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Food, identity, and ‘gastronationalism’: Three dishes from around the world


Graffiti of "make hummus not walls" in reference to local cuisine and ongoing Israel-Palestine issues
Graffiti referencing local cuisine and the Israel-Palestine divide.

Foreign cuisines are a mainstay of modern life. Immigrant cultures have spread food from every continent and corner of the globe into almost any big city. Fusion restaurants, greasy street food, purportedly-authentic experiences, and locally adapted dishes are some of the many ways sustenance has told stories of culture, ideas, identity, history, and ultimately, people. 


Inevitably, lines of authenticity and exact origin are crossed out of convenience, necessity, or popularity. Borders, typically newer or disputed, are drawn just as easily in food as in actuality. Who, culturally speaking, owns a dish? Can that ever be definitively determined? And why should it matter?


‘Gastronationalism’ describes the use of food to promote certain cultural identities and nationalism, usually manifesting in arguments between countries over who rightfully can claim a dish. Food is undoubtedly and fundamentally an expression of identity and culture, even if constrained by other factors. By arguing for the strict classification of dishes enjoyed around the world by a multitude of different people, countries attack neighbors while also reassuring national identities which may be recently constructed or even open to debate.


Here, I will be examining a trio of dishes from around the world which I selected based on relevance to current world issues, applicability to aforementioned questions, and personal interest. These three are, by no means, an exhaustive list. Likewise, the ingredients listed are common inclusions in each dish but not universal or exclusive.


Borscht/borsch 


bowl of red borscht
A bowl of borscht garnished with sour cream and dill.

Common ingredients: beef or vegetable broth, cabbage, onion, carrots, beets, potatoes, tomatoes, bay leaves, vinegar, garlic, dill, sour cream and rye bread for serving.


A delicious, beet-red soup, borscht is a hallmark of Eastern European cuisine and formerly a staple of Soviet diets. Appearing primarily in Ukraine, Russia, Poland, and among Ashkenazi Jewish communities, borscht originated from Slavic communities several hundred years ago, but ascended to its current level of popularity during the past hundred years. The term borscht encompasses numerous variations with and without nearly every ingredient listed previously. Undeniably, borscht is iconic, historic, and a reflection of several cultures and peoples.


The ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, and to a lesser extent conflicts in 2014, has created the perfect breeding grounds for gastronationalism to take root. It’s a common occurrence in the modern era: one country claims a food, another does the same. Official Russian transmissions describe the dish as ‘Russian’; even pre-war, the Ukrainian government formally requested UNESCO designate borscht as their cultural heritage, sans exclusivity. But, the association between soup and ethnic conflict is evident.


So, to answer the underlying question, where did borscht come from? Whose is it?


Firstly, borscht is usually attributed to the Kievan Rus - the precursor to Russia based around the eponymous city Kiev/Kyiv. Much discourse over the Kievan Rus has occurred since the war began, but similar to borscht, the lines between Russian and Ukrainian did not exist back then in the way they do currently. Even in modern and Soviet times, people, territory, language, food, culture, and everything have flowed between the two states. To declare borscht in the possession of one or the other is semantic and not reflective of how it exists across nations, ethnic groups, and religions. Neither Russia and Ukraine will stop claiming it as their own, mainly because of the national identity this reinforces. Both are relatively new countries locked in a war of attrition; establishing a unique, unshared Ukrainian identity is just as important to Kyiv as denial of said identity is to Moscow. People might not care about politics, but they always care about food - which promotes the use of cultural weaponry.


Kimchi



kimchi
A side dish of kimchi.

Common ingredients: napa cabbage, sugar, salt, sweet rice flour, Korean radish/daikon radish, carrots, green onions, Asian chives, water dropwort, garlic, ginger, onion, fish sauce, fermented salted shrimp, red pepper or chili flakes.


Kimchi is arguably the most recognizable symbol of the Korean peninsula, both abroad and within. Fermented vegetables have been a mainstay in the region for thousands of years, with modern kimchi emerging in the 18th and 19th centuries. 


Complex in flavor and incredibly savory, kimchi is lauded around the world as a fantastic side dish accompanying Korean entrees. It is also healthy, dense in nutrients, and long-lasting - crucial for many generations of Koreans faced with occupation, food shortages, and low development historically. South Korean variants tend to pack more spice, whereas North Korean kimchi uses more sugar and less seafood flavors.


Unsurprisingly, neighbors China and Japan have dishes similar to kimchi which, according to the Republic of Korea, have attempted to infringe on their cultural heritage. In the past, disagreements over the standard definition of kimchi has caused periodic uproar where South Korea presses for a stricter definition and distinction from their neighbors. Kimchi disputes have taken off recently, as both Korea and China have criticized each others’ regulations and import/export policies. This pattern follows the increased animosity as of late between the two nations coupled with nationalistic sentiment. Certainly, South Korea aims to hold onto their monopoly of true kimchi - why does a fermented cabbage mixture hold such a sway?


Contributing to South Korea’s insistence on their kimchi supremacy is the ongoing need for Korean distinction and independence from their two powerful neighbors. Japan and China have consistently held power and influence in the region, both culturally and politically. Similar to the switch to Hangul alphabet, uniquely Korean food was and is needed to assert their presence and reinforce a separate identity. Kimchi, akin to its culinary role, has been a sidekick in identity and nation building but essential and foundational nonetheless.


Hummus


bowl of hummus
A bowl of hummus garnished with whole chickpeas, paprika, parsley, and olive oil.

Common ingredients: chickpeas, garlic, tahini, salt, lemon juice, olive oil, sesame seeds.


Hummus is a simple but delicious spread made from a chickpea and tahini base served with pita bread. A staple in the Middle East and adjacent regions, early hummus likely emerged in the Levant and Egypt several hundred years ago. 


The typical hummus dish includes chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, and garlic as the core ingredients with garnishes such as cumin, sumac, parsley, and paprika. Exact ratios and inclusions or exclusions vary across the Middle East. Western iterations are sold commercially which has helped hummus skyrocket to a global favorite; diaspora communities have also facilitated its quick spread and place in regional identity.


Controversy mostly arises from the desire of, mostly but not exclusively, Lebanon and Israel to claim hummus as their national dish and a vital cultural element of each nation. Criticism aimed at Israel has been a catalyst in developing the concept of gastronationalism; many claim that its popularity shows appropriation meant to reinforce Israeli statehood and presence in the Middle East. While many Jewish communities have historically enjoyed hummus as a culinary staple, the current ubiquitousness is a modern shift. Moreover, Israeli ‘ownership’ over hummus is also perceived as a slight to surrounding Muslim countries who arguably have deeper ties themselves. 


There is perhaps no greater representation of gastronationalism and the political nature of food than Israel setting the world record for largest dish of hummus, Lebanon subsequently beating it, Israel retaking the title, and finally, Lebanon producing a truly massive winning dish, under the premise of winner-takes-cultural-ownership. 


To conclude


Ultimately, food should always be enjoyed across borders, ethnic groups, religions, and continents. Individual nations and peoples will always have intangible reasons for disputing food, because frequently, identity and cuisine are inseparable and often in flux. Even so, recognizing the importance of certain dishes to specific countries or groups is valuable in analyzing histories and modern conceptualizations of identity. Food undeniably holds dimensions beyond pure sustenance and ignoring those can be likewise harmful. Instead, approaching cultural dishes with appreciation, understanding the limits of terms like ‘authentic’, and being open-minded are essential.




Bibliography


 Hummus, a Middle Eastern dish with an identity crisis. YouTube. FRANCE 24 English, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=afHKca5NAB8.


Baptista, Eduardo, and Erika Na. “Kimchi Wars: South Korea’s New Chinese Translation of Dish Reignites Debate.” South China Morning Post, July 23, 2021. https://www.scmp.com/news/people-culture/trending-china/article/3142240/kimchi-wars-south-korea-attempts-differentiate.


ferguson, priscilla parkhurst. “Culinary Nationalism.” Gastronomica 10, no. 1 (2010): 102–9. https://doi.org/10.1525/gfc.2010.10.1.102.


Fischler, Claude. "Food, self and identity." Social Science Information 27, no. 2 (1988): 275-292. https://doi.org/10.1177/053901888027002005


“Gastronationalism: Poverty Reduction and Cultural Solidarity.” Borgen Magazine, December 10, 2020. https://www.borgenmagazine.com/gastronationalism/.


“Give Chickpeas a Chance: Why Hummus Unites, and Divides, the Mideast.” NPR, July 18, 2016. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/07/18/483715410/give-chickpeas-a-chance-why-hummus-unites-and-divides-the-mideast.


“How Kimchi Rekindled a Decades-Long Feud.” BBC, December 18, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20201217-how-kimchi-rekindled-a-decades-long-feud.


Ichijo, Atsuko, and Ronald Ranta. Food, National Identity and Nationalism: From Everyday to Global Politics. Kingston University, 2016.


Lahrichi, Kamilia. “7 of the World’s Fiercest Food Feuds.” CNN, September 30, 2014. https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/food-fights/index.html.


Lee, Alex. “‘Kimchi Wars’ and East Asia’s Complicated, Post-Colonial Nationalism.” Brown Political Review, October 31, 2021. https://brownpoliticalreview.org/2021/10/kimchi-wars-and-east-asias-complicated-post-colonial-nationalism/.


Selyukh, Alina. “Unesco Declares Borsch Cooking an Endangered Ukrainian Heritage.” NPR, July 1, 2022. https://www.npr.org/2022/07/01/1109319174/unesco-declares-ukraine-borsch-ukrainian-heritage.


Sonenshine, Tara, Paul Rockower, Sam Chapple-Sokol, Gary Weaver, and the Conflict Cuisine Project. “Culinary Diplomacy, Gastrodiplomacy, and Conflict Cuisine: Defining the Field.” Stimson Center, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep10919.6.


Varenikova, Maria, and Andrew E. Kramer. “A New Front Opens in the Russia-Ukraine Conflict: Borscht.” The New York Times, April 9, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/04/world/europe/russia-ukraine-borscht.html.



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