Saturday, May 19, 2012

Flavors of North America

Ask most people around the globe to name the quintessential food of North America and the answer will most probably be “the hamburger.” It is true that a good hamburger is available in almost every small town or big city across the US. But North American cuisine – including its fast food – is far more complex and varied, encompassing everything from homemade pies and perfect barbecue to succulent seafood, southern “soul food,” and fiery Mexican dishes.

As Europeans discovered when they began colonizing the New World 500 years ago, the American continent is almost embarrassingly rich in natural food sources and fertile land.
The icy waters of the northeast coast yield some of the world’s finest shellfish, while much of the world’s wheat springs from the black soil of North America’s plains. Fruit trees groan with the weight of peaches in Georgia, apples in the Okanagan Valley, and oranges, lemons, and limes in Florida and California. Tomatoes and peppers grow as far as the eye can see in Mexico, and rippling corn stretches to the horizon through the American Midwest.

Cooking up a huge pot of chili at the Kansas State Fair Chili Cookoff
Nowhere is the taste of North America so celebrated as in northern California, where almost anything will grow. It was here that the farm-to-fork movement took root in the late 1960s, and so-called “California cuisine” – the concept of eating only fresh and local foods – has evolved into the driving force behind fine dining across virtually the whole of North America.
Yet North American cuisine has a distinctly casual streak. The slapdash grill menu – hamburgers included – met the American love affair with automobiles, especially in southern California, to give birth to the roadside diner. Even the streamlined architecture of this icon of American gastronomy reflects the worship of speed.
While Americans hardly invented handheld food, few cities boast such a variety of street food as New York, where the diner on the move can chow down on German wurst in Midtown or Sri Lankan dosas in Washington Square Park.

New York City’s love of street food is indulged at its many street fairs
Indigenous Ingredients
Transplanted ethnic cuisines are emblematic of North American gastronomy, yet certain dishes are rooted in their geography.
Thanks to air freight, Maine lobster can be tasted all over the world, but never with such resonance as on the dock where it is landed.
Clam chowder may trace its ancestry to Breton fish stews, but the clams that define it are limited to New England shores. And few dishes are so location-specific as New Orleans jambalaya, which relies on the crayfish and rice of the bayous and the piquant tabasco strain of chili pepper. In fact, native North American peppers in their hundreds of varieties could be said to be the taste of the continent. The pork rib barbecue of Memphis carries just a hint of chili pepper heat, while in San Antonio, Texas, spicy stewed-beef chili contains nearly as much hot pepper as meat. But capsicum peppers have many more qualities than sheer heat: the sweetness of pimientoes, the smokiness of chipotle, and the spicy, fruity flavors of the habanero, for example. Farther up the Rio Grande, these are wonderfully exploited in the subtle cuisine of New Mexico, where Spanish colonists married Native American corn tortillas and chili-pepper-based sauces with an old-world taste for meat fillings.
Overseas Influences
 A similar collusion between Native American and Spanish cookery took place in Mexico, where the people of Puebla combined their indigenous heritage ingredients of chocolate and chili pepper with spices introduced by the Spanish to create the rich brown sauce called mole. Indeed, it is a rare dish in Mexico that does not contain some form of chili pepper; it forms a part of even the taco al pastor, or rotisserie taco, so similar to the Middle Eastern doner kebab.
The hottest of all the capsicums – the Scotch bonnet pepper found throughout the Caribbean basin – electrifies Jamaican jerk cooking, lending both heat and citrus notes to the smoky, spicy tang of Jamaican pimento wood, from the shrub that yields allspice. While jerk meat (usually chicken or fish) can be traced back to the original Arawak inhabitants of Jamaica, other Caribbean specialties reflect the islands’ cultural overlays.
So many East Asians were relocated to the Caribbean islands during colonial times that curries, aloo (spicy potato dishes), and the friendship bread of dosti roti are standards in the West Indies.
Pennsylvania Dutch cooks are wont to encase every berry or tree fruit they grow in a flaky crust.

The African diaspora played a profound role in North American cooking as well. African slaves in the cotton and sugar cane regions of the American South cooked with African provender – okra, peanuts, and melons – along with leafy greens and cheap cuts of pork. In time, the hearty fare became known as “soul food,” from collard greens cooked in bacon fat to the unctuous sweet potato pie.
Americans have always had a sweet tooth, whether for thick cheesecakes made with the cream cheese of Philadelphia or for the sweet pastries of Pennsylvania Dutch country. A farming society with roots in central Europe (where pastry is king), Pennsylvania Dutch cooks are wont to encase every berry or tree fruit they grow in a flaky crust. It is, as the saying goes, as American as apple pie.

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