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YOU ARE WHAT (WE THINK) YOU EAT

Food plays a vital part in defining both our own national identity and how we perceive others.

There are many factors that we can call upon to help us define a nation's character – its geography, industry, the art it produces and owns, the sports it excels at, the films that its national cinema gives to the world, its politics, its climate, its famous sons and daughters – even its sense of humour. There is however one aspect that has a profound effect on how we perceive a country – its food. Understanding what a country produces and chooses to eat allows us to develop an immediate connection, even if we've never visited the country in question. We might not be able to name Thailand's best selling author or prime minister but many of us can list a number of Thai dishes, their main ingredients and key spices.

This deep connection to our tastebuds can shape our perceptions of a country we've never visited, often skewing our view. As Brits, our perception of Russia is biased by thoughts of matriarchs cooking up barely palatable borscht and heavy root vegetable stews; a paradigm we believe probably applies to the rest of the former Soviet block. This is undoubtedly a hangover of the Cold War - what subtler propaganda to spread than to tell us that the food under communism is bland and scant in variety whilst we in the West were starting to enjoy the fruits of the post-war consumer boom?

The link becomes more tangible for countries we've visited. There's a simple reason – the food we eat has the power to touch us at a deep, sensorial level. If we've eaten and enjoyed the best bouillabaisse of our life in Marseille, every other vaguely authentic seafood stew we taste will automatically transfer part of our brain back to the Cote d'Azur.

We might recall Paris each time we see a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, but for the vast majority of us there won't be that same pure sensory connection as that which is unlocked by our sense of taste. It enables an innate sense of what a country 'feels like' to be carried in our collective memory, permeating far beyond its borders.

When we associate positively with a cuisine it's a remarkably strong ambassador for the country in question. Take Italy; many elements act as shorthand for la dolce vita – fashion for example – yet its cuisine has probably done the most to carry an innate sense of 'Italianness' to the world. It's food that has the power to conjure many positive words to mind; simple, honest, healthy, traditional, rustic.

We might not be able to name Thailand's best selling author or prime minister but many of us can list a number of Thai dishes.

On a basic level, defining a country's traits as expressed by its cuisine provides a lazy way to pigeonhole an entire nation.

It's no coincidence that in these days of over-processed fast food, words such as these resonate deeply with us. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Italians themselves see their food as the most important part of their cultural make-up. Ironically, Italian food as we understand it today is defined by ingredients that only arrived during the Age of Exploration, with the discovery of tomatoes, potatoes and pasta.

Italian food demonstrates the positive power of association. On a basic level, defining a country's traits as expressed by its cuisine provides a lazy way to pigeonhole an entire nation. In British eyes the Germans became Krauts and the French, Frogs (although we called the Dutch 'Frogs' long before the French). We in turn became Les Rosbifs. This over-simplified approach has more to do with a narrow world-view than grand food criticism.

Like many clichés there is often a grain of truth – defining our neighbours this way is a shorthand of how we view their entire national character. However it does lead us to question whether a national cuisine is a response to a broader national character or simply an aspect in defining that character. Is French cuisine a culinary expression of Frenchness, or is it simply another aspect that makes up our idea of what it is to be French? Is it nature or nurture?

What of the way our food is perceived and how it affects the way the world sees the UK? One suspects that from a European's point of view there are deep seated beliefs about the meal on our table being over-cooked, lacking flavour and generally under par. For years the rest of the world (or so we are led to believe) delighted in scorning our national fare, with its pragmatic approach to cooking and paucity of excitement and taste.

There is probably some truth to this – none of our traditional national dishes can be said to embrace bold flavours – indeed horseradish was about as spicy as things got. However, there is an aspect of our national trait that the food we eat today clearly demonstrates – the magpie approach we Brits have to any commodity. Since the days of the British Empire we have borrowed dishes and ingredients to add to our national cuisine, making it spicier and less bland. Waves of immigration slowly influenced what we eat, until the eighties saw a whole scale culinary revolution begin to overtake the country. Since then we've approached our food as we've approached many other aspects of our culture – we've looked at it afresh, re-invented it and then re-packaged it.

When we associate positively with a cuisine it's a remarkably strong ambassador for the country in question.

Given time, our view of a nation's cuisine can change, even if the country in question is our own. The past decade has seen a reassessment of the traditional British approach to cooking. Programmes such as the Great British Bake Off mesmerised the nation by celebrating the food that had defined previous generations. It's with a sense of inverted snobbery that we now take delight in the food that our mothers and grandmothers dished out on a weekly basis. We've learnt to love the things that once defined us, and turn them into TV formats that can be exported world-wide.

When it comes to experiencing national dishes, the rise of cheap travel has undoubtedly acted as a great leveller, enabling more of us to taste the dishes that were once the preserve of a select few. The British appreciation of Spanish food demonstrates this shift. The average Brit's view of Spanish food was historically tarnished by the bland, vaguely European fare dished out on package holidays on the Costas. Few holidaymakers returned to the UK with tales of amazing local food – in fact the opposite was true.

Only when the British were offered a different view of Spain through the rise of the low cost airlines and started to visit the Spanish cities en masse did their perception change. Tapas became a point of bonding between the British weekender and the Spanish worker, an idea that travelled perfectly, slotting into the early evening landscape of UK cities, perhaps in no small part due to its genesis as food to be eaten whilst drinking.

When a cuisine itself travels to our tables from far afield it can act as an incredibly powerful cultural force. Take the recent influx of Peruvian food into London. It has created an almost instantaneous buzz around ceviche and picarones – dishes that few had heard of even five years ago. It's generated numerous column inches, a scramble to place Andean dishes on menus and rumours that ceviche might soon find its way into our supermarkets and our weekly shopping basket.

It remains to be seen if the cuisine is at the vanguard of an Andean cultural Spring, however it has undoubtedly made us question how we view Peru. Our collective point of reference has been stretched beyond Llamas and Machu Picchu, and we're reminded that for the truly curious there are still nations that can surprise us with the depth and sophistication of their national dishes.

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