Is a new cuisine on the rise?
Nordic Food Lab (NFL), a research group based in Copenhagen, wrote Beyond ‘New’ Nordic for Aorta in 2015. The article revisits the 2004 New Nordic Food Manifesto, a document initiated by 12 visionary chefs and the Nordic Council to create an eight year long project of developing a regional cuisine. The manifesto opened up to a new journey and provided the fuel for exploration and curiosity of the North.
The NFL article drew a map of where New Nordic food started and where it´s going. One can find the same enthusiasm and forward thinking in a special edition of the web magazine Green Growth The Nordic Way, published by the Nordic Council, as a conclusion to the council’s initiatives running over the past eight years. The continued publication of Green Growth is a direct effect of the landmark text from 2004. Many of these issues investigate and reflect on how to work in interdisciplinary ways with food and food systems, for example the two essays Connecting Creative Potential and Approaching New Nordic Food’s disciplinary boundary.
The manifesto, the Nordic Council’s initiatives and support for New Nordic Food, and the dialogue stimulated by groups like Nordic Food Lab have contributed to many projects as well as a consciousness on what we have grown, can grow, and what´s in the wild. Many people within the food system in the Nordic countries have started to dig into and search for old crops that were lost, even as agriculture at large has become more industrialized. Within its second period of the program, the Nordic Council created several projects connecting creative industries and the culinary world. I think many of these have been catalysts of progress. The project leader Elisabet Skylare had a sharp eye on what to connect between the two worlds, and hopefully what she created will be continued by others. Maybe interdisciplinary practices can be a new beginning and a driving force when developing the culinary world?
New culinary bases
When cooking, the basic tastes and textures as well as techniques are quite important. The search for a specific texture can be compared to a musician’s search for a sound. To take a new step in the culinary world, new ways of approaching cooking can be fruitful. Artists and chefs have started making events together – but what would it look like if it all was developed into different types of culinary expressions in the same ways as music or art, something more than small outbursts? What if a new culinary expression began based on the idea of form? It doesn´t need to be super conceptual with reliable rules like there should only and always be three textures in a dish – it could rely on other systems of poetics or aesthetics.
In 2008, Hervé This [a French physical chemist who was one of the front runners of the development of molecular gastronomy] wrote an article about creating an abstract cuisine. One of his examples for inspiration was electronic music. In this music genre, many artists work with frequencies and sounds rather than notes. When searching for a bass sound or something that can work as a melody, often one start out with the obvious but quickly move on. Sometimes percussion can become the melody and the drums control the bass, playing alongside the bass drum. Working in this manner, food items will start to play different roles than if you only focus on what you can do with the texture and taste; one can create synthesis through finding other qualities of the food items. For instance when creating a plate, it could contain several textures and all basic tastes. One can work with the duration of flavors when you eat – how long a taste last and how they interact with each other. This gives a freedom to use any interesting technique, flavor or tradition, but also forces you to gain an understanding of different resources and practices, and on how to put them in given context.
The beauty of food is that though the tastes are remembered, the same meal experience can’t be repeated – it always changes. How one taste something and work to represent or replicate that taste, but in a new environment open up to different influences; it always gains new meanings or new forms. To me it is quite central to understand what it is that rubs off from each experience and then try to use it to my liking. To create culinary contexts that reflect ways of life in urban areas could create unique cooking for different cities and regions. Even as the conversation about new Nordic food has developed, it still revolves around the concepts of national or ethnic cuisines. Of course it´s important to understand the geographic area one lives in and to understand one’s heritage. For me it´s been very much about digging into the cultural landscape around me in the Nordic countries as well as the Baltic. In Sweden we have a pea called yellow pea that mostly are used for one specific soup. During the last years I´ve seen some people experimenting with it. I have made yellow pea flour and made pakoras, and now I’m trying to make papadum. Others have made miso from the yellow pea. I find this pea very useful, and when using different varieties, the outcome becomes quite different. In some cases, the result is almost entirely new food products.
A development could start, like within jazz. First one understands the heritage, harmonies and rhythms or, in a culinary context, flavor, resources, and technique. Curiosity and improvisation can be good when investigating flavor and textures. The knowledge and skills need to be quite solid, providing a base of understanding of traditional flavors and techniques as well as a range of ways to innovate on the well-known. Today with our increasing urbanization, there is also a great movement of people to and from these cities. Many cultures share space within this context and many new are created. Influences and knowledge travel faster than before because of the better digital infrastructure. It’s still not equitable whose culture gets acknowledged and whose doesn’t, but it’s so much easier to make your own impact.
New ideas, deep roots
Ferran Adria [who was the head chef of the great El Bulli] once said that the reason they were able to do an avant-garde cuisine within a Spanish context was because of their strong connection to tradition. To understand the agricultural conditions and the cultural movements of one’s region creates a foundation to create something new. Culinary concepts such as New Nordic food or the New Anatolian have started an interesting practice. They talk regions rather than national states.
The New Anatolian cuisine connects to a current discourse within the cultural sphere of Turkey where the regions have layer on layer of cultural specificity. Where and by who yoghurt was created might be hard to tell, but the eastern regions of today’s Turkey have played a leading role, and to the people of Anatolia, this product is still as important as air. The food culture of this area belongs to so many different groups, and some of the foods are more connected to other countries because of the geography. The Aegean parts have more connections to Greece than places as Gaziantep in east Anatolia not far from Syria. Here we also have Kurds who are connected to other regions in the Middle East. Cultural links and layers in this area have been vital for the rich food culture that has been developed. The foods here reflect that this is a place where you can find old churches that are turned into mosques.
Mehmet Gürs [a famous Turkish chef and front runner for the New Anatolian kitchen] points out, the meal and food are connected to other cultural expressions such as music, but meal culture is also a cultural expression in itself, and you can generate your own creations within it. Gürs works with an anthropologist, an interesting tool to use and see the connection between people, culture, and cooking. In the search for food products, Gürs and others are starting to find different breeds and crops, relating quality to history and allowing these connections to help determine their use in a modern cooking context. Gürs’s work with his collaborators has also started to point out Anatolia’s diverse population of different minorities and create dialogue about overlapping cultural values.
Cuisines are made over time and by many people. The New Anatolian and the New Nordic can be seen as stepping stones to new, creative, and vital cooking that embodies the interdisciplinary nature of meal culture – yet never forgets its roots.
Today we see many artists working with food issues internationally, and the projects often balances on the edge between art, gastronomy, agriculture and politics. One of the more established is OPENrestaurant in the US, taking the restaurant as a stepping-stone into an art context. They are chefs and artists creating a complete narrative together with farmers and food producers, inviting audiences to experience both a dinner, an art show, and an engagement with local food systems. In Vienna, TBA-21 offers dinners made by artists in collaboration with the kitchen, like a lecture about slow food vs. molecular gastronomy where they present dishes that incorporate concepts of both cooking ideas. I’m A Kombo in Copenhagen is driven by two chefs who pushes and explores the ways of working with the restaurant experience.
An interesting thing about both I’m A Kombo and OPENrestaurant is their critical discourse on the room of the restaurant in itself. The work I´ve been involved in, with my background in meal ecology, have often centered around connecting several senses, especially taste and hearing. In the ongoing project taste the change of frequencies with the experience designer Josefin Vargö, sound and taste are interconnected through the meal experience. The soundscapes that are used enhance certain basic tastes, like when the bass sound makes the bitter more noticeable.