What makes a food belong to a particular culture? Is it the location? The product? The people? The time? All of the above? None of the above? Some of the above? It’s a complicated question that seems to have relevance in today’s multi-cultural world. Certainly within the United States, the concept of cultural appropriation or sometimes mis-appropriation has been oft discussed, especially (within my personal circles) in the context of food. The typical situation for this discussion is when people of one cultural background adopt and use the cultural heritage of another. There are those, such as Rick Bayless, Andy Ricker, David Thompsen and Ivan Orkin, who fall in love with a culture different than the one they grew up with and go all in, ending up with very successful restaurants representing their adopted cultures either within the country of origin or outside of it. These culinary appropriators have successfully adapted the cuisines of their adopted cultures, and without “dumbing it down” have extended the reach of those traditional cuisines and cultures in general to new audiences, who then become emboldened to go beyond them and explore those cultures more deeply. People like the examples I mentioned, who do what they do well, are typically respected and embraced by the original cultures. For example, the reception for Rick Bayless at the Mesamerica Congress attended mostly by Mexican chefs and culinarians in Mexico City several years back, was that of a hero. Ivan Orkin is legend for having broken into and been successful amongst the Japanese with his Ivan Ramen shop in the heart of Tokyo. I could go on.There are those that dabble in cultures and either change the product so that any resemblance to an original is essentially accidental, or those who think because they are skilled in a kitchen, that they can quickly pick up the essence of a cuisine (that people spend their entire lives trying to master) and sell it as such to an eager audience who either does not know better or does not care to know better.
Cultural influence is another area that comes into play and is probably the most common form of cultural appropriation not just today, but throughout history, as individuals or even entire cultures adopt specific products and techniques from other cultures and incorporate them into their own individual or cultural identities. The global prevalence of products such as chilies, tomatoes, corn, black pepper, spices, coffee, tea and so many more products are the result of this process and by and large, the world is much the richer for it.
Then there is Rene Redzepi and his team from Noma in Copenhagen. Redzepi is without a doubt one of the most influential chefs, not just of his generation, but ever. He is largely responsible for what has come to be known as New Nordic cuisine, a new interpretation of Scandinavian food by exploring, re-discovering and sometimes, just plain discovering the indigenous ingredients of the area, and by applying the unique Noma style to them, creating something truly new and wonderful. While many have taken elements of this New Nordic cuisine outside of Scandinavia, the most important contribution of Redzepi and company to world cuisine, is the vision that he has given to countless chefs to re-examine their own native larders and apply new forms of creativity to their own cultural inheritances. Many have done so quite successfully throughout the world.
This year, for the third year in a row, Redzepi has taken his team from Noma to another part of the globe, quite far from their homes and set up shop for several months to explore and interpret the ingredients of the area. Their first iteration was to Tokyo, where they applied their vision to prime Japanese ingredients, utilizing influences from Japanese culture. The second was to Sydney, Australia, where, much like the Unites States, a complex culinary tradition with many outside influences is developing, often taking only limited advantage of the myriad of unique products available on the island continent. I, unfortunately, was unable to partake in either of those endeavors as they were simply too far, too expensive and too inconvenient for me at the times they occurred. I wasn’t happy with that, so when it was announced that this year’s version would occur in the relatively close area of Tulum, Mexico, I did my best to ensure that I would be able to experience their cultural foray. That I also happen to love Mexico and its food, stoked my desire even further.
I cannot speak first-hand about the previous Noma international pop-ups, but having recently returned from Mexico and a visit to Noma Mexico, I can speak to that and have an opinion regarding the project and cultural appropriation.
I will start by saying that the entire experience of Noma Mexico was spectacular and one of the very finest dining experiences of my life. Was it Mexican? Though the question is intellectually interesting, I do not believe that it is the intent of Redzepi or his team to literally be “Mexican,” as in trying to authentically replicate a specific cuisine. I believe the intent is to pay homage to a beautiful land with wonderful people and fabulous product and food, while learning, expanding their own cultural literacy and offering something special to their audience, both in the way of the food that they create, as well as an entry into Mexico for many who might not otherwise have ventured there and an entry into their food philosophy for those who may already be well versed or come from a background of Mexican cuisine and culture.
They do incorporate Mexican flavor profiles and techniques, but with few specific exceptions, never as a direct interpretation of a traditional Mexican dish or preparation. Mexican influences certainly abound, however. How could they not? One of the biggest influences and most direct was the environment that the Noma team created out of the jungle of Tulum and they did it with but very little time to start, yet finishing on schedule. Unlike their previous urban popups in Tokyo and Melbourne where they partnered with already extant facilities and thus had to partner in the planning process, this was undertaken and developed entirely by the Noma team. Of course, they had partners and help finding and procuring the space as well as with logistics, but the creative aspect of this project was undertaken entirely under their control, from the design and layout of the kitchen and dining spaces, to the food, drink and service. Somehow, in today’s world of incessant delays, they actually made it happen on time. That they made it happen in a relatively undeveloped, resort area is even more amazing, and more astounding yet is how beautiful and wonderful their final product turned out to be. The space and setting were every bit as important to the experience as the food, the service and the location.
Why Mexico? Redzepi has spent a lot of time in Mexico in recent years, both attending events such as Mesamerica, mentioned above, and traveling and exploring the depths of the country. The presence on his team of Rosio Sanchez, the former Noma pastry chef born in Chicago of Mexican heritage and now the chef-owner of Copenhagen’s most famous Mexican restaurant, Hija de Sanchez, was certainly a factor and she has been an important advisor and co-developer of the project.
Why Tulum? Mexico is a country that Redzepi has come to love throughout its breadth, but nowhere more than the Yucatan, a region with its Mayan jungle heritage, hidden temples and rich culinary history. It is a region that he has been drawn back to repeatedly, falling more and more in love with it. They were able to find an ideal space in Tulum, a funky, attractive, resort area with sufficient infrastructure to house not only their staff and for many, their families (including Redzepi’s), but also the guests, an adequate airport, and perhaps most importantly, an area from which he could source truly amazing product.
Another important reason to choose Mexico was that the kinds of ingredients available were unlike anything they have to work with in Copenhagen and and also very different to those in Japan and Australia. From special seafood to vegetables to insects to fruit and perhaps, above all, picante spice from a wide assortment of chilies, the quality, uniqueness and variety of ingredients was right up their alley.
Redzepi has been known to utilize a shock factor in highlighting certain ingredients. Serving live fjord shrimp and then later live ants at the restaurant in Copenhagen are both well-known examples. The Noma team, do, in fact, use insects at Noma Mexico (Mexico has a very long tradition of eating certain insects), but they are not as in one’s face (literally), as the examples listed above were. Nothing served is overtly shocking. The escamoles or ant larva look, and even taste, a bit like complex, sweet corn. The dish itself was offered as a tostada, quite tasty, but ironically, one of the most ordinary dishes in terms of flavor.
Oaxacan chapulines or grasshoppers are used in at least one dish, the crunchy, richly flavored “Salbute con Tomates Secos y Chapulines,” but are incorporated into the dish and not particularly obvious.
Any other uses of ingredients like these that might seem strange to a typical American or European audience, are similarly camouflaged and not overtly described, if present at all. That’s the case with the presence of pulverized “chicatanas” or flying ants in a dessert centered on an avocado with a creamy dressing made from “huesos de mamey” or mamey (a deliciously creamy fruit) seeds. The chicatanas are not mentioned on the menu and their presence is subtle. The dish is fabulous!
Hot capsicum spice is a major component of the menu, something essentially unseen in the Copenhagen restaurant, but used with skill here, adding enough zip to certain dishes without ever overpowering (to our palates, at least). Redzepi has come to consider it to be the “6th flavor component” and I can’t disagree. There are two dishes in particular where the chili spice levels were most pronounced and essential to the deliciousness of the dishes, and both used it to accentuate and play off sweetness. The first was a fruit salad built upon spectacular specimens of Mexican tropical fruits such as mamey, carambola (star-fruit), papaya, mango, jackfruit, and tuna (prickly pear). Chile de arbol worked as a perfect counterpoint to the layers of sweetness and acidity. I can’t recall ever enjoying a fruit salad more. The dish was one of my favorites of the evening, and possibly ever.
The second pronounced use of spice was in the final dessert, a candied Mixe chili stuffed with chocolate ice cream made with Mexican cacao. Rosio Sanchez described the heat of the chilies as being somewhat hit or miss. All the chilies have some spice to them, but occasionally, they would encounter one that was extremely piccante. To try to avoid these getting to unseasoned customers, each chili is tested before hitting the table. Mine was perfect with a real, but manageable heat tempered by the creamy cool ice cream – a great way to achieve a balance of “hot” and cold.
Fruit started the meal, as our first bite was a banana-like “piñuela” served with tamarind, a touch of Mezcal and a spiral of cilantro flowers., making a delightfully sweet and tart introduction. It was a clear statement that, for the vast majority of diners, if not all, we would be delving into an ouvre that would prove to be not only quite novel, but delicious too.
Real bananas, a variety called “platanos manzanos” or “apple bananas,” star in a dish billed as a “ceviche” spotted with an inky sauce made from their charred skins. It’s a dish that is clever and much more. The threatened Cavendish variety never received such magnificent treatment, though the first iterations of “Bananas Foster” may have come close. The difference, though, is that while the latter is a now classic dessert, these bananas are served as a savory item using their inherent sweetness as a balancing element rather than as a central component.
One of my favorite courses of the night, and of the year, so far was the unintuitive combination of fresh green coconut with Russian caviar. It was a marvelous juxtaposition of flavors and textures that startled and pleased as we scooped out the soft layer of coconut gelee, mixing it with coconut cream, salty caviar and a touch of citrus. This was one of the dishes from this meal that I will likely never forget as long as I can remember.
Another extraordinarily memorable dish for me was the magnificently voluptuous, “Calabazas Entera al Carbón,” whole Mexican pumpkins roasted over fire and loaded with an incredibly deep flavor, marvelous textures and no sense of excess. This was a vegetable based dish that this avowed carnivore could quite happily devour over and over again.
Octopus is a difficult creature for some to eat, given its growing reputation as a very intelligent species. Given its sympathetic nature, I do eat them, but with some reluctance. The octopus roasted in a cast iron pan within a covering of salt, masa and corn husks, was ceremoniously removed from its tomb and placed upon a circle of a pipián-like sauce made from pumpkin seeds. This preparation was right up there with my two other most memorable octopus dishes, a classic Galician-style octopus in the mountains of Galicia and a more modern approach from Albert Adria’s teams at Bodega 1900 and Tickets. When octopus is this good, I simply don’t have the will or desire to resist it.
Given the restaurant’s coastal location and the quality of Mexico’s seafood, it was no surprise that seafood would feature prominently in the progression. The first appearance came in the form of an orange based ceviche of “Almeja Melon” or melon clam from the Sea of Cortez. These large clams are full of flavor and a are a unique ingredient that Redzepi and his team could not ignore. The treatment was appropriately simple (at least in appearance) with the oceanic flavors of the clam shining through.
More Baja seafood came in the form of oysters from Bahia Falsa. These were were featured in a taco-like presentation enfolded within Chaya, a spinach-like native green that requires cooking to eliminate hydrocyanic acid, which could otherwise be potentially toxic if eaten in large amounts. The Chaya was beautifully cooked, retaining a bright green color.
Served along with the oyster and Chaya “taco” was perhaps the most inventive dish of the night, but also, at least in our case, the least successful. Sargassum seaweed, an algae that floats thanks to air-filled bladders. The bladders, sporting a green color similar to that of the chaya, had been cooked and injected with a “Michelada” of mussel juice. We had been instructed to bite off the tip and suck out the liquid deposited within. Maybe it was a result of the Mead, beer, wine, Champagne and Mezcal that we had been drinking, but, despite biting off more and more of the “nipple” as instructed, several of us, including myself, never got a truly satisfactory result.
The opening piñuela was enrobed in tiny flowers and flowers would also be prominent in a dish served in towards the beginning of the meal, right after the crisp “Salbute.” The “Caldo Frio de Masa con Lima y Todas las Flores de la Estación” utilized essential Mexican ingredients such as nixtamalized corn and lime as a base for a gorgeous display of edible flowers. There was a touch of heat from some chili, but in this dish, it was much subtler and in the background compared to the dishes in which it was a featured component. The dish incorporated a variety of textural components and its coldness from a granita, proved refreshing in the jungle’s night air.
Meat was far from ubiquitous in the meal, but they made it count when they used it. A shiny roast suckling pig was paraded around the dining jungle and then later portioned into a plated cut as well as a taco of pulled pork. Accompanying the plated pork was a tamale like ball of corn meal from the nearby Yucatecan village of Yaxunah. This dish was delicious, and one of the few that begged comparison to traditional preparations.
Speaking of traditional dishes, the most direct approach to one that I recognized was Rosio’s Mole, which had traditional, rich flavors. Accompanying it, however. were Mexican ingredients used in non-traditional ways. Hoja Santa leaf was roasted and paired with an application of dried scallops, a flavor component traditional to the Noma kitchen. It was a superb way of combining a major traditional Mexican dish, the mole, with elements right out of the Noma canon. It reflected the entire spirit of the project in several bites.
Most of the products used during the dinner were of Mexican origin, but interestingly, several were not and two of those were representative of traditional European luxury. The first was an opening glass of Champagne. The second was the caviar paired with the coconut. Both of those, though surprising, fit in as elements that had no real substitute.
All the other beverage pairings, whether mead, wine, beer, Mezcal or other spirits and cocktails, and coffee were of Mexican origin and all went quite well with the food. This was a minor point that I didn’t really consider until well after we left the meal.
Perhaps the answer to the presence of the few Mexican ingredients was a return to the idea that the team from Noma was there to pay homage to and learn from Mexico, whilst also maintaining and showing its own style, philosophy and approach. Perhaps these few elements of non-Mexican origin were a statement of independence, that while they were excited to work with such wonderful product, they were not necessarily beholden to it.
Perhaps my theory is a flight of fancy. The bottom line is that Rene Redzepi and the team from Noma have pulled off something truly unique and extraordinary. They have taken their credo of “time and place” and transferred it to another location, far from their own in geography, product and culture, harnessing the differences and melding them into a spectacularly successful assemblage of flavors, texture and colors, all the while maintaining their own personality while honoring another. Is Noma Mexico an example of cultural misappropriation? I don’t think so. It is a conscious foray into another culture and location, but done so with its own style and approach. It is done with respect, love, admiration and a desire to shed light and bring attention to Mexico as a whole, while doing what they do best. If this is misappropriation then, that term does not always connote a bad thing. Rather, I see it as an evolution, both for the staff of Noma and for Mexico as a culinary destination. Mexico has a world class traditional cuisine and also has world class contemporary chefs of its own re-interpreting their own products and traditions. Redzepi and his Noma team have bought into all of those things in a big way and have contributed something amazing within their own style and focus of creativity resulting in a meal truly representative of a specific time and place. Noma Mexico is a tremendous accomplishment, made even more incredible by the time frame in which they put it together. While getting there to dine was not a light undertaking in terms of both effort and wallet, I have never more gladly spent the money and time for a specific meal. It was a dining experience in a special place of a time that will last in my memory forever.