I’m guessing it’s not taking too much effort for you to read this sentence. I’m guessing you’re also not thinking too much about the grammar involved while you do it. That’s because you’ve internalised a set of rules that helps make the jumble of words I’ve thrown together here make sense (most of the time, anyway). We’re very aware of the fact that language is dictated by unspoken rules about how we’re supposed to use it to create meaning, but few of us realise that food is governed by similar rules. When and how one eats is usually dictated by unspoken rules which vary according to the cultural context. When the contexts shift, however, we often find ourselves unknowingly breaking a whole host of culinary grammar rules.
What is culinary grammar?
Understanding a culture can be tough if you don’t speak the language. Likewise, unless you’re born into a culture it can be hard to really understand the cultural rules that surround its food. Culinary grammar provides insight into how a dish is usually prepared, what ingredients are included, and how it’s served. It dictates whether you eat a dish sitting or standing, hot or cold, with your fingers or some other kind of utensils, even what time of day it should be eaten.
For example, Koreans and Japanese are perfectly content with rice for breakfast, whereas many of my South African friends would scoff at the idea which jamming a slice of bread into the toaster or reaching for a cereal box instead.
According to Emily Monaco in her article for Atlas Obscura, “grammars can even impose what is considered a food and what isn’t: Horse and rabbit are food for the French but not for the English; insects are food in Mexico but not in Spain. Moreover, just as “Hey, man!” is a friendly greeting for a buddy but maybe not for your boss, foods may not be suitable in all grammatical contexts”.
Like any rule, happy accidents can occur when those that dictate how we eat are broken. “Mistranslations” often result in tasty fusion cuisines which combine flavours that, though originally eaten separately, just seem to work.
In fact, you may be breaking a whole bunch of culinary grammar rules every time you eat. Here are a few mistakes that we make pretty often – for better or for worse.
Spaghetti and meatballs
Place a hearty bowl of spaghetti and meatballs in front of an American diner and (vegetarians aside) they’re likely to tuck in with gusto. the same dish served to Italians, however, might elicit some perplexity. That’s because meat and pasta are not traditionally served together.
Despite being a staple in Italian restaurants the world over, spaghetti and meatballs are not a true reflection of how true Italians eat. To them, the meat would be a dish of its own, not thrown on top of the pasta that should be served before it.
Carla Gomes, Italian by heritage and co-owner of three award-winning restaurants in Boston’s North End told Mashed that Italians generally “start with antipasti (appetizers), then go to primi (pasta), then secondi (meat) dishes”. Additionally, Italian pasta portion sizes are generally smaller, because as a PART of a meal and not a full meal, your pasta shouldn’t be too filling.
Furthermore, only children use spoons to twirl their spaghetti neatly around their fork (although I once heard a non-Italian girl say she didn’t want to date a guy because he didn’t use the twirling spoon). In real Italian dining, spoons are only served with pasta at all, if it’s in broth.
Eating Thai Food with chopsticks
Fun fact, the reason you’re likely to find chopsticks in Thai restaurants is that non-Thai diners ask for them. Apparently, that’s how we think all Asian food needs to be eaten.
According to Patty Lee for Thrillist, however, the only dishes Thai diners use chopsticks to eat are those they’ve adopted from Chinese cuisine. True Thai culinary grammar calls instead for a simple fork and spoon – far less exciting to Western diners who for some reason would rather fumble their way along with obviously Asian utensils.
“Before those utensils — which were introduced by King Rama IV in the 19th century to “modernize” the country — Thai people mostly ate with their hands,” writes Lee. “Even though they adopted the Western utensils, they put their own spin on using them: You hold the spoon in your right hand and the fork in the left hand, and then use the two to scoop food into the spoon to eat. It’s way easier than struggling to pick up grains of rice with two sticks”.
Chinese food buffets
Since we mentioned Chinese cuisine, let’s talk about everyone’s favourite Chinese restaurant addition… the buffet.
Chinese food buffets, it turns out, got their start in Canada, when Chinese railway workers cooked huge quantities of their favorite dishes to share with Scandinavian loggers. This was in an effort to suit the Scandinavian’s culinary grammar – the concept of smorgasbord – rather than their own.
This amalgamation of two distinct culinary languages stuck, and made its way across the Western world. Personally, I can’t say I’m upset about it.
Pineapple on Pizza
It’s time to put the age-old debate to rest: Pineapple doesn’t belong on pizza – Not traditionally at least.
Although pizza comes in different forms and flavours, varying according to the culture of the region it comes from, none of those involved pineapple. Because that particular topping comes from the US, right? It’s called a Hawaiian after all.
If you thought that was the case, you’d be wrong again. Instead, you’d have to blame (or thank) Canada again.
The growing popularity of Chinese food in Canada, brought over by immigrant railway workers, inspired Sam Panopoulos, a Greek immigrant in Ontario, to invent the Hawaiian pizza that is now a menu staple. “In a nod to the Tiki culture sweeping North America,” writes Monaco “and taking inspiration from the sweet-and-savory flavors of Chinese cuisine, Panopoulos tossed canned pineapple on pizza, and the world’s most divisive pie was born”.
That’s not to say that Panoloulos’ breaking the rules was a bad thing. There’s a whole camp of people who wouldn’t want to order any other pizza topping at all (but they probably aren’t in Italy).
Monaco writes that “Many such adaptations arise in response to grammatical needs, such as the Western expectation of dessert, which led to the adoption of fortune cookies, originally Japanese, in American-Chinese restaurants. The same holds for the 18th-century invention of Indian mulligatawny to satisfy the British desire for soup, or the crunchy fried noodles served as a pre-meal snack at some Chinese restaurants in place of bread”.
While some purists may get upset by how other cultures butcher their culinary grammar, it’s undeniable that many of these mistranslations and misappropriations have had delicious results. Fortunately, they’ll continue to do so, because, like any language, culinary grammar is not a static thing.
And anyway, sometimes it can be really sweet and flattering to hear someone speak your mother tongue with a bit of an accent and a few wonky grammar mistakes, right? If imitation is a form of flattery, having your cultural dishes adopted by another group can, in some cases, be the highest and most delicious praise.