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Is Restaurant Cuisine the “Real Cultural Deal”?

When exploring the restaurants in London or any other big city one can easily get the impression that most cuisines consist primarily of meat dishes. But while diving deeper into some of them, my consistent finding has been that there are a lot more dishes than I knew existed. That’s hardly surprising, restaurants obviously can’t serve hundreds of dishes and have to carefully pick those that they feel cater most to their audience.

Does restaurant cuisine ‘distort’ our view of the world in that way?

I sometimes think it does. To give an example: I’m German but I don’t like eating sausages. The reactions I get abroad range from simple disbelief to ‘you aren’t a real German’. However, back home that ‘issue’ has never come up in my entire life. While growing up in Germany I ate meat once or twice a week. We ate lots of different vegetables, potatoes, pasta, soups, bread, stews, dairy, meat, fish, pretty much everything there was. Yes, also sausages, of course, but not every day, not even every week! When I go to German restaurants abroad, few of the things we ate as kids are on the menu. These menus usually feature 10 types of sausages and lots of pork dishes. That’s a very one-sided view of the world. The German cuisine I grew up with was very seasonal and vegetable-centric. In April we ate asparagus, in winter we ate curly kale stew, and we ate sauerkraut all your round. These dishes were often served with meat or sausages, but the meat was more of an optional side dish. Sauerkraut was not a side dish. I remember eating it hot, as a stew, with mashed potatoes and some meat on the side.

A different example: when I lived in Japan for a couple of months I came across sushi exactly twice. My Japanese friends explained to me that sushi was a very special, expensive dish, not at all an everyday staple. Everyday food did include meat and fish, but, again, as a very small portion of the overall dish.

And I could go on: Turkey, Mexico, Spain, Singapore, to name just a few..

What happened to all these cuisines when they came to our restaurants? How did only the meat-heavy dishes make it?

I can think of two reasons: we culturally associate both eating meat and eating out with ‘something special’ and restaurants simply deliver on that promise. Or, even simpler, meat is easier to import if you’re far away from home.

But now that we can import things more easily my question is: aren’t we missing out? My favorite German dishes are vegetarian and they are hard to find in London. My favorite Japanese dish is Okonomi-Yaki, a very versatile savoury pancake with lots of toppings. We do get it in London, in exactly two restaurants (Thanks, Abeno!), while there are hundreds of sushi shops. There’s a great number of dishes we can’t find in London – and possibly will never find, scewing our perceptions of global food and cultures.

What can we do about it?

Check out the restaurants and stores that bring more variety to London. One great example is Mandira, a store that just opened in Covent Garden. They serve savoury Greek-style yoghurt, a very typical dish at the Aegean Coast of Turkey. You can also get Simit, a traditional, Turkish bread. It’s similar to a bagel, but lighter, crispier and coated in sesame seeds. It’s sold everywhere in Istanbul, in London it’s a bit harder to find.

If you want to know more about Turkish cuisine than kebab, I highly recommend going there or Deliveroo’ing it for breakfast or lunch!

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