What’s in a name? Names are signifiers, tools of specificity. They illuminate. We call a rose a rose. But names are also moving targets, that can disclose and disguise in the same breath.
A brief list of names: Poor man’s lobster, Welsh caviar, falso conejo (false rabbit), mock cooter stew, sugo scappato (escaped sauce). A corresponding list of names: monkfish, laverbread, ground beef, ground beef stew, tomato sauce. Here is a category of foods, found across the world’s cuisines, that have become defined in relation to another food, often as a “poor man’s” substitute for an expensive ingredient.
These dishes are distinct from the trompe l’œil of meat fruit and liquid olives favoured by elites through time, from 16th century courtiers to 21st century molecular gastronomers. Rather than spectacular deceptions, these are forgeries in broad brushstrokes, born out of the creativity provoked by both necessity and desire. Italian pasta sauces exemplify this imaginative flex, as food writer Emiko Davies has shown: sugo scappato and sugo finto (fake sauce) are tomato-based sauces defined by the absence of meat; for sugo al pesce fuggito (fugitive fish sauce), seashells or seaweed-covered rocks are boiled with water to impart a maritime murmur into a dish. Sugo bugiardo, (liar’s sauce) meanwhile, bulks a little meat with hearty vegetables and legumes to produce an approximate ragu.
Cultures of eating shift across time and geographies, creating slippages in taste that are carried in the languages of substitution: “poor man’s asparagus” denotes salsify in Scandinavia, but samphire in Britain. The German falsche hase — false rabbit — is a wartime meatloaf alternative, while in Australia, where rabbits are a populous invasive species thanks to European introduction for sport in the 19th century, rabbit is “underground mutton.”
These imitation foods are not limited to the role of lesser substitute. They are suggestive, coaxing the eater to notice new connections and draw the absent food into fresh relief. There are likenesses that require sensory decoding, like the careful noticing of an uncannily cerebral wobble in a bowl of silken tofu pudding, which gives it the name 豆腐脑, doufunao. Tofu brains. Or the sense memory required for sense-making when it comes to fish-fragrant dishes, learning the unmistakable blend of pickled Sichuan chilli, ginger, garlic, and spring onions.
Eventually such foods find their way onto restaurant menus, either to feed their communities in homes away from home, or in a novel iteration, reinvented once again as delicacies. Here is a guide to some of the best fugitive foods that London has to offer.Read More