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Food stylings offer insight to cultural change

Over my career, I have noticed that how we adopt foreign culture and make it our own is manifested through food.

However, sometimes this generates some interesting adaptations and ironies. Several years ago, when I first visited Tokyo, I was picked up at the Narita Airport and driven to a restaurant, called “The Santa Fe” before I was taken to my hotel. My host thought that I might feel right at home eating at a place that was named after a city that lies close to where I grew up.

Plates of tacos, enchiladas, and other “New Mexican” foods were brought to our table. The host told me it was one of his favorite restaurants. He and our companions were so gracious that I didn’t have the heart to tell them that what we were eating was not in any way close to the food in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I smiled as I ate and complimented the flavors, which seemed to be a cross between mild chiles and tomato sauce. However, that was a Japanese interpretation of New Mexican food that seemed to suit the locals well, as the place was packed and apparently a popular lunch spot for the business crowd.

Later on that same trip, I happened to eat at Shakey’s Pizza in Shinjuku, Tokyo. The restaurant looked like the Albuquerque Shakey’s I used to go to when I was in college. However, the pizza toppings were uniquely Japanese, with various kinds of dried fish and flavorings with which I was unfamiliar – good to the taste, but definitely not my idea of a traditional pizza.

The columnist’s New Mexico-style red chile enchiladas. (Courtesy of Jerry Pacheco)

Of course, Italians traveling through the U.S. would probably be perplexed at the pizza we churn out here, which only has a distant resemblance to the original form of pizza in Italy. I was aghast the first time I ate pizza at a worldwide chain in Mexico City, which is quite similar to pizza at the same chain in the U.S. The people I was dining with took a bottle of ketchup and some ranch dressing and poured it on top of each slice they were eating. To this day, I have never eaten pizza topped with ketchup, but I now love to dip pizza slices in ranch dressing.

Then there was the first time when I was living in Mexico City that I had coffee at a friend’s house. She served me a coffee cup full of hot milk. I hesitated to touch the cup because I thought she must have accidentally served me creamer for the coffee. Then I looked in her cup and it also was full of milk. She then returned from the kitchen with a jar of Sanka instant coffee, which she handed to me. I looked at her and she must have seen that I was confused. She asked for the jar, took three scoops of instant coffee out and put them in her milk. I had never seen coffee consumed this way, because in the U.S. we generally prepare standard coffee the other way around.

I often chuckle at Americans who visit Mexico and are accustomed to supposed “Mexican” foods in the U.S. I have been with fellow Americans in Mexico who are surprised to see that chimichangas and fajitas are not on a typical Mexican restaurant’s menu. The chimichanga is an Arizona creation, while fajitas are believed to have originated in Texas.

Americans visiting China might be surprised to not find General Tso’s chicken in a Chinese restaurant. Many Chinese are perplexed how a legendary nineteenth century general and battlefield legend has had a plate of an American version of Chinese food named after him. Apparently, a creative Chinese-American restaurateur whipped up a dish with ingredients that has resonated so well with the American public, but is a mystery to Chinese citizens. In that same sense, chop suey served in the U.S. bears only a scant resemblance to the same dish in China.

Aficionados of beer in Germany probably shudder that the top five beers consumed in the U.S. are Bud Light, Coors Light, Michelob Ultra, Miller Lite and Modelo. I’ve talked to Germans who say that most American beer, other than craft beers, taste like water to them. Most German beer that I have drunk in Germany are bold and don’t even seem to be related to the most popular U.S. beers.

In Mexico, enchiladas are made by dipping tortillas in chile and then rolling them around fillings such as cheese or beef, with a final topping of white cheese. In New Mexico, I grew up making enchiladas stacked, much like lasagna, with the red or green chile sauce baked into the entire dish. This rich concoction is then topped with cheddar cheese, which some of my Mexican friends tell me is an abomination. However, I explain to them that in the days of the Santa Fe Trail, which stretched from Franklin, Missouri, to Santa Fe, many goods from the Midwest started making an appearance throughout northern New Mexico. This included cheddar cheese, which was integrated forevermore into classic New Mexican cuisine. To this day, I have arguments with my Mexican friends over which form of enchilada is tastier.

The core of a people’s culture tends to remain constant over generations. However, this does not mean that culture is static. Incorporating the best elements of foreign culture, such as food, has made nations across the globe stronger and more dynamic.

Foods are a physical representation of this phenomena.

Jerry Pacheco is the executive director of the International Business Accelerator, a nonprofit trade counseling program of the New Mexico Small Business Development Centers Network. He can be reached at 575-589-2200 or at