What explains the western bias in lists of the 'world's best cuisines'?

A new gastronomy list ails from some odd rankings

A baker prepares cakes with images of the Moroccan national team and the Moroccan flag, at the Moroccan bakery Uw Voordeelbakker in The Hague on December 14. AFP
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If there is one surefire way to provoke feelings of indignation and injured national pride, it is to declare definitively that one country’s cuisine is better than that of another. This is exactly what the website Taste Atlas has just done, with the release of its annual “World’s Best Cuisines” list. It gets off to a feisty start by awarding eighth place to the US – one above France.

Given that modern gastronomy is a French creation, and that vanishingly few French people would be willing to agree that anyone’s food and drink were superior to theirs, that is a controversial placing. (Relatives who lived in France told me they could only persuade dinner guests to drink wine from Australia or New Zealand by pretending it was French; nothing else was considered “buvable”, or drinkable.) The case for America is hardly well made when the three best-rated dishes are Texas-style barbecue, frozen custard and brisket sandwich – not exactly haute cuisine.

Some other rankings are quite odd. Thailand, home to such an enchanting palette of flavours that top western chefs flocked there in the 1990s seeking to infuse classical French-inspired cuisine with something more exotic, only comes in at 30th place. Malaysians will not be happy to be listed at 39, while Morocco’s coming in at 94th out of 95 in total appeared to perplex even the compilers. “Undeservedly low position?” asked Taste Atlas on Twitter.

The list has, unsurprisingly, provoked many comments on social media. “I want to know who was tasting for Taste Atlas,” tweeted CNN’s Eliza Anyangwe. “I’m all for the occasional stamppot but the suggestion that the Netherlands has a ‘cuisine’ and it is tastier than Lebanese, Palestinian or Pakistani food is laughable to me.”

Such lists shouldn’t be taken too seriously, but the broader point still stands

The rankings, states Taste Atlas, are “according to audience votes for ingredients, dishes and beverages". And there may be a flaw in where those votes came from. For the list is overwhelmingly biased towards European countries. Italy, Greece and Spain take the first three places, while many will be astounded that the cuisines of Poland, Germany, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria and even England are placed higher than those of Thailand, Malaysia, Lebanon, Egypt, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan and Cyprus.

“Can someone please beg westerners to stop these 'global rankings' that really only reflect their subjective food preferences,” was another posting on Twitter. “There isn’t a single Asian, South, South-East or East, that would agree with this.”

Such lists shouldn’t be taken too seriously, but the broader point still stands. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Worldwide Cost of Living Survey – or most expensive cities list – was criticised recently for focusing on a very unrepresentative group – wealthy western expats with a very particular lifestyle – and thus not presenting what the reality is for most people who live in those cities. So high-end were the criteria, wrote a Bloomberg columnist, that they “conjure up the image of a Mad Men-era businessman or businesswoman, whose children attend an elite school, drives to work while the maid is cleaning, has a three-course dinner, and takes in the theatre after work, before returning home for a nightcap of cognac.”

What would be more interesting was if such surveys were conducted the other way round, with people from Asia and Africa publishing their reactions to food and customs from Europe and North America. Because these are not often examined through outside eyes, they are de facto assumed to be international norms, when they are not so at all.

English cuisine, for example, is often unfairly maligned. But when former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak first started as a boy at a British boarding school, he recalled that not even the smell of the notoriously noxious durian fruit had prepared him for the “challenge” of that quintessentially English dish, stewed rhubarb. Other Malaysians who first encountered the country through school also told me that they were astonished at being served huge puddings and desserts with every meal. (They would normally just have fruit.)

One of the causes of the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885 was the supposed humiliation British officials felt at being commanded to remove their shoes in the presence of the country’s king, but people in Europe and North America may still be equally surprised to realise that their habit of wearing outdoor shoes inside the home is regarded as highly uncivilised in much of Asia and the Mena region. This is primarily a matter of hygiene, but in some countries it is also believed to avoid bringing bad luck or bad energy into the house. The lack of deference automatically extended to older family members and the elderly in general would also be noted, as would the steep decline in religious faith.

An outsider taking a hard, objective view of a country can be brutal. But it doesn’t have to be. The British insistence that food be served nothing less than piping hot, the almost formal rituals around ordering and then consuming espressos in Italy and France, the very direct manner of the Dutch, and the total confusion of most Europeans and Americans if you ask where you can get something spicy for breakfast: there would be plenty to observe.

They would be a useful counterbalance to these Eurocentric surveys – and to those reviewers at Taste Atlas who, if they really think Moroccan cuisine deserves to be ranked one from the bottom, have either never tried stuffed sardines and pigeon pastilla, or need a new set of taste buds – or a new job.

Published: December 27, 2022, 2:00 PM