Gourmet Central
Vir Sanghvi
Friday, September 07, 2012

To be a food capital, a city must have a 
gastronomic tradition that mixes and matches various cuisines

What makes a city a
great food capital? I don’t think that quality of food alone is enough of a criterion. Let’s take the example of Paris, which has, almost by definition, some of the best French food in the world. But is it a food capital? I doubt it. You can eat well in Paris if you eat French food for lunch and dinner. But once you try other cuisines, standards drop alarmingly.

So it is with Barcelona, now the centre of a trendy Spanish food scene. Whatever your views on Spanish food, whether nouvelle molecular, tapas-based or 
traditional, it is hard to argue that any Spanish city is a great international food destination. You eat well only if you eat the local cuisine.

Much the same is true of, say, Rome. There are some great Italian restaurants. But not much else. Even Bangkok, centre of one of the world’s greatest cuisines, is not much of a food capital. Few local restaurants serve food that is truly outstanding unless you stick to Thai.

To be a food capital, a city must have a gastronomic tradition that mixes and matches various cuisines.

Take the example of New York City. It is, for my money, the food capital of the world because you get every kind of cuisine at its restaurants. Moreover, so high is the standard of innovation in New York that even non-American cuisines have benefitted from the influence of New York restaurants. Many great French dishes (vichyssoise soup, for example) were actually invented in New York. Hunan cuisine became a rage because of the riffs on the food offered by New York chefs. (Hunan is a poor region and there were few opportunities for gastronomic innovation during the Cultural Revolution.) And I know people who will claim, in all seriousness, that New York restaurants actually serve better Italian food than those in Rome.

What makes New York such a gastronomic hot spot? It has to be the influence of various cultures. All of America is a melting pot, of course, but New York is even more international than the rest of the US. It is the mingling of various culinary streams that has created what we know as the New York restaurant culture of today.

Something similar has happened to London. Till the early 1980s, there was very little good food to be had in London. The British have no haute cuisine to speak of and their own food is essentially a second-rate cuisine suitable only for urban peasants who wash it down with beer. The fancy restaurants served stodgy versions of classic French dishes. And the immigrant communities — the Indians and the Chinese, for instance — were never allowed to open successful restaurants that charged high prices. Instead, they were restricted to curry houses and chop suey dives.

It was only in the 80s and the 90s — when multiculturalism came of age in Britain — that restaurants dared to experiment with new styles of cuisine. A new generation of confident British chefs, who no longer felt the need to ape the French, emerged and, today, London is New York’s principal rival for the title of gastronomic capital of the world.

The next gastronomic capitals will come from outside America and Europe. (In all fairness, I should add that San Francisco is a worthy challenger to New York’s crown within an American context.) I suspect that it is the international cities of the 21st century that will make the grade.

Shanghai and Hong Kong have already staked their claim but I am not convinced. Both are essentially Chinese cities where foreign chefs have parachuted in to open fancy restaurants. Tokyo has a stronger claim (it has more Michelin stars than Paris) but the gastronomic heartbeat of the 
city remains firmly Japanese. The innovation only occurs at the very top end of the market.

Singapore, with its multicultural tradition and its willingness to welcome outsiders, has a much better chance of becoming one of the world’s great gourmet cities. So, in its own way, does Dubai. Because Dubai is a city that captures the gastronomic DNA of anyone who visits the desert kingdom, it has the ability to throw up a new generation of first-rate restaurants. So far at least, however, this is still a work in progress.

My vote goes to an unlikely city: Sydney.

When we think of Australia, we think of white people and excellent produce. And that’s certainly part of the story. But what we don’t realise is that Australia is now much more multicultural than ever before.

Till the 70s, successive Australian governments followed a ‘White Australia’ immigration policy — which meant that immigrants were welcome if they were white. If they were brown or yellow, it was much more difficult for them to get in. And blacks stood virtually no chance at all.

The Labour government of Gough Whitlam reversed the ‘White Australia’ policy and since then there has been a flood of immigration from non-white countries. A decade or so ago, Australian chefs celebrated their unique location across the water from Asia by creating Pacific Rim cuisine, which merged some of the techniques of Western food with the flavours of Asia. Today, Australia’s top chefs are not necessarily white. The country’s most famous chef is Tetsuya, who is Japanese while the best-known Australian chef in the world (thanks to TV) is probably Kylie Kwong, who is of Chinese extraction.

If you work on the principle that multiculturalism leads to gastronomic innovation, then Sydney is poised to sweep past Singapore and Dubai to become a rival to London and New York. It already has some of the world’s best restaurants and such shows as Masterchef Australia have demonstrated to global audiences how diverse Australian cuisine can be.

It is all a far cry from 
the heyday of the ‘White Australia’ policy. In that 
era, ministers had no hesitation in stating on the record that only white people had the right to stay.  A famous but possibly apocryphal story involves a Chinese immigrant to Australia called Mr Wong who wanted residence status for himself and his wife. The minister concerned refused his request, declaring, “Two Wongs do not make a White.”

But the joke is on the proponents of the ‘White Australia’ policy. Now that the doors are open, Australia has thousands of Wongs.

And it has finally got 
it right.

(Vir Sanghvi is a celebrated Indian journalist, television personality, author and lifestyle writer. To follow Vir’s other writings, visit www.virsanghvi.com)

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