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How to approach an unfamiliar cuisine


Fat Guy
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I've had a few reviewing assignments of late that have taken me to restaurants serving relatively unfamiliar (to me) cuisine (Tibetan and African most recently), so I've been thinking a lot lately about how to approach a new cuisine -- and how to write about it.

For me, as a writer, there are three challenges: 1) Adjusting certain of my own preconceived notions about how to judge cuisine; 2) Acquiring enough knowledge so as to be able to begin judging a particular specimen of a dish from an unfamiliar cuisine; and 3) communicating the most important bits of that information, in writing, in a non-pedantic, not-overly-self-conscious way.

Most of my serious, critically oriented dining has taken place -- as does most fine dining in the U.S. and France -- in French or European-influenced New American restaurants. I've also spent time in the kitchens of such restaurants, and it's the style of food I cook when I'm trying to cook well. So I feel very comfortable in that milieu. I also harbor the standard notion that what is familiar is what is best, so I default to thinking any unfamiliar cuisine can't be particularly worthy of my attention.

But I wonder what I might have done, in a context-free situation, with something like sushi had it been presented to me in the 1970s when most Americans didn't know anything about it. I guess there would have been two choices: a) View it as just some raw fish on rice; or b) Try to follow the three steps outlined above.

1) Adjusting certain of my own preconceived notions about how to judge cuisine

This I think is the most important thing you can do as a reviewer when addressing an unfamiliar cuisine: You've got to resist the temptation to impose the standards you'd use in judging a familiar product like risotto or a bordelaise sauce. For example, I ate a lot of sushi before I ever learned what to look for. And that doesn't mean that, even today, I actually buy into the notion that all the visual, technique, and textural issues that the Japanese focus on are the be-all-end-all of what makes food good. But I do try to bear in mind that a serious sushi chef is doing more than just cutting up pieces of fish and putting them on rice, and that "the fish was really fresh!" is the way a clueless Westerner describes good sushi: accurate and perhaps well-intentioned, but completely missing the point. That's the big conceptual hurdle: You have to get over the "this is just raw fish on rice" hump before your brain will actually let you taste what you're supposed to be tasting.

Likewise, I recently tried damn hard to repress my preexisting framework of evaluation when eating some African cuisine, and I failed. I couldn't get past the "this just sucks" reaction. I tried to search for some sort of compelling conceptual hook in the food, though. I really did. I had much better luck in a Tibetan place, where I thought I simultaneously understood what could be good about the food and what made the particular specimen in front of me suck.

2) Acquiring enough knowledge so as to be able to begin judging a particular specimen of a dish from an unfamiliar cuisine

In the Tibetan-food instance, I had the good fortune of Ellen's company. She has been to the Himalayan region something like six or seven times for extended (more than a month each time) travel, so she was able to act as an interpreter for this cuisine, pointing out what was authentic, what was Americanized, and what was probably trying to emulate what.

So the easiest way, of course, to take a crash course in an unfamiliar cuisine is to find a guru either to accompany you to restaurants or cook for you -- or both. I've had some good fortune in this regard, and have been the recipient of time and instruction from many people who surely had better things to do. If you're William Grimes or Gael Greene, or you work for Gourmet, you have even better access to experts -- I see that happening all the time (one of the big-name critics dining out with a culinary expert, who is providing the critic with a crash-course in a particular cuisine)

But gurus (actual experts or, barring that, people who are well traveled in the area in question) are not always readily available. Which is where books come in. Living near Kitchen Arts & Letters is convenient in this regard. But even so, most cookbooks are so bad that it's hard to extract any useful information from them. Especially when it comes to ethnic cookbooks, all the demand is for quick, easy, converted recipes that use readily available ingredients. The treatises I would need in order to understand unfamiliar cuisines tend not to be written, or they get written but don't sell.

Finally, one can always give the chef a call, or even post questions online. In both instances, I'm somewhat shy about imposing. But I do it if it's actually going to lead to a better story, or, in the case of message-board posts, if I think it will be a fun discussion for people anyway.

3) Communicating the most important bits of that information, in writing, in a non-pedantic, not-overly-self-conscious way

The conclusion I've come to here is that the traditionally structured restaurant review is simply inadequate for this task. I think the best way to structure a piece about an unfamiliar cuisine is to find several examples of it, and to treat them comparatively. This allows for a mix of instruction and reviewing, and creates a context. Still, within the limitations of a single review, you can make some headway. The trick is not to try to convey all your knowledge, but rather to distill it down to the two or three most salient points and put those out there. And to remember that, over time, you'll get to revisit the subject, and that some of your readers will still be there, and that you'll have a chance to add a little more information to the mix each time you revisit the cuisine.

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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That's very interesting. At the risk of saying something obvious, my approach is to try to grasp the basic structure of the cuisine in terms of starches and what one might call garnishes. It doesn't work for every cuisine, but most cuisines seem to be built on a set of carbohydrate staples, which are then garnished for flavor. The most obvious garnish is whatever protein happens to be available and affordable, and then one moves up the ladder of elaboration to spices, herbs and sauces.

One example I have at my fingertips is Dominican food. The building blocks are rice, beans, plantains, yucca, and potatoes. These are garnished with chicken or pork and pig's offal, goat and cheap cuts of beef ; fish and shellfish if you fish or can afford to buy it. Then the secondary flavorings: cilantro, garlic, onion, green peppers. And so on.

I think that model applies very widely, and it helps (me at least) to internalize the basic structure, and understand the cuisine as variations on that structure.

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I recently tried damn hard to repress my preexisting framework of evaluation when eating some African cuisine, and I failed. I couldn't get past the "this just sucks" reaction.

What part of Africa was the food you had from? Surely there is significant diversity across the continent. I have had some decent Senegalese food in New York, but I was in the company of Senegalese who knew what and how to order.

Chief Scientist / Amateur Cook

MadVal, Seattle, WA

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I'm keeping that part of the discussion general because I specifically don't want to get into a debate about any particular cuisine here. I'll post some notes on the restaurant after I've completed my assignment, though.

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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Likewise, I recently tried damn hard to repress my preexisting framework of evaluation when eating some African cuisine, and I failed. I couldn't get past the "this just sucks" reaction. I tried to search for some sort of compelling conceptual hook in the food, though. I really did.

It does suck. But I have confidence that someone could make a good Lamb Yassa. But I have zero confidence that it could be good in this country. And you could also convince me it would suck in Senegal. But as a conceptualization of cuisine, it's not much different then a tagine with preserved lemons from North Africa. So it makes perfect sense that it could be good.

But I just think when it sucks, you are right and it sucks. And the only time you should sweat it is if lots of people are telling you you are wrong. That is the only time I try and reevaluate my assessment and do research on what I might have done wrong.

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Any time you say any restaurant sucks, lots of people will tell you you're wrong. Any time you say any restaurant is great, lots of people will tell you you're wrong. That's the reality of writing about restaurants.

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 I don't like something I am curious as to why and so will often try something several times (whether a piece of music, a weird part of a fish, or conversation with someone). If that dislike does not change and begins to seem well-founded and reasonable then I feel I can say it sucks.

Like konnyaku.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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Any time you say any restaurant sucks, lots of people will tell you you're wrong. Any time you say any restaurant is great, lots of people will tell you you're wrong. That's the reality of writing about restaurants.

But while this is true, it depends on who is telling me I'm wrong and why. Some people can move mt to take a second, third and fourth look. Some people I can dismiss as easily as the restaurant.

But that has nothing to do with being confronted with a Yassa for the first time. The following questions are raised;

1) Does this taste good?

2) Is this a good dish?

3) How does this dish reflect on the cuisine?

Because when it comes down to it, it's just a lamb and lemon dish. How can it be bad? It's either the restaurant or the recipe. But a lamb and lemon dish should be no worse then boring.

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But that has nothing to do with being confronted with a Yassa for the first time.... Because when it comes down to it, it's just a lamb and lemon dish. How can it be bad?

I thought yassa was usually made with chicken and lemon.

Chief Scientist / Amateur Cook

MadVal, Seattle, WA

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1) Does this taste good?

2) Is this a good dish?

3) How does this dish reflect on the cuisine?

If I am confronted with any cuisine that I know nothing about, there is, obviously, no way I can judge how authentic it is. So, I fall back on what I do even when I am eating familiar cuisines. I ask myself, "Does this taste good to me."

I have had exactly two experiences with African cuisine. The first was at Adulis in NYC, which, if I recall correctly, was specializing in Eritrean cuisine. (The restaurant recently morphed into Lamu, and it's now out with African and in with Mediterranean.) I ordered a shrimp main course; my husband ordered a stew. I also recall some thin bread-like item being served, the taste of which I didn't care for. However, the shrimp dish was absolutely delicious, and my husband said his stew was also very good.

My second experience was in a restaurant in White River Junction, VT. The chef was from Africa, though I don't know which region, and the menu reflected his background. We had some deep-fried appetizers (can't recall the fillings) and a meat stew for the main course. Everything was well-prepared and very tasty.

As I said, I have no clue as to how authentic these experiences were. All I know is that the food tasted good to me.

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"Does this taste good to me."

Because so much of taste has to be acquired, I don't find that to be an adequate standard -- especially not when I'm under an obligation to report as a journalist. But I also think that duty of open-mindedness can, if embraced by the non-journalist, have eventual rewards.

For me the trick is walking the fine line between good-faith open-mindedness and the nihilism of "in matters of taste there's no dispute."

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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But that has nothing to do with being confronted with a Yassa for the first time. The following questions are raised;

1) Does this taste good?

2) Is this a good dish?

3) How does this dish reflect on the cuisine?

If your perception of an unfamiliar (and I’d like to stress this word) cuisine relies specifically on your previous experience and background, the chance of your being able to evaluate it properly and to be able to grasp its nuances is quite limited. My first acquaintance with Sushi many years ago, for instance, had provoked nothing but a revulsion though I was open-minded and looked forward to this exercise. After passing the point of unacceptance, a general satisfaction level was achieved, but the ability to distinguish gradation was still low. It took me some more time to obtain an ability to tell the fish apart. To distinguish the nuances of the quality of the product became easy and pleasurable afterwards, but would’ve been impossible had I not been capable of distinguishing tuna from salmon in the first place. From pure disgust, I’ve developed a craving, which has persisted for a long time. Therefore, the answer to the question “Is this a good dish?” related to any cuisine depends on how much time and effort one has invested to learn about it and may differ in answer based on these criteria.

Let me repeat a brilliant summation Toby made: “Learning about any subject can be an in-depth, lifetime experience, so I think you have to just give yourself time, years of it. Crash courses are just that.”

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Because so much of taste has to be acquired, I don't find that to be an adequate standard -- especially not when I'm under an obligation to report as a journalist

Yes but most cuisines that are acquired tastes come billed as such. It isn't like when you think that Senegalese sucks, there is a body of literature that is going to dispute that and then recommend that you try it ten more times because it is an acquired taste. Most cuisines that are good, have been figured out by someone who champions them and some literature exists. For example, you can try Kimchi and hate it. But it is obvious that there are people who like it very much. Not only is that a huge clue that there is a version of it that can be good, but they usually provide the key to finding a way to acquire the taste for it.

Hang on, let me call some of my Senegalese friends for you.

Therefore, the answer to the question “Is this a good dish?” related to any cuisine depends on how much time and effort one has invested to learn about it and may differ in answer based on these criteria.

This is absolutely correct. We all knew that sushi was considered good before we ever tasted it. Some people were fortunate enough to taste it for the first time and understand why, and some people had to figure out why it was good and it took them a while. But before you ever tasted it, the opinion in favor of sushi was so overwhelmingly in favor that it would be hard to muster a credible argument against it that isn't based on preference. But if you eat Tibetan and hate it, who's going to disagree with you, Richard Gere?

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Tibetans?

Ironically, Senegalese cuisine is very popular in France, where perhaps it doesn't suck. I knew that, but what I just learnt is that it had a historical influence on the low country cooking of South Carolina, which I think it one of the more interesting American regional cuisines.

More here.

Edited by Wilfrid (log)
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But if you eat Tibetan and hate it, who's going to disagree with you, Richard Gere?

2.6 million Tibetians?*

BTW, there's a related article to this thread in the NYT DINING DIGEST posted by Nerissa (although it focuses on Korean home cooking).

http://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/26/dining/26HOME.html

"Every cuisine has a soul hidden in its recipes, one that isn't always easy for the outsider to see. This is especially true when the cultural gap between outsider and cook is large."

"The ideal solution for the novice approaching a new cuisine is to learn from a native, one who is cultured from birth in its preparation."

Quote from Fat Guy:

I also harbor the standard notion that what is familiar is what is best, so I default to thinking any unfamiliar cuisine can't be particularly worthy of my attention.

This caught my eye in your original post. Maybe I'm some kind of oddball, but I never harbored this notion. Even in childhood, I was always looking for food that tasted "different". Growing up in a multi-ethnic city (NY), I used to wrangle invites to the other kid's homes just to sample food from other cultures. I can distinctly recall tasting some new flavor combinations and/or spices for the first time, and feeling something akin to getting high. I like what's considered "spicy" food, but I can also appreciate subtle flavors. I can discern quality ingredients, and refined technique in cooking. But in general, I can't say I've ever encountered a cuisine that I didn't like or appreciate, assuming it's well prepared (and yes, I know there's a range there). So my question is, are people like me (I'm sure there are others) better or worse food reviewers?

*Edit: Wilfrid got there first, but I did the math :smile:

Edited by The Camille (log)
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2.6 million Tibetians?

Do they have good palates?

Look at the Dutch, The food in that country is bad compared to their neighbors. And I am sure Dutch people like their cuisine well beyond its actual worth. But it's an affluent country and they can afford to have great food but they don't. So I'm not sure that what Tibetans like matters all that much. I would venture that Fat Guy knows more about food then 2,599,998 people in Tibet.

I think it's important to differentiate between an acquired taste, and something that will not taste good no matter who or what is eating eat. There is a lot of food that is plain lousy. We shouldn't be afraid to admit it. If you read that link, those Senegalese dishes look fine, but they might be lousy when you are there because the ingredients are poor. In fact, I am always suspect when a cuisine revolves around stews because it signals tough meat that needs to braise.

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Why are they so popular in France? I thought the French had better palates than the Tibetans

Because Youssou n'Dour is a big star there :cool:.

Have you offered any evidence that they are popular?

I don't know them to be popular in France. I might have missed something but, I can't recall ever seing a Senegalese restaurant in France anywhere. But there is a large Senegalese community in Paris, which is the home of World Music. So it wouldn't surprise me if it was big in France. I actually have a guide book to ethnic dining in Paris and I would check it bbut I can't put my finger on the book.

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Have you offered any evidence that they are popular?

I don't know them to be popular in France. I might have missed something but, I can't recall ever seing a Senegalese restaurant in France anywhere.

No, you can take my word for it. Paris alone is packed with African restaurants, offering cuisine from Senegal, the Cameroons and the Ivory Coast in particular.

I don't know how you missed them.

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They must not be in the neighborhoods I frequent :wink:. In fact, even in the funky 11th, I can't remember seeing any. Which arrondisments are they in?

Let's try this link;

Djembe Online

The restaurants seem to be in the 18th, where the clientele is probably significantly African, or there are two on the same street in the 11th. Then there is one in the 4th and one in the 13th. I'd hesitate to call that loads.

And they seem to revolve around music more then food. World music in Paris is unbelievably popular. So that makes sense. But I never heard of anyone running out to eat the cuisine by itself. But maybe I'm missing something.

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This caught my eye in your original post. Maybe I'm some kind of oddball, but I never harbored this notion. Even in childhood, I was always looking for food that tasted "different". Growing up in a multi-ethnic city (NY), I used to wrangle invites to the other kid's homes just to sample food from other cultures. I can distinctly recall tasting some new flavor combinations and/or spices for the first time, and feeling something akin to getting high. I like what's considered "spicy" food, but I can also appreciate subtle flavors. I can discern quality ingredients, and refined technique in cooking. But in general, I can't say I've ever encountered a cuisine that I didn't like or appreciate, assuming it's well prepared (and yes, I know there's a range there). So my question is, are people like me (I'm sure there are others) better or worse food reviewers?

The Camille,

I agree there - I'm the same type, who went after ethnic foods for years upon years before even realizing that they were what I was looking for. Obviously I'm somewhat biased, but I don't think that an appreciation for, and desire to seek out the new is a hindrance any more so than an aversion to the new. I think that both have a tendency to create bias in any reviewer, but a good journalist will acknowledge his bias and account for it (I've been reading a lot of Stephen Gould recently).

"Long live democracy, free speech and the '69 Mets; all improbable, glorious miracles that I have always believed in."

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But maybe I'm missing something.

Yes, you are. I'm not talking about discos. African food, especially cous cous, is to the young urban French almost what a Saturday night curry is to the English. You see, France used to have these colonies...

But I will drop the issue, as it was meant as a footnote, and it's not really pertinent to the thread.

Edited by Wilfrid (log)
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