whole leaves.


China: The overwhelming favorite: what town anywhere in the world doesn't have a Chinese restaurant? And the more regional the cuisine gets, the greater the food.

India: Having been to India, after suffering daily from excessive capsaicin and marauding micro-organisms, I can report that if you're not raised there with immunity to both, it's much better to eat Indian food abroad.

Japan: A humble people, the Japanese will tell you that ramen is Chinese food, but the style aficionados love was developed in Nippon. And there's sushi, which I knew had gone mainstream when I saw an article for the top 10 sushi restaurants in Houston, Texas.

Korea: As a nation, we're just learning to enjoy kimchi, and now we find out that there, are like, 50 kinds we haven't tried yet? You have to hand it to a nation that was dominated by China and Japan for most of its history, yet still developed its own unique cuisine, in part by burying pots of rotting cabbage underground.

Thailand: Once I went with some Pennsylvania friends to a Thai restaurant where all they ordered was roast meat on a stick with peanut sauce. That's good, but wow, do they have a world of stuff to discover.

Vietnam: We lost a war but gained banh mi and vermicelli. Fair trade?

Just missing
Argentina, Germany, Indonesia, Peru, Singapore: I feel bad at not including any country from South America, but of the 16 qualifiers, which do you dump? The obvious choice is either Greece or Turkey, but both have better cuisine than Argentina and Peru. Singapore didn't make it because it's too hard to separate its cuisine from China's and Malaysia's (not to mention India's.). German food is great in Germany but that's a function of pristine ingredients; the cuisine doesn't export well.

Now I need to get 16 chefs, a kitchen stadium and a big appetite. Viva El Copa Gastronimique!


goma said...

This is very interesting article.
I think Asia is very strong and China will win this WCC.

Anonymous said...

I think you missed South America entirely. Where is Brazil? If you qualified Cuba with similar cuisine.
Brazilian culinary has a strong portuguese influence, mixed with Africa and Italy. You should know it.

W. Blake Gray said...

My answer to that is, where are the Brazilian restaurants in Europe and the US and Asia? Everybody loves the soccer team, but they're not eating Feijoada while watching. Points for the interest in caipirinhas, but that isn't enough.

guren said...

Brazilian cuisine, namely churrasco and feijoada,is getting more popular, but I think it just misses the cut. I cannot make a strong case for it to displace any of the other cuisines you mentioned.

How about Belgium? For a fairly small country, it has several iconic foods, such as their fries, waffles, chocolate and mussels. If you include their beer, then they are definitely a contender.

W. Blake Gray said...

Guren: Belgium's an interesting choice, but it also just misses for me. I tended to downplay beverages here because I focus on cuisines unique to the country; i.e., everybody makes white wine, but who else makes moussaka?

Whose fries are better -- Belgium or Holland?

Anonymous said...

you are totally missing a good stake, and that's usually branded as either argentine or brazilian in the US. ARG restaurants tend to be independent, while BR are usually crappy chains. To sum up, you have to include some argentine cow!