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ESSAYS Mousse 30

A New Fruit

by Nick Currie

 


Illustration by Merijn Hos, 2011.

 

The idea of the unknown fruit with extraordinary sensorial virtues is one of the more delightful pretext Nick Currie could find to tell us about a serious situation, that of the unpleasant effects of globalization. When we say “unpleasant”, we also mean it in the sense of “culinary disgust”…

 

Although I am a middle-aged man, I have discovered a new fruit. This new fruit has become, in fact, my favourite.

Finding a new favourite fruit in middle age is a pleasant surprise. It suggests that there are still undiscovered things in the world: new flavours, colours, forms, words. It suggests that diversity is not dead. It suggests that geographical distance and the delay that it entails can store and sequence important new experiences so that they keep unfolding—or exploding in the mouth!—throughout a person’s life. Not all novelty gets used up in childhood. Not all tastes are repeated tastes.

In principle, to experience new things, all you need to do is move to a new place. Because places, at this point in history, are all still different, with different experiences waiting in them.

But back to the fruit. Here’s how I discovered it. I was in a supermarket in Osaka. I picked up what I thought was a package of fresh kaki fruits. Actually, kaki (the Japanese word for persimmon) is a relatively new fruit to me too; I started eating it only a couple of years ago, and I’m still slightly unfamiliar with its shape, colour and texture. That’s why I could pick up a package of biwa (the Japanese name for my new favourite fruit, also known as a loquat) thinking it was kaki.

Let me insert at this point the information that when I was growing up in Scotland in the 1960s there was a very strict—and very restricted—selection of fruits available. There was the apple, the orange, the banana. Those were the “normal fruits” (I exclude berries) to be found in the family fruit basket. Beyond that there were “exotic” fruits like pineapple, cherry and peach, which were often available only in canned form, stored for long journeys and long shelf-times in a sickly syrup. The exotic fruits were slightly suspect, redolent of carnivals and cha-cha-cha music. In Scotland we were Protestants, and disapproved of such things.

Later, of course, globalisation transformed supermarkets, even in Scotland. In the 1980s, many new types of fruit began to appear on supermarket shelves: mangos, papayas. At the same time, immigrant groceries cropped up on street corners, stocking things like jackfruit, the national fruit of Bangladesh. It would be tempting to say that now every fruit is available everywhere, and that by extension every location on earth is finally—thanks to the internet, cheap jet travel, sophisticated climate control, irrigation, miscegenation, refrigeration, air conditioning, television, cultural imperialism, international logistics and globalisation—exactly the same as every other.
But that would be a huge exaggeration. We will see, later, that the promise of globalisation to ship the local worldwide is something that can never be delivered.

Back to my new favourite fruit, discovered accidentally in a Japanese supermarket because I don’t read Japanese. Its flesh tastes like a subtler apricot. It has the hairy skin of a peach, but more tensely and tautly drawn across its surface. Inside are five big seeds which, if swallowed and digested, can apparently release cyanide. It’s just as well some instinct forbade me to swallow them.

Eaten in large quantities, the biwa is a mild sedative. It is consciousness-altering. I eat it with pu-ehr tea, which also has a strange effect on me. Who knows what state of mind many cups of pu-ehr plus a large quantity of biwas might provoke? A state of mind known, probably, to Chinese sages, for these things are both originally from southern China. That “originally” is fruitful, as we will see later.
The Japanese call this yellowish-orange fruit “biwa” because to them its lute-like form resembles a biwa, which is a Japanese lute. The biwa is the instrument used to accompany story-telling, and I am telling you a story now, accompanied by a fruit rather than a stringed instrument (but a biwa all the same). My story concerns difference and diversity, and the relationship of difference and diversity to the ideas of the far and the foreign.

In 1971 Milanese conceptual architects Superstudio proposed a satirical superstructure called Il Monumento Continuo, “the continuous monument”. This gridded carapace, designed to fit over the entire globe, had an ancestor in their equally-blasphemous plan to concrete over the canals of Venice, and has a descendent today in Rem Koolhaas’ idea of “junkspace”, the proliferating zombie volume of international airports, offices and shopping plazas, characterised, Koolhaas says, mainly by air conditioning, which is to say a bland, comfortable indifference to local conditions.

The question we have to ask ourselves now is: “Has the continuous monument been built”? The answer is no. The Continuous Monument is a twilight critique (with perhaps a hint of nostalgic celebration) of the Modernist idea of an insane, proliferating rationalisation of all life, the attitude (so rational it’s irrational) seen in the Bauhaus idea of the Existenzminimum. But fifty years divide the Bauhaus’ “machine for living” from Superstudio’s joke about building it on a planetary scale.

The canals of Venice were never concreted over and made ready for cars. Paris was not demolished to make way for Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse. New York and New Delhi were not linked by strange volumes of cosmic graph paper. We were saved these atrocities by the end of Modernism and the beginning of a new period, Post-Modernism. Suddenly the motto changed from “less is more” (Mies van der Rohe) to “less is a bore” (Robert Ventura). The emphasis shifted from making everywhere look the same to celebrating difference.

At the same time, we demanded that airports be located close to this “difference”, and that the internet be available there. So if Superstudio’s graph-paper monument is made of continuous flight paths, air-conditioning, cellphone signal and the internet, maybe it does exist today.

But let’s get back to food. Last month I returned from Japan, where I live, to Britain, where I used to live. I was surprised to find that some Japanese foods which used to be obscure in Britain are now well known. London has a chain of okonomiyaki restaurants called Abeno, for instance. This Osaka seafood omelette is rather tasty in London, though about eight times more expensive than it would be in the Osaka district called Abeno.

If “okonomiyaki” now joins the list of loan words from Japanese in English, so do “edamame”, “wasabi” and “tempura”. By the check-out tills at the Marks and Spencer chain “Simply Food” you can now find crunchy wasabi-coated pea snacks and packets of edamame, the podded beans eaten in Japan with beer.

Hungry before a flight, I entered the Simply Food shop at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 and bought a packet of tempura snacks cut to look like a fry-up of Asian vegetables. I was disappointed to find that these apparent renkon, daikon and bamboo shoots all tasted of a horrible old British snack called Cheesy Wotsits, a snack which impacts the tongue like an accident in a chemicals factory. The tempura tag was purely metaphorical. I found it interesting that British people are now being encouraged to call Cheesy Wotsits “tempura snacks”, perhaps without ever having tasted true tempura.

The greatest international success story of Japanese cuisine, of course, is sushi. I make a point of buying supermarket sushi wherever in the world I find myself. I do this not because I expect culinary greatness, but because every bite from these plastic boxes demonstrates how frail is the idea of a global monoculture. What we have is signs, ghosts, half-forgotten memories of the artifacts of other cultures. We do not have the actual thing.

The Simply Food sushi I tried got everything wrong: the rice was too hard, the fish too bland, the ginger tasteless, the wasabi grainy. Even worse was a sushi box I bought at a supermarket in Palma Majorca. Here, the wasabi was more like spicy guacamole and the soy a pathetic squirt of nothing. This was “sushi” forgetting itself along the global logistics chain, like a word in a game of Chinese Whispers. Of the delicious bites of super-fresh raw fish I’d once experienced at a lakeside restaurant in Hokkaido, for example, only the name remained.

Religion has already anticipated this problem: Christians say: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” The Japanese agrarian religion of Shinto has a more subtle and interesting view, more closely connected to food. Shinto is an animistic religion, which means that it sees a spirit in everything from rocks to rice. It’s also an agrarian religion, tied closely to agriculture and the seasons. For these reasons, food has a cosmological significance in Japan. In Shinto—according to folklorist Shinobu Origuchi—the spirits that live in things were once the province of strictly local gods. These local gods were worshipped by local monks. Later, the Japanese Emperor centralised political and religious authority. To keep the local gods “represented” in the capital, the monks sent special foods from each region to the emperor. It was believed that if he ate these foods—known as kunaicho-goyotashi—he would absorb the various local spirits from all over the country, strengthening both himself and the regional monks in the process.

This special food-approval system—the equivalent of the British monarchic system of “purveyors by appointment to her majesty”—is designed to ensure that the spirit of local speciality foods is not lost in the logistics chain. But it’s not just a question of quality standards. For Shinto, all food is “soul food”. The gods are in the details, wrapped up in seemingly-trivial daily commodities, and especially foods.

The French have a word for food’s link to place: terroir. It’s a word for the contribution local details and local people make to the character or personality of a wine, or a cheese, or any sort of crop: the lay of the land, the way wind, sun, humidity and erosion work on it, the choice of growing plots, the collective intelligence of the people working the land. When we taste a food, we’re also tasting a place, a history, a way of understanding.

That’s what terroir means. It’s something global logistics usually fails to understand, which is why supermarket sushi tastes totally different from the sushi I ate in Hokkaido. Supermarket sushi has forgotten about terroir.

So how does that forgetting happen? And why?

The Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson spent his last years in Samoa, where he lent his support to the local bid for independence from German colonial rule. In his book A Footnote to History, Stevenson tries to convey how grim and odd the German plantations seem to the Samoans:

“You ride in a German plantation and see no bush, no soul stirring; only acres of empty sward, miles of cocoa-nut alley: a desert of food. For the Samoan there is something barbaric, unhandsome, and absurd in the idea of thus growing food only to send it from the land and sell it. A man at home who should turn all Yorkshire into one wheatfield, and annually burn his harvest on the altar of Mumbo-Jumbo, might impress ourselves not much otherwise. And the firm which does these things is quite extraneous, a wen that might be excised tomorrow without loss but to itself; few natives drawing from it so much as day’s wages; and the rest beholding in it only the occupier of their acres.”

This is where we have to get political: it’s the abstracting power—the deadening hand—of international finance which undermines terroir and, ultimately, eradicates flavour from the food it makes available to us. That’s because the system behind globalisation passes control of food from the people who understand it—particularly its connection to place—into the hands of people who understand only money.

Brecht and Eisler lay it out quite clearly in their Song of Supply and Demand:

Rice can be had down the river.
People in the remoter provinces need their rice.
If we can keep that rice off the market
Rice is bound to get dearer.
Then the men who pull the barges must go short of rice
And I shall get my rice for even less.

By the way, what is rice?

Don’t ask me what rice is.
Don’t ask me my advice.
I’ve no idea what rice is:
All I have learned is its price.

Paradoxically, it is globalisation’s inability to keep local flavours intact all the way down the logistics chain—its tin ear for terroir, or for rice, for that matter—that guarantees that when we travel we do still encounter really different things, new fruits. They’re all the more shocking for bearing the same names as things we might have seen in the supermarket back home.

 

 

Originally published on Mousse 30 (October-November 2011)

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