Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History

Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History

by Rachel Laudan

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Rachel Laudan tells the remarkable story of the rise and fall of the world’s great cuisines—from the mastery of grain cooking some twenty thousand years ago, to the present—in this superbly researched book. Probing beneath the apparent confusion of dozens of cuisines to reveal the underlying simplicity of the culinary family tree, she shows how periodic seismic shifts in “culinary philosophy”—beliefs about health, the economy, politics, society and the gods—prompted the construction of new cuisines, a handful of which, chosen as the cuisines of empires, came to dominate the globe.

Cuisine and Empire shows how merchants, missionaries, and the military took cuisines over mountains, oceans, deserts, and across political frontiers. Laudan’s innovative narrative treats cuisine, like language, clothing, or architecture, as something constructed by humans. By emphasizing how cooking turns farm products into food and by taking the globe rather than the nation as the stage, she challenges the agrarian, romantic, and nationalistic myths that underlie the contemporary food movement.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520286313
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/03/2015
Series: California Studies in Food and Culture , #43
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 488
Sales rank: 1,308,818
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 8.90(h) x 4.10(d)

About the Author

Rachel Laudan is the prize-winning author of The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage and a coeditor of the Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science.

Read an Excerpt

Cuisine and Empire

Cooking in World History

By Rachel Laudan


Copyright © 2013 Rachel Laudan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95491-5


Mastering Grain Cookery, 20,000–300 B.C.E.

In 1000 B.C.E., when the first empires were being formed, the globe was home to fifty million or so people, about the population of present-day Italy, or slightly over twice that of Tokyo or Mexico City. Most of them were concentrated in a belt across Eurasia that swept from Europe and North Africa in the west to Korea and Southeast Asia in the east. Some still lived by hunting and gathering. Some were nomadic pastoralists who followed their flocks and herds. A tiny proportion dwelt in cities, most of which were inhabited by fewer than ten thousand souls, and even the biggest of which boasted no more than perhaps twenty-five thousand, the size of a small American college town. The overwhelming majority of people lived in hamlets and villages, growing their own food and trying to keep as much as they could out of the hands of the townsfolk. Hunters, herders, city dwellers, or peasants, each and every one of them depended on cooked food.

Cooking had begun almost two million years earlier with the appearance of Homo erectus, according to the Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham. Other anthropologists have questioned this. However the matter is resolved, it is clear that humans have been cooking for a very long time. Before the first empires, indeed long before farming, they had passed a point of no return, where they could no longer thrive on raw foods. They had become the animals that cooked.

Cooking softened food so that humans no longer had to spend five hours a day chewing, as their chimpanzee relatives did. It made it more digestible, increasing the energy humans could extract from a given amount of food and diverting more of that energy to the brain. Brains grew and guts shrank. Cooking created mouthwatering new tastes and pleasing new textures, replacing the slightly metallic taste of raw meat with the succulence of a juicy charred steak, for example, and fibrous, tasteless tubers with fragrant, floury mouthfuls.

As humans became more intelligent and mastered more methods of cooking, other changes followed. It became possible to detoxify many poisonous plants and soften others that had been too hard to chew, so that humans could digest an increased number of plant species. This allowed more people to live off the resources of a given area as well as making it easier to settle new areas. Ways of treating flesh and plants so that they did not rot permitted the storage of food for the lean times of hard winters or dry seasons.

Cooking had its disadvantages. Some nutrients and minerals were lost, although on balance, cooking tended to increase the nutritional value of food. New methods of cookery introduced new dangers, such as poisonous molds and seeds with grain cookery and, more recently, botulism with canning and salmonella with prepackaged ground meat, although in general cooking made food safer. And a heavy, unremitting burden fell on those who cooked. Even so, the many advantages of cooking outweighed the disadvantages.

With cooking, plants and animals became the raw materials for food, not food itself. Given that we commonly use the word "food" to describe what farmers grow, and given that we eat nuts, fruit, some vegetables, and even fish and steak tartare without cooking, the statement that plants and animals are not food may seem counterintuitive. The fact is that most of us get only a small fraction of our calories from raw foods. Even so, that fraction is probably higher than that of our ancestors, since we are the beneficiaries of millennia of breeding that have created larger, sweeter fruits and more tender vegetables and meat. Furthermore, even what we call raw has usually been subjected to many kitchen processes. Few of us sink our teeth into raw steak unless it has been finely chopped or sliced. Raw foodists allow slicing, grinding, chopping, soaking, sprouting, freezing, and heating to 104–120 degrees Fahrenheit. In spite of modern high-quality plant foods and careful preparation, it is almost impossible to thrive on such a diet, according to evidence gathered by Richard Wrangham. In antiquity, people happily accepted that humans ate cooked food. Indeed, they saw it as what distinguished them from animals. Perhaps it is because today we place so much emphasis on "fresh" and "natural" foods—which Susanne Freidberg has shown are made possible only by changing animal life cycles, modern transport, refrigeration, and ingenious packaging—that we underestimate how much we depend on cooking. In any case, there is no escaping that with cooking, food became an artifact, like clothes and dwellings, not natural but made by humans. A sheaf of wheat is no more food than a boll of cotton is a garment.

With cooking came cuisines. Techniques that proved successful with one kind of raw material were then used for others. A single raw material (such as grain) could be turned into diverse foods with different tastes and nutritional properties (gruel, bread, and beer). Instead of consuming food on the spot, humans began eating meals, since cooking required planning, storing ingredients, and time. Meals could be patterned to suit cultural preferences. Ordered styles of cooking—cuisines—became the norm. Leaving archaeologists and anthropologists to investigate the origins and early history of cooking, this book will take up the question of what these cuisines were, how they evolved, and what difference they have made in human history.

Before moving to cuisines, though, it is necessary to say a little more about what cooking is and what techniques had been mastered at the time this book begins, in 1000 B.C.E. Cooking is often identified as the use of fire. As any cook knows, however, a lot more goes on in a kitchen, such as soaking, chopping, grinding, rolling, freezing, fermenting, and marinating. The multiple kitchen operations can be classified into four groups: changing temperature (heating and cooling); encouraging biochemical activity (fermenting); changing chemical characteristics by treating with water, acids, and alkalis (leaching and marinating, for instance); and changing the size and shape of the raw materials using mechanical force (cutting, grinding, pounding, and grating, for example).

Commonly cooks use multiple operations to turn plants and animals into food. Take meat, for example. A carcass has to be skinned before meat can be cut from the bone and then into portions. These may then be eaten, or subjected to heat and then eaten, or frozen or dried or fermented so that they can be eaten at a later date. Although all these operations are part of cooking broadly understood, I often follow common parlance in describing the preliminary operations as processing and the final meal preparation as cooking. Today, in sharp contrast to the past, home cooks do very little processing, concentrating on final meal preparation.

Early people employed both dry heat and wet heat. They used the sun to dehydrate fruits, vegetables, and small pieces of meat. They lit fires for grilling meat over the flames, cooking meat and roots in the hot ashes, and baking small items or doughs either directly on the embers or wrapped in clay first, or on a stone heated by the fire. Best suited to tender meats and plants, dry-heat cooking required large amounts of frequently scarce fuel. Wet heat involved steaming or boiling raw ingredients, which was possible even before pottery was available. The ingredients might be placed in tightly woven baskets, gourds, lengths of bamboo, leather bags, or even clay-lined pits that were then filled with water and brought to a boil by dropping in red-hot stones (known as pot boilers). Alternatively, leaf-wrapped meat, fish, and roots could be steamed under a covering of soil in stone-lined pits previously heated with fire. Such pit cooking, ideally suited to large pieces of fatty meat and tough roots, has been in use since the late Paleolithic. It is still widely practiced in, for example, Siberia, Peru, Mexico (pit-cooked barbacoa), Hawaii (imu-cooked taro and kalua pig), and the United States (pit-cooked barbecue).

By breaking long complex molecules down into shorter ones, adding water molecules to starches (hydrolyzing), and unfolding long chains of proteins (denaturing), heating makes food more digestible. It also makes it safer by rendering harmless the poisons that plants manufacture as a defense against predators. It creates new tastes and flavors, particularly the appetizing aromas associated with browning, a phenomenon known as the Maillard effect after Louis-Camille Maillard, the French chemist who first described it in 1912. The converse of heating—cooling or freezing—slows spoilage.

Fermenting—employing yeasts, bacteria, or fungi to alter the chemical composition of food—has similar benefits, increasing flavor, decreasing toxicity, improving digestibility, and preserving perishable foods, as well as reducing cooking time. Humans would have encountered the new tastes and pleasing effects of fermented honey, saps, and perhaps milk early on. The history of their manipulation of such processes is lost, but they had probably learned that burying fish and meats (which is now known to create safe anaerobic conditions) prevented them from rotting and created tasty products.

Soaking and leaching soften plant foods such as beans. These two processes reduce the toxicity of acorns, a common human foodstuff. Alkaline solutions, made by adding ashes or naturally occurring alkaline minerals to water, change the texture of foods, release nutrients, precipitate starch from fibrous plants, and aid in fermentation. Acid solutions, such as fruit juices or the bile in the stomach of herbivores, "cook" fish.

The tough fibers of meat and plants could also be broken down through mechanical means. Flint or obsidian knives cut carcasses as fast as butcher's knives, a fact that always amazes my students when they try it. Stones pound and tenderize meat, shells or bones grate roots, mortars crack the hulls off grains, and grindstones reduce their kernels to flour. Breaking plants and animals down into smaller parts makes them easier to chew. It also enables the separation and removal of plant fibers that slow the passage of food through the digestive system (very important when food was more fibrous).

Then, no later than 19,000 years ago, humans took on some of the most challenging of all plant materials to cook: the tiny, hard seeds of herbaceous plants. In the 1980s, archaeologists uncovered a small village dating to 19,400 B.P. close to Lake Kinneret, better known to many as the Sea of Galilee. Analyzing the food remains in hearths and trash dumps allowed them to reconstruct the cuisine. The villagers rarely ate big game, which was becoming scarce as the glaciers retreated. They had, however, thoroughly inventoried what could be turned into food. They cooked fish, twenty species of small mammals, and seventy species of birds. They also ate fruits, nuts, and beans from a hundred and forty different taxa, including acorns, almonds, pistachios, olives, raspberries, and figs. This huge selection of foodstuffs provided flavor and variety.

For most of their calories, however, the villagers depended on the tiny, often hard seeds of herbaceous plants. The archaeologists collected nineteen thousand samples, three-quarters of them only about a millimeter in length, or about the size of a mustard seed. Among them were grains of wild barley and wheat, which were to be crucial in subsequent human history. In one of the huts was a grindstone, the tool that can pulverize grains so that they don't pass whole through the digestive system.

Thus about ten thousand years before the development of farming, cooks had mastered a wide array of culinary techniques, including those for dealing with the roots and grains that were the first plants to be domesticated. With these techniques in hand, it began to make sense to labor to plant, weed, and harvest these calorie- and nutrient-rich plants. By three thousand years ago, eight to ten root and grain cuisines, depending on how they're counted, had spread far from their places of origin, although many less-widely distributed cuisines adapted to specific local circumstances coexisted with them. Soon thereafter, root cuisines were to decline in importance as grain cuisines began to support cities, states, and armies.

We know a great deal about some of the major cuisines from tools, art, and written records. Others are relatively little known, though that is shifting rapidly as new investigative techniques have been developed in the past few decades. The gaps in our knowledge of the major cuisines three thousand years ago can be partially filled by examining recent research on the origin and spread of farming from the perspective of cooking. When archaeologists and anthropologists report the spread of one or another domesticated plant or animal, we can infer that culinary techniques and cuisines also spread, since without these, farm products had no use. This is not an infallible inference. There are a few cases where plants were transferred vast distances without an accompanying transfer of cuisine and technique—wheat and barley from the Fertile Crescent to China several centuries B.C.E., and maize from the Americas to the Old World in the sixteenth century, for example. In general, however, transfers of groups of plants and animals reflect transfers of cuisine that made it worth applying the considerable skill, time, and energy needed to carry plants and move animals across mountains, deserts, and oceans, acclimatize them in new locations, and raise enough of them to make a significant contribution to the pantry. Seeds, slips, roots, and cuttings took up precious space in packs carried by humans or animals or loaded in crowded vessels. They had to be protected from salt spray, frosts, and the blaze of the sun. Food and water for animals meant less for humans when supplies were often short. On arrival, plants had to be coddled until they adjusted to new soils, climates, lengths of day, and seasonal patterns. Then they had to be propagated until there was enough to feed significant numbers of people.


Using the sources described above, I survey the world's major cuisines, beginning with the Yellow River Valley of northern China and zigzagging around the most densely inhabited areas of the globe (map 1.1). Although our knowledge of these cuisines is changing rapidly, making specific dates and routes tentative, what is unlikely to change is the conclusion that they were based overwhelmingly on roots and grains and that they had spread very widely indeed. To anticipate, certain other broad generalizations will emerge. Cities, states, and armies appeared only in regions of grain cuisines. When they did, grain cuisine splintered into subcuisines for powerful and poor, town and country, settled populations and nomads. A feast following a sacrifice to the gods was the emblematic meal everywhere, the meal that represented and united the society, as Thanksgiving now does in the United States. It is not clear whether these global parallels reflect widespread contact between societies, the logic of emerging social organization, or a combination of the two.

Steamed broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum) and foxtail millet (Setaria italica), tiny round grains from disparate botanical genera, were the basis of the first cuisine we encounter in the Yellow River Valley in ancient China. There peasants lived in small villages, their dwellings half buried in the ground and roofed with thick thatch to protect against the freezing winters, and the interiors crammed with grain and preserved vegetables. Small patches of millet dotted the valley's fertile yellow soil, which was brought by floods and winds from the steppe.


Excerpted from Cuisine and Empire by Rachel Laudan. Copyright © 2013 Rachel Laudan. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

List of Tables



1. Mastering Grain Cookery, 20,000–300 B.C.E.

2. The Barley-Wheat Cuisines of the Ancient Empires, 500 B.C.E.–400 C.E.

3. Buddhist Cuisines, 260 B.C.E.–4800 C.E.

4. Islam Transforms the Cuisines of Central and West Asia, 800–1650 C.E.

5. Christianity Transforms the Cuisines of Europe and the Americas, 100–1650 C.E.

6. Prelude to Modern Cuisines: Northern Europe, 1650–1840

7. Modern Cuisines: The Expansion of Middling Cuisines, 1810–1920

8. Modern Cuisines: The Globalization of Middling Cuisines, 1920–2000




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