Pure and Local

by Nikolina Skenderija-Bohnet

Above (Issue I/2019)


A while ago I borrowed a cook book on Bosnian food. A small publishing house had gone to great effort to present Bosnian cuisine in a culturally and historically authentic way. After looking through it, I was very disappointed to realise – even though I already suspected this might be the case – that I only knew seven of the 47 recipes in the book. No, it’s not because I’m ignorant. I was born in the north of Bosnia, lived there for 20 years and visit at least three times a year. My mother is an amazing cook who introduced me to the joys of anything and everything around food – so much so that in Germany, it has become my job. As a cultural studies researcher, I focus on food. 

But how exactly did it come about that a small cookbook about my own country’s cooking confronted me with such a large gap in my knowledge? Shouldn’t your own nation’s way of cooking and eating come naturally to you, residing within you the same way your native language does? And isn’t that especially true, when you’re living in another country?

The culture around food in any country is informed by social, ethnological and religious norms. These stimulate and manipulate your feelings of belonging and would suggest that there is something like a pure “national” way of cooking and eating. According to this theory, pizza must belong to Italy, wine is the life blood of the Bastille and potatoes… well, that’s a good old fashioned German tuber!

So it is only logical that I would then ask myself what is traditionally and typically Bosnian. The small cookbook offers me some answers, with dishes like jahnija, djunlari and hoshaf. Never heard of those. But culinary remnants of the Ottoman Empire, like baklava, cevapcici and borek, are a lot more familiar to me. Even though my Bosnian heart beats for German dishes like ox tail soup with dumplings, a thick bean stew with smoked meat or a velvety sweet yeast buchtel roll with homemade plum jam.

As if it wasn’t bad enough that I have been robbed of my mother tongue, thanks to Bosnia’s recent conflicted history, now they want to take my cicvara away too! But, just as with any other culture, what is truly Bosnian is best understood by looking at the boundaries - that is, the limitations and differences and what is not “Bosnian”. Ever since Bosnia has existed, the country has been unable to decide whether it belongs to the east or the west, whether it prefers pork or lamb. There were times when Bosnia was more open to the rest of the world, times when the culture and the people changed, but today it is a nation that is more closed off, both internally and externally, than ever before. Geographic borders are becoming social borders too. And these borders correspond with a number of ritual practices that seem to be about trying to bring some order to the religious chaos there: Muslims over there, Christians to the left and Jews out. 

But where do these classifications that underlie this practice of exclusion and inclusion come from? If you listen just a little to what people talk about in Bosnia, no matter which ethnic group you’re moving among, you always hear something similar: “I respect all religions and nations but those ones over there” – and by this, they mean the Muslims or the Christians next door – are “a little dirty somehow”. 

They don’t shower regularly. They don’t use toilet paper. They eat pork/beef/a lot/too little. Their food smells strange. Sunday prayers? Fasting? Mercy and compassion? It’s all water under the bridge around here. It’s these ideas about purity, and the dictates of cleanliness, that set these boundaries and which cohere with this system of inclusion or exclusion.  

The categories – pure or impure – are not just limited to ritual washing but are also defined as physical manifestations, through nutrition. The British anthropologist, Mary Douglas, connected these things in her 1966 book, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. In this she sketched out how culture-specific preconceptions about the order of things often had to do with religion-sanctioned concepts about purity or dirt. According to Douglas, cleanliness was part of order and when one wanted to retain order, then it couldn’t be sullied by dirt. In this sense, “dirt” was something that did not belong, was not desirable and was unanticipated. As Douglas went on to show, in many cultures, the dangers of dirt are everywhere: From the outputs of one’s own physical body (excrement, menstrual blood, saliva or sperm are seen as unclean in many different cultures) to the different societal areas or marginal circumstances that appear to be just too chaotic – death would be one example of that. 

But how are these filthy conditions enacted in the realm of nutrition? Douglas uses the example of India’s caste system. Behind every cooked meal in India there are many deeds and individuals. So the different dishes are graded for purity, as prescribed by the caste system. Additionally Douglas goes further into the logic behind Mosaic dietary rules, analysing the purity laws in the third book of the Old Testament, Leviticus. The purity of an animal was dependent on whether the creatures had cloven or split hooves and also whether they chewed the cud or not. That made pigs and camels unclean and not suitable to be eaten. 

The purity of an animal could also be assessed by its physical movement. Animals that were formed in such a way that they are able to move perfectly in their element – air, earth or water - were pure. Animals that did not move according to the requirements of their element were “contrary to holiness” and should be considered impure. 

If only my country people had realised that it was all about a few hesitant animals, I think, feeling sentimental. Then maybe they wouldn’t have felt the urge to get into ethnic cleansing. And I wouldn’t have had to make my first recipe for Turkish Delight in Germany. But what is dirty must be cleaned – and that doesn’t only apply to radical Bosnians or caste-conscious Indians. We should also contemplate the nutritional practices of today’s western Europeans. 

The demand for natural, organic and healthy food seems to give meaning to many European lives. With an abundance of choice and oversupply of essentials, anything pure, local or regional brings a sense of order. And of course, there is also the idea that the good citizen is doing something to protect the environment, as they choose their groceries. By forgoing meat products, the consumer is killing two birds with one stone: A small protest against mass production and a bonus point for better health. 

Your nutritional choices have become part of your identity. Are you a vegan? 

No, I’m paleo – what about you? 

Fruitarian. Pleased to meet you. 

Isn’t it lovely that we are such well-behaved eaters. But what exactly do we mean by “good eating”? Sticking only with the pure and the locally produced? Will we soon eat so “locally“ that we won’t even need plant products anymore, we’ll just be sustained by the “local” ground beneath our feet? Sometimes it seems that this would be quite sufficient for those lonely, modern ascetics among us. Because all affluent societies are also feeding systems (today more people die from being overweight than they do from starvation) we no longer tolerate religious rules that seek to tame our consumption, things like fasting days and animal sacrifices. Instead we tell ourselves that what German philosopher and anthropologist Ludwig Feuerbach once said – “man is what he eats” – is absolutely correct. Food is hardly a collective or sensual experience anymore; it is a personal tale to tell. And we tend to identify ourselves not by what we want to eat, but by what we don’t. This adheres to another ritual of abstention around eating we place much emphasis on these days: the diet. 

That ignorance about the physical body’s needs can lead to the rules of a fundamental ideology is shown not just by reports about the disciplined and hungry anchorites, or hermits, in the east but also stories from the middle ages about the so-called “fasting girls”, that Irish novelist Emma Donoghue writes about in her recent novel, The Wonder. What we lose sight of when we hunger though, is the principle of sharing. Because one starves alone. A communal meal is based on giving and taking, a practice that French philosopher Jacques Derrida considered the very basis of a good meal and good hospitality. 

But as an example from Italy shows, that can easily end up on shaky ground too. In the Italian city of Lodi, which is ruled by the far right party, Lega Nord, prices in school cantinas were recently raised. This was done so that migrant children, who could no longer afford the expensive meals, would be excluded from the communal table. But at the same time the children were not allowed to bring their own food to eat at breaks either. Why? For “reasons of hygiene”. Of course. 

Despite all these ideologies aiming for homogeneity, the cross pollination of cultures is still welcome in many places, as witnessed by the street food markets you can find in most major European cities. They offer evidence that a permanent fear of strangers is just a badly told tall tale. There, among the many foreign culinary offerings, locals demonstrate a fascination for the unknown and exotic. There, they can satisfy their desires and their curiosity for new tastes and become a stranger in their own town. And it doesn’t seem to bother anyone either that where they’re eating is on a “dirty street”. 

Street food markets remind us of former trade routes like the Silk Road or the huge markets of the ancient trading city, Djenné, in Mali. They remind us that eating is an exchange that regularly has much to do with movement, mixtures and boundary crossing. Because it is not just people who migrate, animals and plants also cross borders. How happy must the French Sun King, Louis XIV, have been when he managed to acquire that precious spice, the peppercorn? So happy that he immediately stuffed a handful in his mouth.

As globalisation, mass migration and mass tourism increases, we’ve become so short sighted about distance that now even the humble potato must declare its provenance. It’s not just a German potato, it is actually a newcomer, brought to us at the same time as the Americas were first discovered. And potato fries, or chips, are not an American invention, they’re actually of European descent.

The fact that food can wander far from home too is shown in particular by what so-called “guest workers” brought with them to German-speaking countries, after 1945. What would Austria be without grilled meats from the Balkans? What would the Germans do without spaghetti? In the 21st century, to claim that any single country has a patent on any particular dish is just a foolish hangover from the distant past.

Everybody knows – and the author Ognjen Lopusa confirms it – that the best whiskey is now made in Japan and that the Swedish import cardamom for their baking. And what of the Bosnian stew, that traditional mish-mash of ingredients? It is as old as the phrase “melting pot”. There, where people with different cultural backgrounds are forced to cook their food in one pot until, by the end, everything is stodgy and tasteless and is only there to serve an efficient system, that is where there is always demand for some sort of homogeneity, order and purity. The more contemporary concept of the “salad bowl” doesn’t offer much of a palatable alternative either. Cultures should live alongside one another but should they all use one salad dressing? That’s a raw deal!  

So what should we do? Relax. Because nothing can take the place of your steak, or your baklava, in your heart. It would be better to protest about the quality of the groceries or about their unfair distribution. Swap your controversies for compromises. Look deep inside yourselves. Maybe your stomach would be pleased with what you find in the forbidden and impure delicatessen down the road. If you can tolerate that, then you’re the ones that will be in the clear. There’s no need for fighting. The Bulgarian-German writer Ilija Trojanow once wrote that “cultures do not fight one another, they flow together”. The same is so true for food! 



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