Mongrel cuisines

I’m interested in mongrel cuisines.

Just about everything I cook myself is mongrel cuisine by definition. I’m culturally rather a mongrel myself, and most of my sources for recipes are not exactly faithful to the culture of their birth. For instance, this evening I made dal, following a recipe from someone who I’m pretty sure isn’t Indian. I’ve never had the “real thing” cooked by someone who grew up eating Indian food at home so I have no real idea how “authentic” this one is and I don’t care as long as it tastes good, which it did.

This got me thinking about how “Indian food” as most commonly seen in Britain is itself both a subset (the default “curry” only representing food from the northern end of the subcontinent) and very much a mongrel, featuring some dishes that appear to have been invented in Britain. Similarly, when I moved to the US I noticed that the more bastardised forms of Chinese food were actually quite different from those I was used to in Britain. It’s possible in the cities with a bigger Chinese population—Seattle or San Francisco, for example—to find food that has more in common with what I’ve actually eaten in China, but the default is beyond mongrel; let’s call it a chimera.

These mongrels can be quite bad. The world does not need what passes for Mexican food in Britain, Iceland or Mongolia, nor does it need more varieties of fried battered cubes of mystery meat in gloopy over-sugared sauce with cutesy Chinese names (though I will admit to a weakness for both of these travesties). But I’m interested in the ones that are really great. The real triumph is when a mongrel cuisine is so good that it gets exported in turn. I know of some great examples round here:

  • The Berliner serves döner kebap German-style, which seems to mean really good döner meat (unlike most kebab houses in London, for example), with similar salads and sauces to the London variant, in a kind of bread I’m more used to seeing served with sausages.
  • InChin’s Bamboo Garden serves what is apparently sold as “Chinese food” in India. It’s a glorious mashup with paneer repeatedly standing in for tofu, and a lot of spices I’m more used to seeing in Indian food, with cooking styles familiar either from real Chinese or British-Chinese food.
  • ‘Ohana serves Hawai‘i food, which also seems to be the most widespread cuisine on O‘ahu. Some of the dishes are ethnic-Hawaiian, some just general American, and some seem to have come straight from Japan or the Philippines, just like a good proportion of Hawai‘i’s population. But the most interesting ones to see are the true hybrids like spam musubi and curries that have more in common with Japan’s interpretation than any actual Indian food.

There’s at least one more mongrel cuisine that I’d go out of my way to eat if only I knew where to go: the “Nonya” cuisine of the Chinese diaspora in South-East Asia. I’m also intrigued by the Japanese versions of Western cuisine, and endlessly amused by Hong Kong-style Western dishes.

There must be more. Plenty of places I know much less about have had migrants going back and forth for many generations: which have come up with cuisines worth seeking out?

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