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Review: Anya von Bremzen (2023) National Dish

A man boasting about his family’s heirloom recipes is a boor. Let him only boast about his national cuisine instead and now anything but respectful credulity on part of the audience will declare them boorish. To contest a detail in the origin story of a beloved national dish is liable to be interpreted as disparaging the foodways and culture of a people; only a disagreeable few rise to that challenge. It is hard enough to tell a parent or in-law their cooking blows, taking on the fabulations of legions of foodies, food writers, and cultural attachés is positively Sisyphean. Thus grows the body of faux lore around national cuisines; riddled with half-truths and whole lies that become the coin of the realm in lay culinary discourse. Everybody knows that the pizza Margherita was named in honour of the namesake “blond queen of unified Italy from the Piedmontese House of Savoy” (27); that the Japanese were nurtured by rice for two thousand years (81); and, that securing cultural and political autonomy for a community requires the preservation of its traditional foodways at all costs. Of course, all this is all bunk though as von Bremzen will tell you.

National Dish?

Just what is a national dish? It can’t simply be a dish outsiders strongly associate with a country. It would be odd for Great Britain and its quondam colony India, for instance, to both have curry as their national dish—ignoring for the moment that curry is not a dish but a diverse class of wet foods. Yet, to go to the other extreme and let anything the loudest spokespersons of a nation identify and project as its national dish count seems to run afoul of the scruple that the dish must have an authentic and wholesome relationship to regional culture and foodways. A case in point is the unease surrounding ramen as the national dish of Japan. Increasingly fashionable in the West the food most Japanese previously considered the culinary equivalent of a B grade movie (68) was given a glamorous makeover by young ambitious chefs who’d drunk deeply from the font of internet culture. If neither residents’ nor outsiders’ associations of a dish with a nation suffice to identify it as a national dish, then what is/are the missing ingredient/s?

Perhaps, it must be a staple dish. Though this cannot be a decisive factor either. Few Indians would say the staples of dal chawal or roti sabzi are national dishes. These staple dishes are culinary B movies; they don’t communicate the self-identification of the nation as a locus of high refinement and culinary sophistication. If only dishes that are traditionally prepared as part of a ritual or custom can pass muster then ethnically and religiously diverse countries like India suffer from an embarrassment of riches. The presence of many religious communities with diverse foodways militates against the choice of any single dish as emblematic of the nation’s palate.

Focusing on iconic dishes from Paris, Naples, Tokyo, Seville, Oaxaca, and Istanbul von Bremzen attempts to bring light rather than the usual heat to the concept of a national dish in a globalized world where surprisingly nationalism is resurgent. She doesn’t to her credit pretend that stories about a few dishes from six countries provide a comprehensive account of the productive tension between national and world cuisine, although a sequel covering other national cuisines is acknowledged as a live possibility. A first principles approach to the question of theorising the national dish shows even a book covering every existing national cuisine is not up to the task. This is because—as von Bremzen acknowledges—the constitutive concepts of nation and national culinary identity are themselves of recent vintage and subject to ongoing negotiation; they are open to influence from actors at home and abroad.

Analytic Geopolitical Gastronomy?

While the book is right in pointing out the unique influence France had on other countries trying to individuate their own ethnonational identities after overcoming colonial pasts, it totters under the burden of the kitchen-sink mission of founding an analytic geopolitical gastronomy. Sure, Ukrainians and Russians duking it out over authorship of borscht (232) are an interesting symptom of the struggle for individuation and the spoils of soft power. But the fact that rival nations will compete on every available front is not particularly surprising. Another phenomenon in the vicinity, which von Bremzen doesn’t explore more deeply, is that of subnational conflict over authorship of popular national dishes. She does come deliciously close to analysis of this sort of subnational culinary contest in her essay on ramen and rice in contemporary Japan; ramen is a hit with the youth and a flop with the oldies, and the reverse is the case with rice.

“[F]ood carries the emotional charge of a flag and an anthem” (3). But in ethnically diverse countries there are many flags and many anthems, and dishes with regional provenance in terms of ingredients and modes of preparation can get caught in the crossfire between adversarial communities. Following an attack by a Muslim group on a religious procession organized by the parapolitical Hindu organization VHP in Nuh in the Indian state of Haryana, Hindu mobs retaliated by attacking biryani stalls in Badshahpur, Gurgaon. Biryani, a dish variously assigned a Mughal, Persian, or Arabian origin, is a quintessentially Muslim dish—if one may assign a religion to a dish. While this incident shows interfaith conflict as a variable influencing attitudes towards a popular national dish, another one involving author Sudha Murthy—wife of Infosys founder Narayana Murthy—shows intrafaith [caste] conflict to be a variable influencing the foodways of religious Indians otherwise feeding at the same trough. Murthy claimed in an interview she carries her own food when abroad not because vegetarian food is hard to come by but because she fears some restaurants might be giving vegetarian and non-vegetarian customers the same spoons. Twitter slammed her for the regressive attitude to caste, expressing fear of contamination by physical contact, implicit in the idea that vegetarian food consumed with a spoon used by a non-vegetarian would be polluting.

Analyses of subnational contestation of culinary practices and authorship of dishes are a missed opportunity in a book aiming to understand home through the histories of favourite foods. Home, after all, is where the hearth is.


Anya von Bremzen (2023) National Dish: Around the World in Search of Food, History, and the Meaning of Home. Penguin Press.

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