Inroads of Language, Basted with the Stiff-Necked Grip of French Cuisine

The reach of France’s colonial empire extended far beyond a few fur trappers and Hollywood’s stereotype of exhausted  men, rubbing at their scraggly beards, cursing their conscription into the Foreign Legion.

Language, not just nationality, impacted millions of people over the centuries.

And, I think, cuisine. Food came with that language and made a dent that I sensed very strongly when I lived in Morocco, Haiti, and Burkina Faso, all French-influenced former colonies, all imbued with an essence every bit as piquant as  the hottest pepper or the most fragrant blossom.

French Colonial Empire (Photo Credit: EuroHeritage)

The Belgians speak French, too, although Flemish prevails. And the Belgians thirsted for empire. They ruled Congo and Burundi-Rwanda as well as a Chinese treaty port, Tientsin, which they acquired after the Boxer Rebellion.

To clarify the geographical areas that make up the focus of Gherkins & Tomatoes / Cornichons & Tomates, I decided to post following map. It’s not the sharpest resolution possible, but it should give you a general idea of the range of the French language — and cuisine — today. Of course, the map is a bit skewed, because there’s no blue spot on New Orleans, where people actually still speak French.  On a map from a century or so ago, Russia, or at least Moscow and St. Petersburg, would have been blue, too. At one point, so many people spoke French in Russia that some people worried about the demise of Russian. Remember that Tolstoy wrote the first two pages of War and Peace in French.

A picture, worth the heat of a thousand cooking fires. At least when it comes to francophonie (or the predominance of the French language, and, hence, French culture, in a specific geographic area).

It’s not dead yet, French cuisine that is.  Sheer tenacity still extends its tentacles into picholines and pastries, pomegranates and pâtés, and chefs ranging from Wellington in New Zealand to small towns in Virginia, hovering on the cusp of the U.S.’s Deep South.

In the coming year, like a child with a new set of Legos and dreams of discovery, I look forward to our voyage of exploration, of sifting through the nuances and soupçons of culinary francophonie.

A simple example of the influence of French cuisine on that of its former “jewel of the Antilles,” Haiti, can be found in the modern dish of Marinad ak Poulet/Marinade de Volaille/Chicken Fritters. Auguste Escoffier included a recipe for a version of this very dish, number 1669 in his A Guide to Modern Cookery (1907). And you’ll still see chunks of chicken with bones piercing the batter for sale on the streets of Port-au-Prince.

Marinad ak Poulet/Marinade de Volaille/Chicken Fritters
Serves 4 to 6

This is a modern version of Escoffier’s recipe. He suggests serving these with a tomato sauce.

1 pound chicken thighs
1 large shallot, minced
1/2 onion, minced
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 sprigs of thyme, leaves removed
1/2 t. sea salt or to taste
1/4 t. freshly ground black pepper or to taste
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
1/4 red bell pepper, finely minced
1/4 green bell pepper, finely minced
3 T. pikliz vinegar, or substitute chile vinegar
2 cups flour
1 egg, beaten
2 cups oil, for frying + 1 T.

Cut the chicken thighs into chunks with the bones. Mix all the ingredients from the shallots to the vinegar and marinate the chicken for at least an hour. Add 1 T. of oil to a pot and cook the marinade for about 30 minutes over low heat. Meat should be tender.

Meanwhile, mix the batter. Add about 1 cup of water to the flour and mix well. Add the egg. Mix well. Add more water until the consistency allows the batter to adhere to the chicken. Mix in the cooked chicken pieces with the marinade ingredients.

Heat the 2 cups of oil in a heavy narrow pot. Drop the chicken bits into the hot oil and fry until golden on all sides. When done, place pieces on paper toweling. Serve sprinkled with salt and a hot sauce.

"The Market Women" (Painting by Carlo Valtrain)

© 2010 C. Bertelsen

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6 comments

    • Good to hear from you, Rachel. Yes, I’m very interested in what the colonial period meant in terms of food. Burton’s book is interesting (French Colonial Cookery: A Cook’s Tour of the French-speaking world), but it’s a huge subject.

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