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When Mediterranean Meets America
Though purists cringe, a new culinary amalgam is finding favor in U.S. restaurants
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The moment a Pilgrim substituted maize for rice in a traditional English pudding, America had its first fusion cuisine, and ever since our cooks have delighted in creating ethnic, cognate cuisines such as Italian-American, Jewish-American and Chinese-American. But the conglomeration of a dozen or more regional cuisines under the vast umbrella term "Mediterranean" goes so much further into culinary "con-fusion" that it's worthwhile exploring just exactly how and why such a thing developed.
Certainly nowhere in the Mediterranean will you find something called "Mediterranean cuisine."
You can't go into a restaurant in Mallorca, Spain, or Tangier, Morocco, and ask for a big plate of "Mediterranean stew." There's no trattoria in Amalfi, Italy, no taverna in Corfu, Greece, and no bistro in St.-Tropez, France, serving a menu of "Mediterranean classics." Yet that hasn't stopped American chefs from making traditional dishes from these places, and, with a little Yankee spin, turning them into a delectable hybrid that might more properly be called Med-American. These days a trendy chef who can't somehow fudge a tagine or slip a salad of goat cheese and beets onto his menu seems out of sync. What used to be called canapés are now called tapas or mezes.
Is it just American hubris that makes a chef open a cookbook and start preparing foods refined over hundreds of years in myriad Mediterranean food cultures, from the Peloponnisos and the Levant across the sea to Egypt and Iberia? What causes a young American chef to tour a prosciutto factory in Parma, Italy, then go home and start air-curing his own Italian-style ham? Why do American cooks latch onto an ancient grain or vegetable from somewhere in the Mediterranean Basin and hype it as the next nutritional boon? For no particular reason except novelty, many chefs are now promoting spelt, which the Roman legions subsisted on as a dreary porridge while conquering the Mediterranean. The once humble eggplant is being pureed in American restaurants and served as "eggplant caviar."
There is, to be sure, formidable support for a pan-Mediterranean approach to the cuisines of this vast region. Elizabeth David's seminal volume A Book of Mediterranean Food was first published in Great Britain in 1950, then in the United States in 1966, just in time to inspire American author Paula Wolfert to write Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco (Harper & Row, 1973), an authoritative book based on years of learning technique and lore from cooks in Fez, Erfoud and Marrakech. Wolfert's book came out at a time when America's appetite for exotic, ethnic cooking was soaring, and she became the godmother of the Mediterranean movement, with a number of follow-up volumes. Open to any page in Wolfert's books and you'll learn the history and regional background of a dish, from taramosalata (of which she notes, "It is almost impossible today to find quality burnished orange fish roe, or tarama, even in Greece.") to a Moroccan couscous made with seven vegetables, seven spices and 7-year-old butter called smen.
Sensing the burgeoning interest in Mediterranean food in the American air, the International Olive Oil Council (founded in 1956) put its promotional arm to work on the American market as of 1984, sponsoring media tours of Mediterranean olive regions and seminars with culinary historians and physicians. Its goal was to show that olive oil was not only underrated as a cooking oil, but was actually "good" fat, in contrast to artery-clogging butter, then requisite to restaurant cooking in the United States. The IOOC gathered and funded scores of studies to prove olive oil's healthfulness and early on supported like-minded organizations such as the Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust in Boston.
In 1993, Oldways formulated the "Mediterranean Diet Pyramid," a revolutionary challenge to the United States Department of Agriculture's sacrosanct "Food Guide Pyramid." The new pyramid mustered impressive scientific data to suggest that foods eaten abundantly in Mediterranean cultures -- whole grains, fresh fruits, vegetables, fish, legumes, nuts and olive oil -- contributed to a longer, healthier life.
The success of the Med Diet fit easily into the agendas of American food groups, including the natural food movement, organic farmers and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, whose jeremiads attacked easy targets like movie popcorn and Kraft's fettuccine Alfredo. While far more sensible than other regimens, the Med Diet effectively fed Americans' collective guilt that restaurant food -- previously lavished with cream, butter, cheese and other fats -- was driving up our cholesterol counts and heart disease rates.
The rubrics of the Med Diet caught on fast in the late 1980s in upscale restaurants catering to a clientele obsessed with weight and cholesterol, especially in San Francisco, which already had a long history of counterculture foodism. Mediterranean menus became all the rage there, so much so that the city could fairly be said to have fallen into a culinary rut, with Mediterranean-this and Mediterranean-that hemming in chefs and diners alike.
One of the first in San Francisco to promote the goodness of Mediterranean foods was Joyce Goldstein, a painter out of Yale who founded the California Street Cooking School, then cooked at Chez Panisse (whose owner, Alice Waters, a former Montessori teacher, had been inspired to cook by reading David). In 1983, Goldstein opened her own restaurant, Square One, where she featured a different Mediterranean cuisine each evening -- Monday might be Italian, Tuesday, Lebanese, Wednesday, Moroccan, and so forth.
Goldstein is indefatigable about authenticity -- she once researched the perfect spaghetti alla carbonara by sampling the dish at 52 restaurants in Rome -- and is a true crusader for what she calls the "full-flavored, sensual flavors" of Mediterranean food. Yet in her book The Mediterranean Kitchen (William Morrow, 1989) she warned, "To say that Mediterranean food is the food of Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, Greece, Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East is to play geography and list the names of nations on a map. It doesn't tell you much about the tastes and aromas of the place." She then answered the question, "Can we cook the foods of the Mediterranean accurately?" by insisting, "Of course not. We'll cook this food with the best ingredients available. It will be in the spirit of the Mediterranean, and it will taste wonderful."
All of which is apparent in her cooking, but Goldstein was putting her well-educated finger on just what went awry with so-called Mediterranean food in America. The very best and most serious chefs, such as Goldstein, respect the diversity rather than mix it together. Ana Sortun, the chef who owns Oleana in Cambridge, Mass., has built long-standing relationships with specialty grocers, who supply her with the best Spanish honeys, Gaeta olives, Greek phyllo pastry and Armenian cucumbers. She has learned the differences among yogurts ("Krinos is the finest and richest you'll find anywhere," she insists) and feta cheeses, as well as exotic spices like the Turkish mahlepi (made from powdered cherry pits) and chile peppers from Aleppo, Syria. "They are very special," she says, "sweet and hot at the same time, wonderful for cooking."
Yet how many American chefs could describe such differences? However esoteric such distinctions may sound, they are at the basis of what distinguishes one cuisine from another. Without knowledge of these differences, no cook can pretend to make anything but a facsimile of the real thing.
As Nancy Harmon Jenkins writes in her forthcoming cookbook The Essential Mediterranean (HarperCollins, 2003), "The primary ingredients differ in many parts of the Mediterranean, just as the cuisine differs." Yet, she goes on to note that, "there is a similarity that unites the differences," citing how certain ingredients like saffron in a Marseille bouillabaisse, cinnamon in a Cyprian stifatho, harissa in a Tunisia chorba, and the fish themselves, may differ, "yet the technique is very much the same in all three places."
Focusing in seems to be key to success. For 10 years now Sans Souci has been ranked one of the top restaurants of any kind in Cleveland, and today is more Mediterranean than ever.
"When I arrived here, the restaurant had drifted away from its original intentions to be truly Mediterranean," says Ben Fambrough, a California-born, Baltimore-raised, French-trained chef who has been at Sans Souci for 18 months. "A couple of previous chefs had taken liberties by Ôthinking outside the box,' which was an injustice to the cuisine of the region. My challenge is to create some fantastic food based predominantly on Provence, southern Spain, Italy and Morocco -- the western Mediterranean. It starts with the ingredients, so we don't use any Pacific fish. We use sesame but not sesame oil, which is Asian."
Thus, the menu at Sans Souci includes a Greek salad, an Italian zuppa di pesce with artichokes and grilled zucchini, a Marseille-inspired bouillabaisse, and roast chicken with green olives, capers and dried plums, accompanied by wines such as Domaine de Triennes Viognier Vin de pays du Var from Provence, Ripitala Nu Har from Sicily and Riojas from Spain.
Knowing when the time is right to open a Mediterranean restaurant is also crucial. "We wanted to do something very authentic," says Pano Karatassos of Kyma restaurant in Atlanta. "Ten years ago, a Greek restaurant like Kyma would not work in this town, but my father [head of Atlanta's Buckhead Life Restaurant Group] always has his pulse on the market and now it feels right for our kind of restaurant. Our family comes from the Greek island of Mytilene, and we know this food well. I took five trips to Greece, including one where I cooked with my family and in restaurants for three months straight, learning everything I could to be chef back here.
"We are very selective as to what we serve, and don't try to do too much, but we get exactly the same product as they use in Greece. We fly over Aegean fish like christopsaro, fagri, barbounia tiganita and tsipoura. We bring in artisan Greek cheeses and unique Greek wines."
To be sure, Americans adore the flavors of the Mediterranean. And since the most readily available vegetables and grains tend to be fairly inexpensive, chefs can sell them at reasonable prices.
Yet unless a U.S. restaurant runs under the pan-Med flag, as do Todd English's Olives restaurants, engulfing many cuisines at once, it may have a very rocky time attracting diners. Americans seldom crave a pure and authentic Turkish, Moroccan, Lebanese or Sardinian dining experience, so that restaurants specializing in those cuisines are almost invariably small storefronts in ethnic enclaves of American cities.
Even pan-Med restaurants receiving critical raves have found it difficult to survive after their moment in the limelight. in New York, high-profile pan-Med places such as Spartina, Scarabee and City Eatery failed to maintain a regular clientele and closed, and in the past year only a single new restaurant, Pazo, has opened there under the pan-Med banner.
Nevertheless, you'll find scores of restaurants throughout the United States now serving up grilled octopus, feta and olive salads, hummus dips, shavings of bottarga, sesame-coated fish, bulgur wheat, spelt, salted lemons, side orders of Israeli couscous and fava beans, and white bean puree -- most of it drenched in olive oil and sprinkled with coriander.
Fashion has a great deal to do with all things gastronomic, and pan-Med food is no exception. Unfortunately there is nothing particularly chic about going to a Persian restaurant like Caravan Grill in the Adams-Morgan section of Washington, D.C., or a Portuguese place like Iberia Peninsular in the Ironbound District of Newark, N.J., or a taverna like New Hellas Cafe in Detroit's Greektown, despite the fact that there is where you'll find the real McCoy.
Whether it's hubris or simply an appetite for novelty, pan-Med food tastes good, and American chefs and diners have embraced it exuberantly. Diners are very familiar with the flavors of Mediterranean ingredients, and chefs can offer bang for the buck from such items on the menu. So if we have to trade a little authenticity for food that has zest, brightness and the aromas of saffron, cinnamon and garlic -- and if it turns out that it's all good for you -- it's a pretty fair bargain for both palate and pocketbook.
John and Galina Mariani's new book is The Italian-American Cookbook (Harvard Common Press).
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