The world on your plate: food globalization through the ages


We probably all eat something from a foreign country once in a while. Italian pizza, Thai curry or a real American burger; we probably all recognize these cases. But did you know that typical ‘Dutch’ food like mashed potatoes with curly kale or a nice piece of apple pie are not as ‘Dutch’ as we might think? It is hard to think of a dish, let alone a complete menu, which consists solely of products that are native to the Netherlands. Although our soil is fertile and our seas are filled with fish, we have always brought products from far abroad to our kitchens; potatoes are from South America, apples are originally from Central Asia and we colonized the world in order to find and trade spices for our food. This article will take you on a journey back in time to reveal the origins of many of the most basic ingredients we nowadays use.

Through the ages, a lot of different ingredients and dishes came into our daily menus. This process of food globalization might arguably be the first fundamental kind of globalization that took place on our planet. The persistently strong desire of the human race to explore the world and to try new food products happened to such an extent that it is hard to think of a dish, let alone a complete menu, which consists solely of products that are native to one specific country.

Across the Eurasian continent, people have been trading already since Antiquity. Alexander the Great conquered large parts of the Middle East, Persia and Central Asia, and while he fought Hellenic culture deep into the Eurasian continent, he took home something quite different: a wide range of different products that we currently regard to be essential for our national cuisines have their origins in this part of the world. These include fruits (apricots, grapes and even apples), vegetables (onions, spinach, cabbage) and different kinds of meat (sheep, chicken). He laid the basis for the so-called Silk Road network, a system of trading routes that facilitated this process of Eurasian exchange. This ancient network of trading routes also brought cattle, lettuce, beans and coriander into Asia, where some of those products nowadays are basic ingredients in Asian cuisines.

When Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas in the 15th century, he unintentionally started another ‘food revolution’, on a scale that was unprecedented. While he and his successors did not only discover a whole range of new cultures, they also discovered a wide range of cuisines that were based on entirely different ingredients. Europeans took home fruits (avocadoes, pineapples and strawberries), vegetables (paprikas, tomatoes and even chili peppers, which we nowadays connect with Asia rather than the Americas) and also other products that now so much embedded in our cultures and cuisines (cocoa, peanuts, maize) came to us only relatively recently. Also, there would not have been bananas in Costa Rica, coffee in Brazil and no beef for a real American burger if Columbus did not (re)discover the Americas.

On their behalf, the colonizers of the world brought all these ingredients to every corner of the globe in order to cultivate them in a more efficient way. That is how all these products ended up being commonly known ingredients for most of the world population. Of course the story does not end here; culinary creatives all over the world continue to combine products from every corner of our globe into new tasty combinations. This process, called fusion, is fairly ancient in itself, too. For example, the ‘Chinese-Indonesian’ food most of us consume once in a while (and the editorial board of Girugten is no exception!) is in fact so much adapted to the Dutch taste that finding such dishes in China or Indonesia is just impossible. A less famous example will be well-explained below: the Central-Asian rice dish plov is a good example of how these major food globalization processes described, influenced the food that is seen as native to a particular place.

Think about it when you go the supermarket or a restaurant: real authentic food from a specific country hardly exists! Ever since human populations came in contact with each other, they started to exchange the different food products they used.

Food globalisation in practice: Uzbek plov
An exemplary case of food globalization from ancient times is plov, a rice dish that is prepared in many different ways all across the countries that are situated on what used to be the Silk Road. Right at the heart of the Silk Road we can find a city called Samarkand, from where this delicious and savory dish originates. Today, plov is seen as the national dish of Uzbekistan, where it is still served for many occasions. It brings together rice from East Asia, onions and garlic from India and raisins from Persia, amongst others. This recipe gives you the opportunity to prepare the luxury version that is served for wedding ceremonies.

Ingredients for 4 persons – 1 hour:
200 ml oil of your choice
500 g lamb (or beef), cut into big chunks
700 grams of carrots, sliced in long, thin strips
2 onions, diced
100 grams of canned chickpeas
150 grams of sultain raisins
5 dried apricots cut into small pieces.
2 garlic heads, unpeeled
500 grams of long-grained rice
1 tablespoon of salt
1 tablespoon of ground coriander
2 tablespoons of ground turmeric
1 teaspoon of cumin seeds
2 tablespoons of flaked almonds, roasted

Heat the oil to high temperature and add the meat until brown while stirring frequently.
Add the onions and continue frying.
When the onions are light brown, then add the carrots. Fry until the carrots are half cooked.
Add 500 ml water together with the chickpeas and bring to boil.
Reduce the heat when cooking and add the garlic heads and let cook for 15 minutes.
Add the raisins and apricots. Continue cooking for another 5 minutes.
Add turmeric, cumin, coriander and salt. Stir the mixture until well-mixed.
Take out the garlic heads and start adding the rice; layer it evenly on top of the carrots, then place the garlic heads on top of the rice layer.
Add water to cover the surface of rice until the rice is under water for a little less than 2 cm.
Set the heat on high and wait until all the water is soaked by rice,.
Mix only the top of the rice and close the lid, reduce the heat on very low.
After 15 minutes, open the lid and again mix only the top of the rice, close the lid and then cook for another 10 minutes.
When the rice is cooked, remove it from the heat and gently mix all the ingredients together. Garnish with the flaked almonds. Now the plov is ready to serve!

Top photo: A Chinese supermarket in New-Zealand. CC BY-SA 3.0,


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