Supporting investment in Dominican gastronomy: An invited talk

Last week the Fundación Sabores Dominicanos hosted its third Foro Gastronómico, titled, “Emprende e Innova. The forum hosted APEGA Sociedad Peruana de Gastronomia, along  with local and international experts to discuss the culinary innovation in the country. I am honored to say I was among those experts, participating via video to share the talk titled “Importancia de la cultura alimentaria y políticas públicas relacionadas con la alimentación en la diáspora” [The importance of food culture and public policy in the diaspora].

The talk was a brief summary of the work I have been doing with the Dominican diaspora in New York City, focusing on the restaurant sector. During the spring 2017 semester, I worked with students to interview chefs, cooks, and restaurant owners serving Hispanic Caribbean food in the city. Most of the interviewees came from Dominican restaurants. During debriefing meetings with the students, the first thing they noticed was how these respondents were enthusiastic about their product, describing the food served as “de primera” (first class) or “la mejor” (the best). One of the most highlighted quality of the cuisine was its home made quality – that is, the interviewee’s claims that they were able to replicate the food made at home. My previous interviews and conversations with the Hispanic Caribbean community in NYC reveals that attempting to recreate mom’s or abuela’s cooking is a tall order to fullfill! As explained by one of my Dominican interviewees,

Si yo salgo a comer, nunca es a salir a comer comida dominicana, porque no sabe igual. Sabe como, I don’t know, no es el sabor…Yo prefiero salir a un restaurante puertorriqueño que a uno dominicano […] pero es porque yo no crecí comiendo la comida de sus países. Aunque sí son similares, pero no me sentiría como: “Ah, mi mamá pudo hacer esto mejor”. (Ríe). Para mí me siento más cómoda en un restaurante puertorriqueño o cubano.
[If I go out to eat, never is to eat Dominican cooking, because it does not taste the same. It tastes like, I don’t know, it is not the flavor. I prefer to go to a Puerto Rican restaurant over a Dominican one […] but it is because I did not grew up eating the food from those countries. While they are similar, but I would not feel like, ‘oh, my mom could have done this better (laughs). I feel more comftable in a Puerto Rican or Cuban restaurant]. 

Dominicans were certainly not alone in this feeling. Puerto Ricans and Cubans also disliked most of the restaurants serving their heritage cuisine, with a few exceptions.  

Seeking to keep the cuisine as a recreation of home-made dishes also prevents it from being elevated beyond inexpensive establishments, under the low status label of “ethnic food” (see more on this here). My culinary adventures (also known as “participant observation”) in many restaurants in Dominican Republic reveal the possibilities of this cuisine. Take, for example:

Canelones Tainos from Restaurante El Higuero:

Higuero_canelones de yuca

Cannelloni pasta made from yucca with vegetable, chicken or beef filling (Photo: Higuero Restaurant Facebook Page)

Quipe crudo de zanahoria asada from TIME Vegetarian Kitchen:

Time_Carrott quipe

Roasted carrot quipe (Photo: TIME Vegetarian Restaurant Facebook page)

 

 

Investing in the development and dissemination of the national cuisine can provide economic and cultural benefits beyond motivating culinary tourism. As the Peruvian case demonstrates, gastronomy can be used as a tool for economic and community development. The sector provides an excellent venue for social projects that can lift people out of poverty, and can also contribute to public health. One brief example is the initiative, PescaVentura, sponsored by APEGA Sociedad Peruana de Gastronomia, where kids learn about the benefits of eating fish,

Pescaventura

Photo: APEGA, “PescaVentura”

My gratitude to the Fundación Sabores Dominicanos for the opportunity to be part of the Foro Gastronómico.

To learn more about the amazing work of these culinary associations, visit their web pages at http://saboresdominicanos.org/ and http://www.apega.pe/index.html

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The research presented in this post was made possible with the support of the City University of New York (CUNY) Diversity Projects Funds, which facilitated the interviews with Dominican restaurants in NYC, and the CUNY-Brooklyn College Tow Faculty Research Travel Fellowship, which supported my travel to Santo Domingo in May 2017. The research is part of my book project, Eating in Movement. Stay tuned and subscribe to this blog to learn more about this and other upcoming publications. 

Advertisements

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.

********************
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”. 

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!