Cookbooks, Non Fiction

National Dish by Anya von Bremzen


In this engrossing and timely journey to the crossroads of food and identity award-winning writer Anya von Bremzen explores six of the world’s most fascinating and iconic culinary cultures—France, Italy, Japan, Spain, Mexico, and Turkey—brilliantly weaving cuisine, history, and politics into a work of scintillating connoisseurship and charm

We all have an idea in our heads about what French food is—or Italian, or Japanese, or Mexican, or . . .  But where did those ideas come from? Who decides what makes a national food canon? Recipient of three James Beard awards, Anya von Bremzen has written definitive cookbooks on Russian, Spanish, and Latin American cuisines, as well as her internationally acclaimed memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking. Now in National Dish, she sets out to investigate the truth behind the eternal cliché—“we are what we eat”—traveling to six storied food capitals, going high and low, from world-famous chefs to scholars to strangers in bars, in search of how cuisine became connected to place and identity.

Paris is where the whole idea of food as national heritage was first invented, and so it is where Anya must begin. With an inquisitive eye and unmistakable wit, she ponders the codification of French food and the current tension between locavorism and globalization. From France, she’s off to Naples, to probe the myth and reality of pizza, pasta, and Italian-ness. Next up, Tokyo, where Anya and her partner Barry explore ramen, rice, and the distance between Japan’s future and its past. From there they move to Seville, to search for the community-based essence of Spain’s tapas traditions, and then Oaxaca, where debates over postcolonial cultural integration find expression in maize and mole. In Istanbul, a traditional Ottoman potluck becomes a lens on how a former multicultural empire defines its food heritage. Finally, they land back in their beloved home in Queens, for a dinner centered on Ukrainian borsch, a meal that has never felt more loaded, or more precious and poignant.

A unique and magical cook’s tour of the world, National Dish brings us to a deep appreciation of how the country makes the food, and the food the country.

My Thoughts

It’s not often you run across a book about cooking and food that is truly a non-fiction exploration of food history, mores, and national identity. National Dish is all that and more.

Anya von Bremzen brings to the table her own form of sarcastic, witty, and irreverent assessment of the foods considered part of the identity of certain countries. She begins in Paris, a city she really, really dislikes (and she let’s you know it), where she chases down the meaning and national importance of pot-au-feu by talking to giants in the French food industry and then by making her own.

This format continues through five other cities where she explores dishes intrinsic to the city, nation, and culture of those particular locations. I learned quite a bit about those cities/countries and their foods.

Serious foodies and those in the industry will enjoy this, but the average reader like me, who has an interest in food but not a deep knowledge of world cuisine, will end up skimming a lot of the text or will alternate between the text and the internet looking up names, dates, and dishes.

This is less of a cookbook and more of a non-fiction dive into the food that makes a culture a culture, and that makes for fascinating reading.

Publication Date: June 20, 2023
Published By: Penguin Group; The Penguin Press
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy