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"Asian Dining Rules" -- Fat Guy's new book


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[...]michael, I think I know the fish dish that you ate, but I don't know what it's called.  I think the fish is usually croaker and it's sliced in chunks with the bone still iinside the fish?

Yes, that's right. It's not spicy, so I don't think it has an appreciable amount of hot pepper in it, but I'm not sure about the bits of tomato. I think the fish skin is slightly caramelized, too?

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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I followed a trio of mini-skirted Japanese twenty-somethings down the fire stairs and through a humble wooden door, and there it was: Saka Gura -- A thoroughly Japanese subterranean expat hangout, faithful in every detail right down to the American jazz music and the awful paper lanterns. The bar offers more than 200 varieties of sake, the Japanese brewed rice "wine." Saka Gura is well documented in the Japanese-language guidebooks and Web sites, but only gets token American press attention -- usually whenever sake is the hot topic of the moment, for a moment.

In Japan, we have this so-called "kakurega" (hideout) category of restaurants, izakaya, inns, and so on.

Also note that authentic Japanese restaurants prefer subdued exteriors.

Here are results of an image google search of kakurega izakaya in Japanese.

And results of a search of kakurega restaurant.

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You can usually judge a Korean restaurant by its panchan--some like to throw together a mish mash of odds and ends, and others pay a lot more attention to them as an important element of a meal.

One thing that should be mentioned is that not every table will get the same amount or number of panchan. At least in Korean restaurants in Manhattan, ordering certain dishes will get you less panchan. Yes, sometimes it has to do with the cost of a certain dish, but also with custom. Noodle dishes, for ex., usually are more "self contained' as meals in and of themselves, and a table that orders two noodle dishes may get fewer panchan than the table ordering kalbi. You'll still get panchan, but for the motherload of panchan from a given restaurant, ordering bbq will get you the full complement.

And this may be going into too many specifics, but no table is expected to finish all their panchan. Yes, it's wasteful.

Fat Guy, I think your passage is pretty good--generalist enough, with the most popular panchan.

Edited by seisei (log)
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Tiny change: as mentioned above, the romanizations are good (in that, in reading them, I knew what was being referred to without having to look at the description.) The only one that gave me pause was "oh-e" for cucumber. I see the "e" and think short vowel. You might consider o-i, o-ee, oh-i, oh-ee. . . I think the "official" romanization would be o-i, but agree that looks funny.

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Thanks Leonard.

I had the pleasure of spending the day yesterday at Kampuchea restaurant, the only Cambodian-style restaurant in New York right now. Because there's already a topic going on Kampuchea, I posted about it there.

There was also a fascinating piece on Salon.com a few days ago by a guy I'm not familiar with, name of Matthew Fishbane, titled "Will Cambodian food ever catch on in America?" He talks to Ratha Chau, the chef at Kampuchea, and speculates about the relative unpopularity of Cambodian cuisine versus Thai and Vietnamese. He doesn't ultimately have an explanation -- actually I think he'd have been better off speculating more rather than relying on a perhaps too equivocal and cagey academic source -- but it's an interesting walk through the thought process, with detours in Lowell, Mass. (the highest-percentage Cambodian community in the US) and Phnom Penh.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Thanks Leonard.

I had the pleasure of spending the day yesterday at Kampuchea restaurant, the only Cambodian-style restaurant in New York right now. Because there's already a topic going on Kampuchea, I posted about it there.

There was also a fascinating piece on Salon.com a few days ago by a guy I'm not familiar with, name of Matthew Fishbane, titled "Will Cambodian food ever catch on in America?" He talks to Ratha Chau, the chef at Kampuchea, and speculates about the relative unpopularity of Cambodian cuisine versus Thai and Vietnamese. He doesn't ultimately have an explanation -- actually I think he'd have been better off speculating more rather than relying on a perhaps too equivocal and cagey academic source -- but it's an interesting walk through the thought process, with detours in Lowell, Mass. (the highest-percentage Cambodian community in the US) and Phnom Penh.

Steven - what a shame you have such a short visit to Cleveland! We have an excellent Cambodian place on the near west side - Phnom Penn. Try to get there if you can squeeze it in!

"Life is Too Short to Not Play With Your Food" 

My blog: Fun Playing With Food

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  • 2 weeks later...

Just wanted to mention that there's an op-ed in tomorrow's New York Times, by me, on Sushi and pregnancy, which developed out of the discussion here in the eG Forums.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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The restaurant doesn't really care what any one person eats. It cares what 300 people eat.

Let's say 300 people come in during the course of dinner. If those 300 people pay $10 each, that's $3,000. The restaurant is going to make $750 worth of food and put it out on the buffet. No one person can eat enough to matter. Even a group of a dozen football players can't do all that much damage, because there will still be 100 or more light eaters to average things out.

If three groups of a dozen football players show up, so be it, it's an $850 food-cost night because they have to go back and make more trays of food than normal. But it still averages out over time, because eventually you get a night when three groups of a dozen ballerinas come in.

So, sure, in the most abstract mathematical sense, the buffet "loses" money on some individuals, but that's not the way one calculates profit in the buffet business.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Yes, I'm aware of that but I was curious if it is actually possible to eat that much. I can eat a lot but I'm not sure I can eat more than the price of the buffet at most Chinese buffets, as most of the food cost is so low.

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It's definitely possible if you focus on single ingredients, especially if the buffet has shellfish. One buffet owner told me he has people who come in and only eat crabs. Nothing else. Just crabs. The way the buffet works is they have X pounds of crabs for the evening, and they cook and put them out at a rate such that they'll go out all evening. It's the highest food-cost item by far. Some people don't even touch the crabs. Other people hang out by the buffet waiting for the crab tray, then descend upon it like vultures. The crabs are gone in three minutes, then twenty minutes later another tray comes out. Then there are people who'd like crabs, but aren't aggressive enough ever to get any. The people who stand around all evening taking pounds of crabs as soon as the trays come out are eating more in food cost than the price of the buffet, sure. But sophisticated buffet owners don't really care, in part because those same people may very well show up with a wife, three friends and a couple of kids who don't eat much at all.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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If they offer infinite, free-flowing shellfish they become "The buffet with great crabs but it costs $30 per person." The crab/lobster flow control used at the buffets that cost 1/2 or 1/3 of that is a reasonable business compromise.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Whoa! Only just found time to finally catch up with this topic (the past month-and-a-half of my life has been, erm, eventful :laugh: ). This is certainly a fun project, FG, and one near and dear to my heart. First off ...

Bigger is better. Ellen Terris Brenner, an online acquaintance in San Diego, advises “At buffets, size definitely does matter -- the size of the establishment as a whole, that is. My current favorite here in San Diego seats a huge number of people, and the staff is extremely efficient at replenishing all the food those people hoover up, resulting in high food turnover an a high degree of freshness during most of their hours of operation.” A related point: choose a popular restaurant; buffets need a critical mass of customers in order to be able to offer a wide variety of good, fresh stuff.)

Many thanks for the namecheck. :biggrin: And oh yeah, that buffet I reference above is right across the street from MCAS Miramar. I notice there'd already been some comment about the neighborhood around military bases being great hunting grounds for Asian restaurants--that's certainly true in Miramar's case, there are literally dozens of Asian restaurants of various nationalities keeping the Marines as well as the locals well-fed.

Next ... coming in late and skimming really really fast, I see that a lot of what I would have suggested you address at some point in your book has already been covered by other posters. But here's one that I don't think has been mentioned yet: in Chinese restaurants, learning to move on beyond stirfries. Somehow in the first wave of US foodie awareness about Chinese cuisines, it became all about the stirfries; and to this day I think if you asked any non-Chinese person-in-the-street to name as many Chinese cooking techiques as they could think of, they'd say "stirfry" ... and maybe "deep-fry" ... and then draw a blank. I know I used to be that way. But eventually I became aware that there are in fact whole bunches of techniques and dishes I never knew from the way-Americanized Chinese restaurants of my youth. Now, when I visit a new-to-me Chinese restaurant and see, say, hotpot or claypot dishes on the menu, my expectations go way up. And if I see pork belly listed, I really get excited. They're not an iron-clad guarantee that this place can put out a great meal, but it at least raises my expectations that this place is going beyond the cooking-for-Anglos stuff.

Oh, and I have lots of stories of entertaining conversations with waitstaff variously amused, doubtful, and delighted at the nice Caucasian lady ordering stuff most of their non-Asian customers would fear to touch. Seems with every Vietnamese restaurant specializing in bun bo Hue, I have to go through the routine of convincing them that, yes, I know about the cubes of pork blood, and yes, I definitely want them. My strategy is simply to be my usual cheerful and enthusiastic self; sometimes I say something to the effect that "my friends introduced me to this dish and I really really like it." Which, after all, is true. And yeah, making oneself a regular really helps a lot.

(You are covering Vietnamese restaurants too, right?)

And oh yeah--thirding or fourthing or whatevering the motion that rice be thoroughly covered--especially the very specific preferences for very specific varieties of rice in different regional cuisines. For example, while much of Thai cuisine calls for jasmine rice, the Lao-influenced northern Thai cuisine really wants glutinous rice. And even though I do like brown rice a lot, I realize that most Asians (outside of followers of macrobiotics and other health regimens) don't have a lot of regard for the stuff.

Edited to add: FG, I know you said you don't have a lot of budget for cross-country field trips, but if you can find a way to visit the San Gabriel Valley area of greater Los Angeles I think it would be well worth your while. Hundreds of Chinese restaurants, from low to haute cuisine, all fiercely competing for the dollars and palates of a large and discriminating Chinese population--it's really something to experience.

Edited by mizducky (log)
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AI YA! Who eats all that?! That's a meal for 3 instead of one person. Good grief.

You'd get overweight from the sheer volume of food alone. Hey, regardless, it's still healthier than the processed crap you get at any fast-food chain.

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I hope you have a section devoted to language.

It's no secret that if you're able to communicate with the help, that you'll have a better meal experience overall.

Communicate with the help? Surely you jest.

Which brings up a couple of things mentioned earlier in this thread. I do not trust any census figures concerning Asian (particularly Chinese) populations in the US. Ten years ago - it was hard to find Chinese people in Jacksonville FL (near where I live). Today there are thousands. As well as dozens of "Chinese buffets" (more on those later). If you go into any "Chinese buffet" in Jacksonville - about 90% of the staff will not speak a word of English. They are all recent immigrants - and probably a very large percentage are illegal (INS busted my favorite Chinese buffet a while back - and found that *everyone* working at the place - except the owner - was illegal). Seems that a lot of immigrants - both legal and illegal - are simply skipping major points of entry/living - like New York - and going directly to the hinterlands (like Jacksonville).

The current trend in oriental buffets here - some are called Chinese buffets - and some are called Japanese - is the "pan oriental buffet". Chinese dishes. Sushi. Kimchi. Filipino dishes (we have a relatively large Filipino population here - many are US Navy and don't show up in the census). Whatever. Along with pizza and apple pie. Very eclectic - and some of it is pretty good (some is pretty bad too). Think as with all buffets - the most important thing to do when you go to one for the first time is reconnoiter.

Note that all of these buffets - even the Japanese ones - are owned by Chinese people and staffed by Chinese people. And a large number of customers are Mexican (especially lawn and construction guys - nothing like doing hard physical labor 24/7 to work up an appetite - hate people who can eat that much and stay thin :smile: ).

So I think that a reasonable part of the book ought to discuss these places. They are the places most people in the US go to eat oriental food these days.

Indian buffets/restaurants (we have a few good ones) are in a different category. Owned and operated by Indians with 100% Indian food. India may be in Asia - but perhaps it is a mistake to include it in this book. Russia - Israel and Afghanistan are in Asia too. But the cuisines aren't anything like Chinese food - or Japanese food. So I would probably omit Indian food (if for no other reason than you're not likely to find things like pork or beef in Indian restaurants - and there's a much larger emphasis on vegetarian cuisine). If you're going to include Indian restaurants - why not middle eastern restaurants? Think about it. I know I'll find a lot of interesting multi-cultural things at my local Chinese buffets - but I don't think I'll ever find goat curry.

So instead of "Asian" food - why not restrict things to "oriental food"?

Of course - you don't want to write a whole book about buffets. You want to discuss better restaurants. And on that front - I suggest spending at least a couple of weeks - if not more - on the west coast of the US - everywhere from Los Angeles to Seattle (and Hawaii if you can swing it). That is where the largest oriental populations in the US are. The largest concentrations of good restaurants - markets - etc. Perhaps the only area in the US where builders design houses with industrial strength exhaust vents for wok cooking and storage bins for 50 pound bags of rice.

I realize New Yorkers tend to be ethnocentric - but I travel a fair amount to the "left coast" and I don't even bother to eat Chinese or Japanese or similar food in the northeast any more. The mother lode is out west - and - if you ignore it - you will be - IMO - be ignoring where the action is in terms of oriental food in the US these days.

Also FWIW - you can totally skip Florida except if you want to try oriental buffets. In general - oriental food in Florida is awful (although I did find one good Japanese restaurant in Orlando which is a branch of a place in Ginza - it flies in all its fish every day from Japan). But there is so much out west - why bother with the southeast? Would be like trying to find a decent knish in Kansas (maybe it can be done - but you'll waste a lot of time in the process - and who on earth would go to Kansas to eat knishes?). Robyn

P.S. On the subject of communication - I recall a funny story. I went to New York many years ago - and there was an "authentic" Chinese restaurant recommended in my guide book. So we went. I tried to tell our server I wanted a particular drink. And he nodded yes - yes. He was gone for about 15 minutes - and came back with a bottle of rum from his car. So much for communication. FWIW - this restaurant served a lot of authentic Chinese food - like sea cucumbers (very slimy and probably an acquired taste). You won't see many of those on Chinese buffets (although our local places usually have chicken feet - have never quite figured out the attraction in that dish).

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I hope you have a section devoted to language.

It's no secret that if you're able to communicate with the help, that you'll have a better meal experience overall.

P.P.S. My husband studied Japanese for a year before we went to Japan last year. It enabled us to be polite and ask simple questions - that's about it. We relied on other things to eat (including dining with friends who spoke fluent Japanese). And Chinese is supposedly even harder to learn than Japanese (not to mention that there is more than one language spoken in China).

I agree with Fat Guy about the bowing stuff. We stayed at the Four Seasons in Tokyo - and I saw many business groups in the bar doing bowing. Very precise - and very interesting. I think his suggestion of - at best - a simple nod of the head when dealing in Japan - or with Japanese people - is on target.

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Note that all of these buffets - even the Japanese ones - are owned by Chinese people and staffed by Chinese people.  And a large number of customers are Mexican (especially lawn and construction guys - nothing like doing hard physical labor 24/7 to work up an appetite - hate people who can eat that much and stay thin  :smile: ).

My favorite local hole-in-the-wall Chinese place is owned by Chinese, but the cooks - and most of the customers - are Spanish-speaking. The owners have equally good facility with English and Spanish. This is completely Americanized Chinese, not something one would write about in a book (except to say "Don't bother") but I thought it was a fascinating little demographic fact.

They automatically bring out extra chili sauce to the Mexican customers, but I have to ask for it.

"There is nothing like a good tomato sandwich now and then."

-Harriet M. Welsch

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Note that all of these buffets - even the Japanese ones - are owned by Chinese people and staffed by Chinese people.  And a large number of customers are Mexican (especially lawn and construction guys - nothing like doing hard physical labor 24/7 to work up an appetite - hate people who can eat that much and stay thin  :smile: ).

My favorite local hole-in-the-wall Chinese place is owned by Chinese, but the cooks - and most of the customers - are Spanish-speaking. The owners have equally good facility with English and Spanish. This is completely Americanized Chinese, not something one would write about in a book (except to say "Don't bother") but I thought it was a fascinating little demographic fact.

They automatically bring out extra chili sauce to the Mexican customers, but I have to ask for it.

Y'know, this business of a restaurant being operated by people of a different nationality than that of the food they're serving is not totally without precedent on the US restaurant scene. For example, even though Boston's got a well-established Italian-American population, the number of little pizza places operated by Greeks was (and no doubt still is) impressive. For that matter, there's lots of classic diners in the suburbs of New York operated by Greeks. There'd be maybe one or two Greek dishes on the menu--say, moussaka--and everything else would be diner standards like Yankee pot roast and etc. ... And there are many other examples. But it could be interesting to explore the aspects of this phenomenon that are unique to the Asian restaurant scene, do a compare-and-contrast maybe.

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I hope you have a section devoted to language.

It's no secret that if you're able to communicate with the help, that you'll have a better meal experience overall.

P.P.S. My husband studied Japanese for a year before we went to Japan last year. It enabled us to be polite and ask simple questions - that's about it. We relied on other things to eat (including dining with friends who spoke fluent Japanese). And Chinese is supposedly even harder to learn than Japanese (not to mention that there is more than one language spoken in China).

I agree with Fat Guy about the bowing stuff. We stayed at the Four Seasons in Tokyo - and I saw many business groups in the bar doing bowing. Very precise - and very interesting. I think his suggestion of - at best - a simple nod of the head when dealing in Japan - or with Japanese people - is on target.

I respectfully disagree.

My family speaks primarily Fukien, and while this is not quite compatible with the Cantonese spoken by some Chinese in restaurants in Chinatown, there's always Mandarin. There are nuances that are not necessarily easily communicated by English alone.

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I'm curious as to what we think constitutes a "normal" Chinese restaurant meal in America.  I'd hypothesize that a typical individual eating "family style" at a Chinese restaurant has something like this:

- 2 fried pork dumplings

- 1 egg roll

- 1 wedge scallion pancake

- 1/2 cup hot and sour soup

- 1/2 cup deep fried chicken in thick sweet sauce

- 1/2 cup moo shu pork

- 1/2 cup beef with broccoli and garlic

- 1/2 cup white rice

That is a lot of fat right there.

AI YA!  Who eats all that?!  That's a meal for 3 instead of one person.  Good grief.

You'd get overweight from the sheer volume of food alone.  Hey, regardless, it's still healthier than the processed crap you get at any fast-food chain.

My apologies, I made a complete gaff in my reply. Since I am unable to edit the original post, I wanted to edit it here.

...FWIW - this restaurant served a lot of authentic Chinese food - like sea cucumbers (very slimy and probably an acquired taste).  You won't see many of those on Chinese buffets (although our local places usually have chicken feet - have never quite figured out the attraction in that dish).

Cost is the reason why you won't see sea cucumbers on Chinese-American buffets. It would be a loss leader for the restaurant to have those.

...(although our local places usually have chicken feet - have never quite figured out the attraction in that dish).

Properly prepared, chicken feet are a happy marriage of texture, fat and richness. Sorta like pork belly...only tastes like chicken!

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Of course - you don't want to write a whole book about buffets.  You want to discuss better restaurants.  And on that front - I suggest spending at least a couple of weeks - if not more - on the west coast of the US - everywhere from Los Angeles to Seattle (and Hawaii if you can swing it).  That is where the largest oriental populations in the US are. 

I would skip Seattle and keep on going up the road to Vancouver if it were not for this one place which does authentic bad chinese food. Imagine if you were travelling through rural India and all of a sudden you stumble across an absolutely authentic shitty New Jersey diner, complete with bad coffee, surly waitresses and greasy, stale food, named something like Le Chalet du Monde (Mostly Fine French Dining). That's the surreal nature this place gives off to a Chinese person.

You should definitely check it out if you're ever in the area.

PS: I am a guy.

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I've made six trips to Vancouver over the past few years, so I've got that scene pretty well covered, and I've been to all the major cities on the West Coast at least once. Still, the book is not regionally oriented and doesn't review specific restaurants -- it's about Asian restaurant dining in America in general -- so the primary purpose of travel is to collect fun anecdotes to sprinkle throughout the book. Vancouver, Winnipeg and Toronto will all be making guest appearances.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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