Russian-Jewish Anya von Bremzen escaped Moscow with her mother to Philadelphia when she was 11. A polyglot who divides her time between New York and Istanbul, she is a piano prodigy turned food writer. Her accounts of Russia, Italy, Spain, Cuba and Latin America have been, in the culinary world, necessary fare. Her last book was a memoir, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, which swings between girlish merriment and historical horror. Her great-grandmother was tortured; her grandfather was in the “intelligence”. Her mother was anti-Soviet, and when von Bremzen was fed caviar at her elite kindergarten she gagged because, for her, it was the food of oppression.
Perhaps her background makes her uniquely qualified to author National Dish, a book that is full of questions. Von Bremzen travels to cities – Paris, Seville, Tokyo, Oaxaca and Istanbul – and probes iconic dishes. She addresses how a national dish can be a construct, which she wryly calls, “that dreaded word”. She traces the “fakelore” behind the folklore. Behind these dishes there is politics and propaganda, but there is also poetry.
It is a prickly and often hilarious journey. Ramen, she argues, whose origins were Chinese, exploded in Japan after the second World War when the US occupying army pushed their wheat surplus. Tortillas and moles are romantic, but they also encapsulate a history of colonialism, GMO corn, as well as a tradition of women who slaved away grinding kernels, wedded to the press.
The thrill of Seville, with its polka dots and gypsies, was a romance encouraged by Franco and immortalised by operas by non-Spanish composers like Bizet, Mozart and Rossini. Rosy strips of jamon Iberico become scented with the memories of the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews and Muslims were taunted to eat pork fat. The iconic tomato, mozzarella, basil Pizza Margherita was a fairy-tale crafted in the 20th century.
Razor sharp, von Bremzen carves through the bombast and hypocrisy of our global food world. About 17th-century France, she observes that the poor “subsisted on gruels and weeds (so undesirable then, now considered ‘heritage.’)” About grandmothers, who have so often functioned in food writing as a lynchpin of love, she remarks: “The nurturing Italian nonna, with her noisy kisses and sighs is central to the Italian brand. But Spanish abuelas?... Unsentimental, almost macho in their matter-of-factness, they relish their corridas, their late morning tots at the barrio bar.”
She has bleak memories of Paris, which she visited as a teenager, and it is with this she begins her book. “Other people,” she writes, “might swoon over the bistros, rhapsodise about first encounters with platters of oysters and crocks of terrine. Me, I saw nothing but despotic prix-fixe menus, withering classism, and Haussmann’s relentless beige facades – assembly-line Stalinism epauletted with window geraniums.”
There is much scholarship packed into National Dish. If there is a quibble it is in the Tokyo chapter where von Bremzen asserts that Edo Japan (1603-1868) had for two centuries “shut out foreigners”. In fact there had been Western infiltration despite Japan’s “locked-down policy”. The Portuguese, and later the Dutch East India Company, were stationed on the island of Dejima, and members were required to travel up to Edo (now Tokyo); hence Western learning or rangaku – specifically science, medicine and art trickled through. Edo-era rangaku helped Japan survive the 19th century American invasion, and informed the subsequent Western-leaning Meiji era, with which von Bremzen is rightly obsessed.
National Dish finishes with the beetroot soup borsch in her Jackson Heights home. (The “t” in borscht is a Yiddish-Jewish addition.) Ukrainians and Russians have claimed this soup as their own. Gathered in von Bremzen’s apartment for the borsch evening are characters familiar from her Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking – her mother Larisa and a couple, Toma and Andrei, who are originally from Kyiv. “I wasn’t sure,” she says, “that they’d want to see me again.”
“Every Russian,” she writes, “including myself seemed somehow complicit to me. I felt guilty for thinking in the imperialist language of Putin’s aggression, for the volumes by Pushkin and Tolstoy on my bookshelves… And if I started my national dish project comfortable with my own globalised cosmopolitanism, I felt existentially bereft now.”
What makes National Dish is von Bremzen’s writing, rich, urgent, and redolent of her literary heritage. Her mother Larisa was a bibliophile obsessed with France, but because she was from Moscow she had accepted, at the time she would never leave. Von Bremzen writes:
…Paris had featured intensively in my mother’s dreamlife. It was a mythical Elsewhere beyond the implacable Iron Curtain, a neverland desperately dear to her from Flaubert and Zola and her precious Proust, but so unattainable it could have been Mars.
Von Bremzen herself read hungrily as a child, dreaming of places and pasts that she too believed she would never attain. The National Dish chapters are self-contained essays, which echo the short stories of O Henry, Guy de Maupassant, and Anton Chekhov for each closes with a twist. If the chapter begins optimistically it will finish with a scorpion sting. If it starts bitterly it might conclude on a note heartrendingly sweet.
Like her countryman Vladimir Nabokov, von Bremzen writes in English, which is not her first language, and from it she spins magical prose. Her food descriptions are not just sensual, they are novelistic, evoking the books that she has devoured. For instance her description of çilingir sofrası in Istanbul is as alluring as a painting, attended as it is “by rosy-skinned pistachios and dark curls of basturma”.
In National Dish von Bremzen evokes other writers, among them Richard Ford, Flaubert, Cervantes, Pushkin and Orhan Pamuk, and they haunt her pages. Perhaps “national dishes” are fictions, and while – as in the best of books – buried in them are contradiction and sorrow, there is also solace. We are, after all, a world of cooks and storytellers. Maybe we perpetually rewrite a dish’s narrative to give us comfort and to satisfy our curiosity, and, when that tale is finished we cradle it close to our hearts. In the end if we use fiction – with its mythology, enchantment and, indeed, its lies – to engage with food it can result in a plate that is one of life’s greatest joys.