One-Pot Cities

  • articlepress book2003.06 - p.102One For All - Oxo One-Pot Cookbook, UKwith Katia Hadidian

    1st published in ONE FOR ALL, the OXO ONE-POT COOKBOOK, KATIA HADIDIAN (ed.), TANK PUBLICATIONS, 6.2003, p.102.

    When TANK contacted me about writing this piece, they did say they were ‘thinking laterally’… I was quite surprised to be asked, since I had just published a book that had nothing to do with food – or so I thought. In fact, it was a direct attack to one form of cookbooks: the architecture and urbanism cookbook. It was my attempt at showing the limits of objective recipes that claimed to create ‘real’ places. Real people, not books, make real places. Recipes are better left for culinary cookbooks.

    Cuisine is to food what architecture is to shelter: it is the specific cultural expression of an existential need. By ‘existential need’ I mean both the physical need and the mental, psychological need, that together are necessary to the survival of the individual, and to the survival of his or her cultural identity.

    That cuisine is the expression of cultural identity is a familiar fact. What is more interesting however, is how the particular way of presenting and sharing the food changes throughout space and time and society. 

    ‘One-pot’ cooking, which modern cuisine is re-discovering is a curious example. The culinary cultures that have used it, and continue to use it are various. Rice, Curries and soup in the Eastern Asia , goulash in Northern Asia and Europe, mole and carreteiro in South America, couscous in north Africa, or mansaf in the Middle East, all have one thing in common: they all represent one of the easiest and most basic ways to cook food. 

    Traditional – ancestral – one-pot cooking is the most literal transformation of limited available ingredients and cookware into a meal. It is no wonder that it is the most common form of cooking amongst nomadic cultures, which were limited to easy-to-keep, portable ingredients such as grains, and livestock meat which is self-propelling food. They also had limited cookware, and were not eager to use up the water they carried to do the washing up. 

    It is also the most immediate translation of food into cuisine, with cooking and eating becoming social rituals crucial to the cohesion of the group, the tribe, or the family… I would even like to imagine that it is the enjoyment of these moments of culinary entertainment that lead to the settlement of these people and the eventual development of city life. 

    In such a view, the development of agriculture, which is generally accepted as the catalyst of settlements, would be the result of the search for more ingredients to cook with. The birth of cities would be the fruit of a ‘research and development’ effort of new flavours and tastes.

    The newly formed cities would grow into empires, and trade networks; and the different one-pot dishes of the different settled cultures would mix, and new spices and new vegetables would be exchanged, and new cuisines would emerge…

    Where a significant overlap of culinary cultures would happen, interesting variations on the one-pot concept would develop. Take for example the highly diverse mixture of influences that happens in the Mediterranean and the Middle-East, where North meets South and East meets West… instead of opting for one or the other versions of one-pot meals, people of these lands have created a fantastic concept: the mezze, epitomised in Lebanese cuisine.

    With its fifty or more different dishes, the mezze (with its cousin the tapas) does seem at first a far cry from the one-pot meals of lore. Yet I believe the delicate dishes are but the sophisticated, cosmopolitan, hedonistic city dwellers’ variation on the theme. The every day mini-banquet retains the core social idea behind the one-pot: a highly nutritious meal, and an occasion for the whole family, or group of friends, to share. Instead of a single pot everyone dips into, you have many little one-pots everyone dips into. Instead of one taste, the table caters for many… and of course, greedy as the Mediterranean sun makes one, all this diversity is still often followed by an enormous one-pot ‘main course’.

    One such main-course one-pot is the paella, which borrowed its name from the Arabic ‘ba’eya’, literally ‘leftovers’, during the Arab presence in Spain. Leftover based one-pots appeared way before the industrial revolution of course, before the development of electricity, the fridge, and frozen food… but the industrial revolution also brought with it mass manufacture of pots, fan-assisted ovens, microwaves, and eventually the dishwasher; all the conditions that created the traditional one-pot are gone!

    Industrialisation also brought the concept of rationalisation and subdivision, the surge and then the atomisation of the city, and of the breakdown of the family as a social unit. The one-pot survived as an easy-to-prepare meal for bachelors and campers with little time on their hands. 

    In the last century, social scientists loved to blame industrialisation for all the woes of modern life - I wonder if the current resurgence of one-pot meals as social entertainment wouldn’t be again, a symptom of the changes in our concept of the city. It wouldn’t surprise me if, with the help of a good Chateau Musar, all our physical and social sciences wouldn’t be able to mix again in some sort of a one-pot primordial soup! As I said, real food makes real people, makes real places…