One of the greatest things that can give a region a sense of identity is the presence of a regional cuisine. In addition to identity it brings in tourists, so every region probably really wishes it had one.
Of course a real regional cuisine takes a long time to develop, even centuries. The world’s great cuisines all were a long time coming, and were often based on the presence of particular local ingredients as much as on the food culture. Some cuisines have arisen quickly, particularly fusion cuisines which arise due to immigrants mixing and from colonialism. Today the market for ingredients is global, though there are still places where particular ingredients are at their best.
One recent regional food, the “Buffalo” chicken wing, is believed to have come from a single restaurant (The Anchor Bar in Buffalo) and spread out to other local establishments and then around the world. Part of its success in spreading around the world is its simplicity and the fact that (unlike many other regional-source foods) it features ingredients found all around the world. Every town would like to have its equivalent of the Buffalo Wing.
To make this happen, I think towns should hold contests among local restaurants to develop such dishes. Restaurants might enter dishes they already specialize in, or come up with something new. The winner, by popular vote, would get their dish named after the town, and found on the menus of other competing restaurants for some period of time.
The following rules might make sense:
- Ideally, the dish should try to be based on an ingredient which is available locally, and perhaps at its best locally, but which still can be found in the rest of the world so the dish can spread.
- All restaurants submitting a dish must agree that should they win, they will publish recipes for the dish and claim no exclusive on it. They will, however, be the only restaurant to say they have the original dish and were the winner of the contest.
- Ideally, recipes will be published in advance, so other restaurants can also make the dish during the contest, in particular restaurants that are not competing. (Competing chefs might deliberately make the dish badly.) In fact, advance publication (and a contest cookbook) might be part of the rules.
- “None of the above” should be an encouraged choice on the voting form. The first round might not create a dish worthy of the town.
- A panel of chefs would rate the dishes according to difficulty. Dishes that are easier would be encouraged, as these can spread more easily. The list of difficulties would be published for voters to use in making their decisions. Ie. voters might pick the 2nd most tasty dish if it’s much easier to make.
- Every dish must be available in “chef-approved” form at some minimum number of restaurants, so it is easy to try each dish. Private chefs can compete if they can recruit restaurants to offer their dish.
- At the end of the contest, the city’s tourist board would have a budget to promote the dish to tourists.
- Voting would be done online, but voters would need to get a token to vote somewhere based on a unique ID so they can’t vote more than once. They need not pick a single dish. The “Approval” voting system, where voters can list as many dishes as they find qualified, and the one with the most votes wins, can be used.
- It is certainly possible as well to have multiple winners, and the creation of variations on the winning dish would be encouraged.
Would this be an authentic regional cuisine that “comes from the people?” Of course not. But it might be tasty, and if chosen by the people, might grow into something that really belongs to that city.