Simple food is in. Nothing makes the well-to-do of London drool at the moment like authenticity, seasonality and a bit of fashionable grubbiness. Olia Hercules, a recent champion of said movement, utilises rustic Eastern European influences, even offering guided tours of her native Ukraine to immerse oneself in peasantry – for the fee of a couple of grand a pop. Islington is on the verge of becoming a trendy post-soviet hamlet fuelled by porridge, quinoa and beetroot.
Unexpectedly, China has taken this trend to new extremes. As the country’s middle classes discover a relatively newfound spending ability, the national appetite returns to communism. Cultural Revolution era Canteens, albeit redone garishly: with flashing lights, smiley Mao portraits and mock-proletariat uniforms, have become the vogue. Nothing says evening’s entertainment like totalitarian state controlled communal diets. Reliving the Cultural revolution has never been so much fun.
Chinese Communism is known for many things: Mao’s famous chubby smiley face, little red books and famine. Devastating famine. Not its cuisine. Estimates place the figures of dead under Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1958-61) to around 45 million. Glance from the window of any of China’s rickety railway cars with this enormous fact in your head, yellowish smog, earthy hills and swathes of industry are suddenly a little more desolate. Of course, the flash new canteens shell out a cornucopia of food unthinkable to their frugal forebears. As though the Chinese government had bought their own myth that this could still be a sustainable approach to food. Not to mention that this ‘nostalgia’ parallels Xi Jinping’s ascendency beyond his two-term presidency and into Quasi-Mao totalitarianism.
Olia Hercules’s own work, revealing food from the Caucasus, is tinted with a broody post-soviet veneer. Georgia- Stalin’s homeland- offers many of ‘Kaukasis’ heavily seasonal and often vegetarian dishes. Could these trends in ‘food after communism’ be unilateral? A movement now popular among the bustling Versace types of north London and the Chinese mass-market- the largest on the planet? I put this to a friend of mine, an American, who took time out of writing her book on Shanghainese cuisine to give some of her parent’s experiences of the Cultural Revolution.
‘They didn’t have access to out of season or gourmet imported items, so they foraged, they farmed, they ate what was available, and thus Shanghainese food is so incredibly seasonal.’ The crunch (or lack of crunch) from international trade embargoes following the destruction of agriculture under Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Desperation drove people to cultivate where they could, foraging as their ancestors had, living in time with the seasons.
‘They also ate more and more pork, because pigs are pretty easy to take care of with little space. Meat overall was a precious item, though, with it being mostly reserved for the boys in the family (who were working).’ Traditionally each family might have had a pig, they had been the life-blood of Chinese culture for centuries. The first Chinese symbol representing ‘house’ was a pig under a roof. Large litters, a ruthlessly omnivorous diet makes pigs an edible recycling unit. Chinese pork recipes (including those of my friend) are the most delicate, respectful and outright delicious of any cuisine. But the importance here is the preciousness of meat- another trend in how environmentally conscious carnivores eat today.
In London this trend towards a simplified way of eating continues – with the anticipated release of Alissa Timoshkina’s debut ‘Salt and Time’ we add Russia to the list of Post-communist countries reliving a culinary history. But perhaps the trend of peasant food is separate from these particular writers. It advocates foraging, cultivation, seasonality, provenance and a healthy dose of frugality which in an increasingly environmentally aware kitchen are especially pertinent.
The tone which permeates the association is perhaps, less a trend, but a sense of relief. Hercules’s personal quest in her book traces a return to a land from which she was driven. My friend’s parents were driven to America by similar forces. Desperation hits people in the stomachs, and it seems that relief is felt there too. The nostalgia in these movements is palpable, but the relief is felt, as many emotions most keenly around the dinner table.