How Globalization Changed The World's Cuisine

Rose* By Rose*, 17th Nov 2012 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
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How national cuisines and food traditions were affected by globalization

Where the food we eat comes from

Globalization really started with the Portuguese in the 15th century in their quest to find the sea route to India and in the process colonising places as far distant as Macao and Brazil. Everyone is aware of how globalization has changed the way trade is done. What people are unaware of is that it also changed national cuisines.

For instance, take Italian food: we think of it as the product of 2200 years of civilization. Yet the Romans wouldn’t recognise modern Italian food at all. Neither would the Venetians at the time of the Crusades. Modern Italian food with it’s emphasis on tomato, is a product of the globalization from the 14th to the 16th centuries, which brought fruits from the New World (tomato comes from Mexico) to the Old World.

It wasn’t just Italy that was affected. Potatoes (another New World food) became a staple in Ireland after ship carrying the tubers was wrecked off the coast of Ireland and the contents washed up on the beaches. The Irish discovered that these new vegetables grew very well in the poor Irish soil, and pretty soon everyone was planting them.

The globalization of food even affected India. Portugal established a colony on the west coast of India, in Goa (chosen for it’s huge natural harbour), and introduced another New World crop - chillis. Everyone thinks of Indian food as “hot”, but true traditional Indian food is actually subtly spiced. The only “hot” Indian food comes from the West coast of India, where they enthusiastically added the new-fangled spices being brought in by the Portuguese. Vindaloo, the hottest curry, is from Goa, the former Portuguese colony. The further into the Indian interior you go, the milder the curries. The Indian men who wrote the Vedic poems some 5000 years ago would recognise the mild food of the Indian interior, but be utterly shocked by the hot food of the western coast.

Chocolate, another new world product (from South America), was introduced to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors. It was initially taken as a drink, but by the 18th century, cocoa butter was produced and combined with sugar and fat, and was set into chocolate squares.

The globalization of food happened in reverse too from the old world to the new. Sugar cane originated in India, with Indians from AD 350 being the first to crystallise it. The Portuguese took sugar from India to the New World, planting huge sugar cane plantations in Brazil. From there, it was exported to Europe. Europe until this point had been on a relatively sugar-free diet. They got sugar from eating fruit and raisins, and extracted a little from sugar-beet. It wasn’t until the sugar-cane plantations were established that Europeans began to make confectionery and desserts. This is the point where sugar is added to cocoa butter to make modern sweet chocolate. This is the point where hard boiled sweets originated and this is the point where the idea of sweet desserts made with sugar took off (until then dessert consisted of a piece of fruit).

It wasn’t just the Portuguese and Spanish who were practising globalisation in the 15th and 16th centuries of course. Marco Polo’s expeditions to China also brought new ideas, in particular he brought back noodle-like things that the Italians decided to call “spagetti”. And pasta was born.

The crusades also had an effect. When the Venetians sacked Constantinople, (which was Christian at the time), they weakened it and thus opened it up to being later conquered by the Ottoman empire. The Ottoman empire was muslim, and they were strict about not drinking alcohol. Instead they drank a brew based on a bean found in Ethiopia. The brewing of this bean spread to Egypt, Arabia and Persia and thus to the Ottomans, who naturally introduced it into Constantinople when they conquered it. It was coffee. The Ottoman empire was moderate and believed in trade, and much trade was done between Constantinople and Venice, and from Venice the new drink spread to other parts of Italy, and then the world. We think of coffee as being quintessentially Italian - but it was an African habit introduced to them by the muslim Middle East.

We like to think of globalisation as a modern phenomenon, with restaurants from all corners of the earth in our cities. But actually the idea began in the 15th and 16th centuries. Ironically modern Italians are the least adventurous people about food - even when visiting France, they stick to Italian restaurants. But their forebears in the 15th and 16th centuries were the exact opposite - they were adventurous, willing to try anything and to experiment and make new dishes. By the 15th century, Italy had already had about 1500 years of civilisation, but they happily cast off tradition and tried out the new, and in doing so, forged the Rennaisance and a new cuisine.

There’s food for thought in that. Nothing is set in stone, cuisine evolves just like everything else. Who knows, some of the recipes being invented now might be the spark of a whole new cuisine that our descendants will revere as “traditional”!


Chillies, Chocolate, Cuisine, Food, Indian Food, Italian Food

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author avatar Rose*
Hi everybody! I'm a writer who enjoys writing about a variety of subjects

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author avatar Clarence Schreiber
17th Nov 2012 (#)

A very written article. It was an excellent read. Thanks for sharing.

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author avatar Mark Gordon Brown
17th Nov 2012 (#)

I love exploring other ethnic foods but of course we should also keep in mind that eating locally produced food is best for the environment (less shipping).

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author avatar Sivaramakrishnan A
18th Nov 2012 (#)

Good post; detailed and informative, thanks Rose. Chinese and Indian have gone global too. Good taste depends not only on the way it is cooked but also how fresh the ingredients are. So some lose their original taste if they are not available locally - siva

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author avatar Retired
29th Dec 2012 (#)

Thanks for the insight, success for your article

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author avatar snerfu
10th Jun 2014 (#)

So good to know that coffee came from Africa and sugar from India. Good article Rose!

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