Cooking is the art, science, and craft of using heat to prepare food for consumption.
Whether the food is baked, fried, sautéed, boiled, or grilled, it’s all cooking.
Most ingredients in cooking are derived from living organisms. Vegetables, fruits, grains and nuts as well as herbs and spices come from plants, while meat, eggs, and dairy products come from animals. Mushrooms and the yeast used in baking are kinds of fungi. Cooks also use water and minerals such as salt. Cooks can also use wine or spirits.
Cooking is as old as civilization itself – Its history sheds light on the very origins of human settlement, and its variety and traditions reflect unique social, cultural, and environmental influences. The following article traces the evolution of cooking to the advent of national cuisines.
Evidence suggests that human ancestors began cooking over an open fire over 2 million years ago.
There is evidence that Homo erectus were cooking their food as early as 500,000 years ago.
Archaeological evidence of food preparation, backed up by knowledge of how modern-day hunter-gatherers prepare their food, suggests that the first cooks did little to their food in the way of preparation or technique. The flesh of animals was either roasted over a fire or boiled in water to make it tender, fruit was gathered and peeled, and nuts were shelled.
Necessity, rather than flavour, usually dictated how hunter-gatherers of the past prepared their food. Some foods had to be prepared carefully to remove toxins. Native American tribes in California, for example, developed a procedure to make acorns edible by removing their bitter tannic acid. Farther south, native peoples in Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela learned to remove the cyanide from cassava (also called manioc), a starchy root used to make tapioca and a staple crop across the tropics.
Communication between the Old World and the New World in the Columbian Exchange influenced the history of cooking. The movement of foods across the Atlantic from the New World, such as potatoes, tomatoes, maize, beans, bell pepper, chili pepper, vanilla, pumpkin, cassava, avocado, peanut, pecan, cashew, pineapple, blueberry, sunflower, chocolate, gourds, and squash, had a profound effect on Old World cooking. The movement of foods across the Atlantic from the Old World, such as cattle, sheep, pigs, wheat, oats, barley, rice, apples, pears, peas, chickpeas, green beans, mustard, and carrots, similarly changed New World cooking.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, food was a classic marker of identity in Europe. In the nineteenth-century “Age of Nationalism” cuisine became a defining symbol of national identity.
The Industrial Revolution brought mass-production, mass-marketing, and standardization of food. Factories processed, preserved, canned, and packaged a wide variety of foods, and processed cereals quickly became a defining feature of the American breakfast. In the 1920s, freezing methods, cafeterias, and fast food restaurants emerged.
Experimental cooking blossomed around the turn of the 21st century which has been a fascinating development in the history of food and eating. Auguste Escoffier, the founder of modern cuisine, is believed to have elevated cooking to an art and a profession that one can be proud of. There are also a great number of kitchen artists who continue to redefine cooking and food, for many years to come!
As one legend has it, among the rolling hills of ancient Africa, sometime around 8000 BC, a dusty traveler was making gastronomic history, quite by accident. Thirsty from a long, hot journey, the weary herdsman reached for the sheepskin bag of milk knotted to the back of his pack animal. But as he tilted his head to pour the warm liquid into his mouth, he was astonished to find that the sheep’s milk had curdled. The rough terrain and constant joggling of the milk had transformed it into butter – and bewilderingly, it tasted heavenly.
Cookbooks have been written in almost every literate society. Ancient Mesopotamian recipes have been found on three Akkadian tablets, dating to about 1700 BC. The earliest collection of recipes that has survived in Europe is De re coquinaria, written in Latin. An early version was first compiled sometime in the 1st century and has often been attributed to the Roman gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius, though this has been cast in doubt by modern research. An Apicius came to designate a book of recipes. The current text appears to have been compiled in the late 4th or early 5th century – the first print edition is from 1483. It records a mix of ancient Greek and Roman cuisine, but with few details on preparation and cooking.
Despite its vibrant regional peasant cuisine, France was for centuries dominated by aristocratic food. Early on, French nobles and other members of the ruling class used dinners as status symbols. Most of the early French chefs, such as François Pierre La Varenne and Marie-Antonin Carême, climbed the career ladder by moving to serve ever more-powerful and wealthy patrons. France is especially interesting because it achieved renown for its cooking very early. La Varenne’s book Le Cuisinier Francois (1651) was translated into English in 1653.
The English word “chopstick” seems to come from Chinese Pidgin English, a pidgin where “chop chop” meant quickly. The Mandarin Chinese word for chopsticks is kuàizi – 筷子. It is a word made of different parts – it has the phonetic part of “快”, which means quick, and a semantic part, 竹, meaning bamboo.
The word “meat” comes from the Old English word mete, which referred to food in general.
The word “spaghetti” was first used in 1849 as sparghetti in Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery. It comes from Italian spaghetto, which means “thin string” or “twine”.
When you cook an egg, the interior turns from liquid to solid. This is because the proteins in food (like in meats, poultry, and eggs) become firmer when heat is applied. This also why a well-done steak is tougher than one cooked medium-rare.
Bread, in all its various forms, is the most widely consumed food in the world.
The Michelin Star is considered the highest international culinary award.