Re-linking Nutrition and Gastronomy

In his book, The Physiology of Taste, published in 1895, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin defined gastronomy as

a scientific definition of all that relates to man as a feeding animal. Its object is to watch over the preservation of man by means of the best possible food.

Nutrition, on the other hand, is defined as

the act or process of nourishing or being nourished; specifically:  the sum of the processes by which an animal or plant takes in and utilizes food substances (from Merriam-Webster)

 

As these definitions show, both nutrition and gastronomy care about the  “preservation of men” (and women). Early cookbooks contained recipes that used food as medicine, and many other contain introductions teaching the readers about the nutritive qualities of foods and how to best combine them in daily menus. Today, in practice, the gastronomic and nutrition views of food seem to stand in parallel silos.  Broadly speaking, those in the culinary fields talk about foods in terms of aesthetics, texture and taste, while nutritionists tend to reduce food to nutrient and caloric values. Now, I add “broadly speaking”, as this statement is an over-generalization. The culinary and nutrition “silos” are starting to interact. There are more chefs who are also registered dietitians and dietitians who venture into culinary training.  Chefs are also engaging in food policy. Examples are found in the Plate of the Union campaign (an advocacy movement that views access to healthy, affordable foods and safe drinking water as a right, and the current food system as favoring “Big Ag”), celebrity chefs engaging in humanitarian projects, such as the work of Chef Jose Andres and Jamie Oliver’s crusade to improve school food (and his “food revolution”), among others.

One of my ongoing research projects seeks to uncover more linkages. In a 2016 journal article, comparing dietary guidelines in the Hispanic Caribbean, I highlighted the inclusion of the Federación de Asociaciones Culinarias de la República de Cuba (the Cuban national culinary association) in the drafting of the national dietary guidelines. Their influence is seen in the guidelines messages. For example, beyond just telling the population to consume less salt, practical culinary advice is provided to achieve this recommendation:

Flavor your food with natural condiments and aromatic herbs (cumin, oregano, onion, garlic, basil, celery, parsley, among others) and citric juices. (My translation)

Beyond just asking the consumer to eat less fat and fried foods, the guide provide some advise on how to accomplish this, while also still enjoying fried foods,

Lower the consumption of fried foods. When frying, you should cut foods in large portions, so that they absorb less fat. (My translation)

Neighboring Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic have similar culinary associations are also engaged in important food work in the country, although not readily connected with the public health nutrition sector in the country. For example, the Asociación Gastronómica Puertorriqueña (and other local chefs) are working to build and solidify farm to table links in a island with a weakened agricultural sector. The Fundación Sabores Dominicanos (highlighted in my previous post) is striving to document and highlight the regional dishes in Dominican Republic.

As these examples show, chefs have an important role to improve and preserve healthy food habits in the communities they serve. This role is increasingly important amid the continued influx of ultra-processed and other globalized foods that lead to the gradual displacement of traditional fresh foods. These global changes have an often deleterious effect for consumer’s health, local producer’s livelihood and the nation’s economy. In addition, a greater (re)connection between gastronomy and nutrition can also have the needed effect of  helping us move beyond the prevailing myth that delicious food is inherently unhealthy, and that nutritious, healthy food is synonymous with bland, and tasteless dishes.

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This post is part of an ongoing research project, recently presented at the OxyFood 17 Conference, “Migrating Food Cultures: Engaging Pacific Perspectives on Food and Agriculture”, as part of the talk titled “Taste, Health and Ethnic Cuisines: Comparing nutrition and culinary experts’ perceptions of Hispanic Caribbean diets”. 

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A First Taste of Santo Domingo

Dominican cuisine is often summed up in a few main iconic dishes, including La Bandera (rice, beans and meat), sancocho, and mangú. As the case of neighboring Puerto Rico and Cuba, the cuisine is influenced by the historic amalgamation of culinary traditions from the indigenous Tainos, the Spanish colonizers, and the African slaves. Additionally, Dominican cuisine  has been and continues to be greatly influenced by incoming migration. For example, the Arab migration of the 19th century is seen in the Dominican version of the quipe (pictured below). Exchanges with neighboring Puerto Ricans has resulted in the incorporation of the mofongo, and the recent influx of Venezuelans is perceptible in new restaurants and menu additions, such as the cachapas.

Quipe de chivo (Source: Instagram)

Last week, I visited Santo Domingo for the very first time. Part of the purpose of the visit was to learn and sample how local restaurants are constructing Dominican cuisine in the island. Granted, eating out is still not widespread in the general population. The restaurants I visited seemed to cater mostly to tourists and to the middle/upper class segments of society. The prices were far from the cost of the platos del día (dishes of the day) found in smaller food establishments, where for a few hundred pesos (about $3) one could get a nice helping of rice, beans and meat.

One of the restaurants at the forefront of the continued development of Dominican Cuisine is Higüero. As described in the restaurant’s website (roughly translated),

Higüero, the restaurant, assumes the responsibility of becoming one of the pioneers in the purpose of making our food a product to be enjoyed by exigent gourmands, local and internationals.

In accord with this mission, the restaurant location is also the site of the Fundación Sabores Dominicanos, a local nonprofit with the mission of motivating the advancement of Dominican gastronomy. The foundation gets this work done through the documentation and dissemination of regional gastronomic trends (which has been a great resource!), as well as the annual gathering of culinary experts as part of the Foro Gastronómico. During my visit, I had the pleasure of meeting the key drivers behind the Fundación and receiving a copy of the proceedings of the First Foro Gastronómico.

sabores
With Bolívar Troncoso Morales, President of the Fundación Sabores Dominicanos (far right) and Juan Febles, the president of A&B Masters, Escuela Dominicana de Alimentos y Bebidas (far left).

Higüero is not the only restaurant with the mission of developing or promoting Dominican cuisine. Take, for example, Jalao, a relatively new restaurant in the Zona Colonial, located right across the Catedral Primada de America, the oldest in the New World. The menu featured interesting dishes such as the LP, or the “long plei” – a wheat-based Johnnycake- and the “Juego de pelota linero” – goat-stuffed croquettes.

Jalao food

Buche Perico, a popular tourist spot a few steps away in the Zona Colonial, had similar traditional (re)inventions, including the mini chimis de longaniza,

chimis

I also encountered the Puerto Rican trifongo – a combination of fried and mashed plantain, yucca and, in this version, breadfruit,

The trifongo can be the topic of its own post. In short, is a new iteration of the mofongo, where the plantain is accompanied by yucca and ripe plantains (or breadfruit). Like the mofongo, the trifongo comes from Puerto Rico.  While remaining close to the Puerto Rican original, the Dominican mofongo (as experienced in the Dominican Republic) may be prepared with boiled – not fried – plantains, and served alongside sancocho broth – a nice touch not found in Puerto Rico. The version below was eaten at the popular chain, Adrian Tropical, which was recommended as serving one of the best mofongos in the island. This one, the mini mofongo combi, was served with meats on the side, instead of inside (as one would encounter in Puerto Rico),

mofongo

El Conuco, the sister restaurant of Buche Perico, is located near the Hotel Jaragua, close to El Malecón. As the last restaurant visited in this trip, we opted to share a Dominican classic: the sancocho, as our last meal before returning back home.

sancocho

This was just a short, descriptive appetizer. At the risk of transforming this blog post into an extended restaurant review, I have obviated details on how these dishes tasted, and interactions with restaurant servers. Some experiences were better than others, but they all provided insight into how contemporary Dominican cuisine is being framed today, back in the Caribbean.

In the next weeks, I will be sorting through field notes and pictures from initial take on the Dominican Republic. The trip was part of a larger effort to expand research networks and explore the current culinary and public health nutrition situation, linked with transnational connections with the Dominican community in the US.

Stay tuned for more!

Living & Eating Comida Criolla in NYC: An invited talk

This past week I had the pleasure to return to one of my alma maters, Florida International University, to share my ongoing research with Hispanic Caribbean cuisines in New York City. I was hosted by Prof. Jorge Duany, Director of the Cuban Research Institute and Professor of Anthropology at FIU. The talk, titled Living and Eating Comida Criolla in New York City, shared results from field interviews I conducted with Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans in the city. The talk focused on the Cuban experience in NYC, as an opportunity to gather feedback from the Cuban perspective in Miami, FL:

The talk led to a fruitful conversation with the audience. Such conversation got started with a question on the distribution of Hispanic Caribbean restaurants in New York City, an interesting issue I have partly addressed in a previous post. This motivated questions about the cuisine authenticity, in light of the emergence of high-end restaurants, where these cocinas criollas are being reinvented with a higher price tag. Members of the audience also shared memories from their own migration histories, enriching my ongoing analysis of the Cuban American experience.

 

National claims…on Mashed Plantains?

Mofongo and mangú – can this duo of mashed plantain dishes in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean tell us something about national cuisines in this regional context?

30 mofongo y mangu

In my ongoing fieldwork, these two dishes have continually been used to distinguish Puerto Rican from Dominican cuisine. However, recent interviews with Dominican informants have revealed that they, too, claim mofongo as a national dish. Personally, I have to admit that these moments have created some conflict between my role as researcher and my national identity, as Puerto Rican. The first urges me to stay calm and continue listening, while, at the same time, my Puerto Rican self wants to argue against the assertion, and reclaim mofongo as uniquely Puerto Rican. Fortunately, the researcher in me wins these battles, while also prompting me to look further into this claim.

First, let’s start with the recipes:

30 recipes

The recipes above were selected from important cookbooks identified during my fieldwork, characterized by a long publishing history and staying power among the Puerto Rican and Dominican communities, respectively. In looking at Bornia’s book I see (with some disappointment) that she also has a recipe for mofongo, quite similar to Valldejuli’s, but without the additional olive oil. Cocina Criolla does not have a recipe for mangú…

As the inclusion of mofongo in the Dominican cookbook is not enough to justify claims over the dish, I continued my research, seeking to understand how this distinction is understood by others. During my search I stumbled upon the Urban Jíbaro and his blog, Sofrito in my Soul. In his post, struggling with the same dilemma, I found this video from Corona, Queens – a neighborhood known for its cultural diversity and restaurants,

The video addresses the controversial question, is mofongo from Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic? The video plays with the ethnic tensions that exist between Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, with mofongo at the crossroads. While mofongo is claimed, not surprisingly, by a Dominican restaurant, when the video protagonists take the question to the streets, the answers are different. Case in point: A Dominican woman who responds that mofongo is a Puerto Rican dish, adding,

“I have been here [NYC] for a long, long time, and I never had it when I lived in DR, in Dominican Republic – I had mofongo here”.  

Such response echoes those I have received from other Dominicans I have spoken with, the older generations in New York City and Puerto Rico. Interestingly, the claim for the “Dominican mofongo” has been from younger Dominicans, perhaps signaling the relatively recent introduction (and incorporation) of the dish to Dominican cuisine.

In the end, the Dominican claim on mofongo reflects the inevitable mixing of food cultures in a city like New York, where small, but perceived important distinctions between groups start to blur, melting identities (and food) as “Latino”, “Hispanic”, or (my least favorite) “Spanish”.

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Mofongo, as well as mangú, share the green plantain and its African roots, marking the importance of our African heritage in our shared histories and plates:

30 fufu

Thinking about Breakfast

A big part of what I do often is talk with others about food. Lately, these conversations have been related to my ongoing interest in how we distinguish our national cuisines in the Spanish Caribbean. On the surface, when diets are seen as just a collection of foods eaten throughout the day, Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican diets are quite similar. However, when foods are organized by meals, differences start to emerge, especially when talking about breakfast…

Dominicans eat mangú for breakfast!
In Costa Rica, I ate rice and beans for breakfast, lunch and dinner!

 Mangu breakfastRemarks like the ones above were made by fellow Puerto Ricans when talking about differences in national cuisines around Latin America and the Caribbean. A common comment was on mangú. This mashed plantain dish was seen as too heavy, or too much, for breakfast, compared with the common Puerto Rican breakfast of toast and coffee. And yes – this statement comes with the qualifier that breakfast varies by person and by day of the week. The toast in the Puerto Rican breakfast table is often slathered in butter and accompanied by fried eggs and ham – not exactly “light”. Yet, they are what we consider “breakfast foods”. Mangú, plantains, and beans are seen as lunch or dinner foods, not breakfast.

The distinction between “breakfast” and “lunch”/”dinner” foods may be something relatively new in Puerto Rico. Decades ago, viandas may have been a part of the Puerto Rican breakfast table, especially those in the country side, as part of a hearty early meal in preparation for a full day in the field.

This takes me to my second Cuban meal: breakfast at the Old Havana hotel a few weeks ago. The breakfast was served in a big, spacious room, surrounded by a rooftop terraza. Three walls with different buffet stations and an omelet station in the corner. In the center of the room, a table full of breads of all kinds, including decorative pieces. One such bread: a reptile like the one below. No pictures, but imagine this one, green.

cocodrile bread

Source: Pinterest

The offerings included various cold cuts, sausages, a few fruits…and pasta? Macarroni salad? Meatballs? This seemed odd. And I pondered on that every morning, as I cross the “lunch-breakfast” station (and no- I would not call this “brunch”). Was anybody eating this for breakfast? Not from what I saw. Yet – they were there every morning, for the four breakfasts we “enjoyed” there.

The last breakfast: Sweet bread, slice or watermelon, another piece of bread and mortadella.

The last breakfast in Havana: Sweet bread, slice or watermelon, another piece of bread and mortadella.

Breakfast is indeed the most important meal of the day, and perhaps the most interesting as well. How we talk about breakfast, more interestingly, about what “others” eat in the morning, manifests our own social norms surrounding food and eating. What we choose to eat may be affected by what we expect to do the rest of the day, and at the same time, what we eat first thing in the morning can have an effect on the rest of our day.

Interested in seeing breakfast tables around the world? Click below for a quick view:

Source: Huffington Post (Click on picture to watch)

Food, Prestige and the Breadfruit

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Breadfruit, Artocarpus altilis, is a wonderful food. It is a staple in the Pacific and the Breadfruit Institute, part of Hawaii’s National Tropical Garden, highlights its potential in helping fight hunger and ameliorate environmental issues worldwide.

Agriculturally, breadfruit is a high yielding tree, producing 50-150 fruits a year. Its tree can be used for construction, medicine, and even its flower can serve as a mosquito-repellentNutritionally, breadfruit is low in saturated fat, full of fiber, and a good source of calcium, potassium, iron, and vitamin C. Gastronomically – it depends on who you ask.

If you ask me, Breadfruit is a delicacy, a wonderful treat. In Puerto Rico, we call this delicious green ball “pana” – a word we also use to refer to a dear friend. In the town of Humacao, on the east coast of the island, a weekend festival is dedicated to this fruit, El Festival de la Pana. There, a magnificent mountain view of the island’s east coast serves as a backdrop for the culinary and artistic creativity of the festival’s hosts who prepare varied iterations of this food, including flan, wine, sangria, chips, cake…along with music, crafts, and even food art.

Mostly, we eat pana fried (tostones, mofongo) or boiled – pretty much anything you can do with a plantain or a root crop, you can make with a pana. Below, a few images from the preparation of tostones de pana, from a recently picked Puerto Rican breadfruit this week (Gracias, Angel!):

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While our culinary appreciation for breadfruit is shared by some of our West Indian neighbors in the Caribbean, in our sister Spanish-speaking countries, Cuba and Dominican Republic, our pana, our friend, is seen with different eyes. From a desired, traditional food, breadfruit becomes fruta de pan, commonly used as pig or livestock feed. Anecdotal accounts describe how breadfruit was left to rot in Cuba, even during the difficult period of the 1990s known as the Special Period in Times of Peace. Less extreme (but similar) perceptions are found in other Latin American countries, where breadfruit is called pan de pobres (poor people’s bread), among other names, and eaten only in times when there is nothing else left.

Breadfruit is thought to be native of New Guinea. It was brought to the Caribbean to feed slaves, and, on occasions, it was rejected by them. Such past and current rejections, even in times of hunger, underscore the cultural specificity concerning which foods are good enough to eat. It also points to the necessity of understanding the different notions and experiences of food insecurity, scarcity and hunger, even in culturally and historically close contexts. In this case, how has breadfruit transitioned from a slave food to a beloved fruit in Puerto Rico and to a low prestige, non-human food in Cuba, Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries?