Olivia Potts Olivia Potts

The ‘historic’ national dishes which turn out to be artful PR exercises

Japan’s ramen ‘tradition’ was created in 1958 to use up surplus imported flour, while Pizza Margherita’s specious royal connection helped boost Naples’s tourist trade

A factory in Japan in the 1960s producing Chikin Ramen, invented by Momofuku Ando to use up surplus flour imported from the US. [Getty Images]

In 1889, Raffaele Esposito, the owner of a pizzeria on the edge of Naples’s Spanish Quarter, delivered three pizzas to Queen Margherita, including one of his own invention with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, their colours taken together resembling the Tricolore. The Italian queen loved the pizza, and Esposito duly named it after her. In that restaurant today hangs a document from the royal household, dated 1889, declaring the pizzas made by Esposito to be found excellent by the queen.

And so was born the Pizza Margherita, a dish now synonymous with Naples. The queen’s seal of approval in the wake of Italian unification, which had proved difficult for Naples, came to represent the embracing by the governing royal family of an impoverished city by way of their cheapest street food. It showed the royals to be down to earth, and the Neapolitans to be part of a larger Italian nation.

There is no evidence of Queen Margherita ever trying Neapolitan pizzas, let alone endorsing them

It’s a good story, but it’s also little more than that. The ‘custom-made’ patriotically coloured pizza was well known before 1899, the pizzaiolo in question was not the celebrated chef he is now made out to be, and there is no evidence of the queen trying these pizzas, let alone endorsing them. But that hasn’t stopped the Margherita becoming something that has put Naples on the culinary map, a place which people travel to just to taste authentic pizza. And it doesn’t mean that proper Neapolitan pizza isn’t exceptional. So does it matter if it’s founded on an urban legend?

In National Dish, Anya von Bremzen sets out to understand the link between food and national identity, and what symbolic dishes can tell us about national cultures. ‘We have a compulsion to tie food to place,’ she says. She travels across six countries (France, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Mexico and Japan) in an attempt to unpick the belonging, pride, unification, essentialism and political manipulation that go into their emblematic dishes.

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