The Magic of Dominican Cuisine
The history of the kitchen, in reality, is a story of appetite, of customs and of taste. Cooking issues from two sources: one popular and the other learned.
Many types of cooking exist: country fare, city fare, cuisine from the kitchen of a housekeeper or modest domestic cook to the kitchen of professionals that are passionate cooks and reach their goal only through exclusive dedication.
Popular cuisine has in its favor that it spring from the land, from the market. It utilizes the products of the region and, according to the season, is in close relation to nature and based on an ancestral “know-how” that is passed down by subconscious routes of imitation and custom: already proven formulas of cooking, patiently applied and dependent on certain kitchen instruments indelibly marked by tradition. This type of local cooking can be corrupted by cultural and geographic displacements. The second cuisine, the learned type, is based on characteristics and exchanges as much as it is on experimentation.
The history of gastronomy is, precisely, a chain of permutations and difficulties, of removal of and reconciliation between everyday fare and artistic cuisine. The art, though it is a personal creation, is impossible without a typical, popular basis.
If cooking is a refinement of nutrition, then gastronomy is a perfection of cooking itself. A chef that does not begin by cooking and combining the basic products of the kitchen at least as well as a housekeeper is clearly a farce. Great cooking does not belong only to the privileged.
Rich classes and rich nations are not necessarily those that eat the best. In many poor towns, exquisite and amazing dishes are produced, like the “barbacoa” of the Indians of Mexico (goat slow cooked in hot earth) or the “mole poblano”, also from Mexico (turkey stew with hints of chocolate). From the most opulent country on the planet, Octavio Paz has said, “Traditional North American cuisine is a cuisine without mystery: simple, nutritious and little seasoned foods. Pleasure is a notion (a sensation) absent from traditional Yankee fare.”
But it is also undeniable that, if the quality of life is not enough to support the great art of cooking, neither is a gastronomic tradition capable of resisting a hard and prolonged misery. Tradition cannot be perpetuated without daily practice; there will not be a consolidation of habits without a minimum of well-being or comfort.
“The food of the Dominican”, I once said, “is not the cuisine of a palace, but a product of ethnology or a mix of biology and ethnology”.
Since beginning of the 20th century, middle class Dominicans have daily eaten the same lunch: rice, beans, meat (chicken, pork or beef) and plantain: the four corners of the tenacious “Dominican flag”. Rice and beans are sometimes mixed to make moro.
Rice and chicken also make mejunje and produce a reiterated dish: arroz con pollo. One or two times per week, sancocho is prepared from tubers or red beans. Eating a duck or guinea stewed in wine is more and more infrequent and exotic.
With the exception of the coastal population, upper class Dominicans eat very little fish. The preparation of fried fish, de la minuta or with coconut, often only happens in Samaná, Sabana de la Mar, Miches, San Pedro de Macorís and other costal towns.
Stewed goat with oregano is a typical dish only on a table in the Línea Norteste or in the deep South. Close to the border, goat accompanies chenchén, a paste that Haitians make with thick corn meal. Pork roasted at the stake, traditional or chilindrón (filled with rice and beans), is a delight for special occasions and Christmas celebrations.
Simple, static, though on occasions magical, Dominican cuisine has patchy links to medieval fare. So, through the strength of the spices, sugars and acids, and above all, their combination, tends to please all sorts of tastes. The gastronomic revolution that occurred in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries was based first on a search for finer flavors, the true natural flavor of each product, in contrast to the overbearing Gothic spices.
Unfortunately, the skills that brought about that culinary subversion did not arrive on an island that lived, in those time, at the mercy of the scarce resources that Spain provided.
It is evident that the great “learned” cuisine emerges and develops in those countries where an excellent traditional cuisine already existed, delicious and varied, to serve as a foundation. Daily Dominican cuisine, based on products of the earth and linked to a cultural heritage, has evolved very little in the last fifty years.
The great national cooks consecrate their art preferably in the production of dishes for those “in the know”, that is, gourmets, with a pronounced turn toward French, Italian or Spanish cuisine. We lack, save exceptions that are not always praiseworthy, restaurants and establishments where the national culinary tradition is the object of innovation and study and those chefs that, in their search and reflection, are guided by great artistic sensibilities.
The desire to remedy a certain lack, that is, a monotony in typical cuisine, has brought us to import foreign dishes of marked taste. But these do not only represent exotic foods, but also fabrications of popular or country origin. This is the case, for example, of Neapolitan pizza, Bolognese lasagna, Morrocan cous cous, the chop suey of the Californian Chinatown and Japanese sushi and sashimi. These regional foods, among others, satisfy the globalizing appetites of the national middle class and its international whims while smothering the flowering of a true gastronomy founded on the country’s products and uses.
It is impossible to ignore, in addition, that the gastronomic revolutions are also revolutions of terminology. As is the case of the “new French cuisine”, the nouvelle cuisine, it is more a semantic device, an artifice, than a true transformation. In 1978, the journalist Honoré Bostel mocked the rhetorical innovations of this school of thought (little more than extravagant, with insipid results).
Our flamboyant economic elites frequent French, Italian and Spanish restaurants. At times they attend only for the excitement of the menu: lamb tongue in gelatin, pheasant chaud-froid, salmon darnes, stuffed hake in Montpellier butter.
Gastronomy, like any custom, changes and forms its values with time and circumstance. Our own cuisine has truly varied little and prospered during the last century.
Imprisoned in the home, exiled from public establishments, distanced from all intelligent and imaginative contact, the national cuisine has reclaimed retoños, brotes lozanos and others, renewed and illuminated by talent and fantasy. With so much fast food in the streets and plazas, with so many foreign hamburgers, we run the risk of losing the little that is left of our cuisine, as we have irremissibly lost the merengue or as we are losing the language. Perhaps each instant is unraveling our history.
By Pedro Delgado Malagon of Revista Rumbo
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