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How to approach an unfamiliar cuisine


Fat Guy
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There is a similar problem in the art world, in that most important art is found in museums.

The fact that the dining experiences being talked about take place in restaurants (in which arguably the sole variable is the food), imposes an undesirable frame of reference.

Perhaps, instead of asking yourself what the food means to you and comparing it with your own store of experience, a fundamental first question should be: what does it mean to the person preparing it, or the culture from where it originates?

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Perhaps, instead of asking yourself what the food means to you and comparing it with your own store of experience, a fundamental first question should be: what does it mean to the person preparing it, or the culture from where it originates?

Excellent point. That's part of what I meant when I was talking about learning about a cuisine in depth.

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Oh you mean North African food. That I know. I go to eat it there all of the time. I was talking about sub-Saharan cuisine like Senegalese.

And the sub-saharan colonies? Even the Paris-Dakar - also the name of a restaurant.

One of my principal reactions is to sort an unfamiliar cuisine into familiar bits and unfamiliar bits. It is then a somewhat painstaking job to slowly re-assemble those parts into a version of the unity that is a culture-in-cooking.

Wilma squawks no more

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a fundamental first question should be: what does it mean to the person preparing it, or the culture from where it originates?

Correct. In very poor countries without a developed restaurant culture cuisine is still all about maximising the potential of food to provide energy and nutrients to sustain long and hard working hours.

For example the majority of Africans who work in cities cannot afford cars. Public transport is chaotic and unreliable so its not uncommon for a city worker to walk seven miles into the city to work and seven miles back afterwards. That's fourteen miles walking every day in heat before you've even taken the energy spent working into account. Children often have to do similar distances to reach schools.

You cannot sustain that kind of energy output on foie gras and chicken with truffles and cream-even if you could afford it. You need fuel food-lots of energy providing starch and carbohydrates,lots of vegetables and fruit and legumes. Meat becomes relatively unimportant for such a lifestyle so sophisticated and elaborate ways of cooking it don't develop and it tends to get saved for those occasions when food can be treated as a pleasure.

Just saying "it sucks" compared to, say, French cuisine is juvenile. The cuisine tells us about the society from which it comes and where that society is in terms of economic and social development. In that sense cuisine is always fascinating if one is interested in the world and the cultures outside of our own familiar ambit.

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Most cuisines that are good, have been figured out by someone who champions them and some literature exists.

That's the foundation of a very closed-minded way of being open-minded!

Perhaps a few decades from now, that statement will be more true. Today, however, the literature on non-mainstream world cuisine is quite nascent. And at one time, I'm sure, the literature on sushi was nascent (in English, there still isn't all that much informative material on it), and there were few English-speaking champions of anything Japanese. Assuming that all good cuisines "have been figured out by someone who champions them and some literature exists" is a sure-fire way to keep yourself out of the vanguard and firmly in the middle of the pack.

Tibetan cuisine -- which I'd actually call Himalayan cuisine because there's so much commonality between Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and the nearby parts of India -- is a good example. I would characterize it as, at the very least, underrated. Obviously, this is a very sophisticated culture, and so it's not surprising that there has been a lot of attention focused on cuisine -- especially vegetarian cuisine. There's no way I'd have figured out, from eating at the crappy hippie/commie pretender I dined at, that this cuisine has anything to offer beyond those dumplings called, appropriately, momo. But against the backdrop of some reading, some older experiences, and the knowledge imparted by an experienced guide, I was able to see that the suckiness of the restaurant was indicative of poor implementation, not poor conception.

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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Just saying "it sucks" compared to, say, French cuisine is juvenile. The cuisine tells us about the society from which it comes and where that society is in terms of economic and social development. In that sense cuisine is always fascinating if one is interested in the world and the cultures outside of our own familiar ambit.

You are talking about Sociology and not cuisine. Cuisine either tastes good or it doesn't. You don't get a Pass Directly To Go card because you are from a poor society.

My wife spent 6 months in South America, mostly in Bolivia, after she graduated from college and before she went to law school. She describes the food in Bolivia as "horrid." You couldn't eat anything that grew on the land because it was all contaminated. The fruits and vegetables would be black when harvested. But there were women who carried baskets of home made Sultanas (which are like Empanadas) and sold them on the street. To this day she talks about them as if they were one of most delicious things she ever ate. So delicious food is delicious food, and crap food is crap food. But she also talks about taking the train into Argentina from I believe Peru. You have to change trains at the border. She talks about how horrible the food was on one side of the border. But when you crossed into Argentina it was like coming into Switzerland with cafes everywhere and the most delicious cream filled pasrties.

So let's not be relativists about what delicious food means. And while I understand that in many societies the people are so poor that they can't afford to begin to think about the concept of good food, that has no impact on whether the food they do eat is delicious or not. There are many poor societies in the world with delicious food that they are able to farm for sustenance. Or fish for etc. And there are wealthy societies with crap food like Holland. The two have nothing to do with each other.

Fat Guy - I'll take that as a back-handed compliment!

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I agree that the symbolism and sociology of food does not contribute in any way to its objective taste. Although I enjoy as much as the next person hearing that the shrimp represent whatever some emperor did, it doesn't make me think the shrimp taste better. If the story doesn't contribute to the dish, I'd prefer to hear the story and eat a slice of pizza.

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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Most cuisines have an internal logic to them which correlates to the climate, ingredients, fuel available. Learning about that logic involves learning about the people. Also, some people just cook better than other people, so until you've tasted a range of food, how can you tell? All I'm saying is that a superficial knowledge of something is of little use in making judgments.

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The reality is that cuisines don't either taste good or taste crap. It's possible to get both great food and crap food and points in between in most countries, rich or poor. True you might have to look harder for it in some countries than others but every where in the world there are people who know how to cook and who know how to make the most out of the ingredients and equipment at their disposable.

In East Africa, where I've spent a fair bit of time, African cooks will argue for hours on the right maize meal and right consisitency for Ugali (polenta) to eat with the braised chicken with herbs dish and which herbs to use and in what combination. If you know the right people or strike lucky you can have a terrific dish. Eat it in the wrong place and you'll conclude that all Kenyan cuisine tastes crap. Along the Mombasa coast Arab influences imbue the cuisine with a spicy richness and fish cookery is considered an important skill.

What is juvenile is an approach which says "such and such a cuisine is crap" without looking at the parameters and contexts of the cuisine's development and the widely varied skills of those who cook the cuisine. So no. Cuisine doesn't only taste good or taste bad. It can taste good sometimes and bad other times. Sometimes to find the best you've just got to know whose food to go and eat and where to eat it-no different to France, really :wink:

Edited by Tonyfinch (log)
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Most cuisines have an internal logic to them which correlates to the climate, ingredients, fuel available.  Learning about that logic involves learning about the people.

Can you give some examples of how you need to learn about a people in order to understand the "internal logic" of a cuisine? Even if there's a correlation between culture and internal-cuisine-logic, why can't it be explained just with language?

superficial knowledge of something is of little use in making judgments.

What's the dividing line between superficial and in-depth? Is all knowledge that doesn't take a lifetime to acquire superficial? My experience is that culinary knowledge can be condensed and imparted, perhaps not with 100% of its nuance intact but at least in a useful, fulfilling manner. That's what those who teach are supposed to do. No, it's not a substitute for a lifetime of study or for extensive, total-immersion, direct engagement in a culture, but there's a whole lot that can be learned -- quickly -- through good-faith research and a desire to learn.

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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I do not think all knowledge that is acquired in a condensed format, sans a lifetime of experience, is superficial.

About approaching a new cuisine. As other people have said, I think background and context is incredibly important to understanding a cuisine. History, weather, demographics, GNP, society, culture, politics, religion. And I am not talking about an in depth immersion - just a couple of hours of surfing on the web.

To take an extreme example of cultural expectations, if you had gone to the Tibetan restaurant without any sense of Tibet's Buddhist inclinations the vegetarian aspect of the cuisine would have seemed a disadvantage to a palate that expects a different form of protein. Whereas, in context, one is more able to appreciate it for what it is.

The context is just as important when writing the review. A declaration of here is what I knew, here is what I expected, here is what I got - this makes the judgement part of the information a lot more useful to a reader. Or I did some research and went to this place exppecting this kind of stuff and dd or did not get it.

I have read reviews of Indian restaurants that criticized them for reasons that I did not find valid and therefore dismissed as stemming from a lack of knowledge or understanding of the cuisine. On the other hand, if the person writing the review had said - I'm an accomplished food critic but I have little or no experience in Indian cuisine and come, join me on this adventure, the article would have had a very different meaning for me.

I think there are some standards that are globally applicable, though. Quality of ingredients is one. Hygiene and service are, obviously, others. Time and effort, which I think anyone who cooks regularly can judge quite fairly are others.

I also think it's fair to say stuff like - Don't go here looking for subtle, gentle flavorings. This is in you face food. Especially if you've never eaten asafoetida (or kimchee) in your life!

edited typos

Edited by indiagirl (log)
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The topical musing here is on the subject of approaching an unfamiliar cuisine. I would associate myself with those who have discussed the value of an effort to understand the culture of the people who make the food.

An explicator at the elbow of one with an open mind would be very useful right here in River City.

I find depressing and, ultimately, boring, those who pontificate from a perch in thin air.

Edited by Robert Schonfeld (log)

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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On the other hand, if the person writing the review had said - I'm an accomplished food critic but I have little or no experience in Indian cuisine and come, join me on this adventure, the article would have had a very different meaning for me.

That's good if it's a person posting a restaurant-visit report on a message board, but I think a paid professional reviewer has a duty to do enough learning to be able to speak with at least some degree of authority -- or, at a bare minimum, competence. I don't appreciate picking up a paper like the New York Times and reading about personal discovery by the food writers. I don't give a damn about them. I want information.

I think there are some standards that are globally applicable, though. Quality of ingredients is one.

Standards of quality for ingredients are not universal, though. Look at how the Chinese prefer their pork with so much fat that it makes most Americans want to gag. The Japanese like their apples tree-ripened for so long they're nearly rotten at the core.

Time and effort, which I think anyone who cooks regularly can judge quite fairly

"Sushi is just some raw fish on rice."

I also think it's fair to say stuff like - Don't go here looking for subtle, gentle flavorings. This is in you face food.

In your face food can't be gentle, but it can be subtle, nuanced, complex, and even delicate. Especially when it comes to cuisines that use complex spice mixtures, the flavor often appears unsubtle -- just a generally perceived "spicy" flavor -- to those without experience of 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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On the other hand, if the person writing the review had said - I'm an accomplished food critic but I have little or no experience in Indian cuisine and come, join me on this adventure, the article would have had a very different meaning for me.

That's good if it's a person posting a restaurant-visit report on a message board, but I think a paid professional reviewer has a duty to do enough learning to be able to speak with at least some degree of authority -- or, at a bare minimum, competence. I don't appreciate picking up a paper like the New York Times and reading about personal discovery by the food writers. I don't give a damn about them. I want information.

Yes, we are actually in agreement here. I was not clear at all. Or rather, I was too casual with my "join me on this adventure" - more clearly then, what I mean is, I want information also, but I also want the information provided in context. I want to be informed as to whether the person I am recieving this information from has acquired it from a detailed, intense study for a journalistic assignment or whether they have it from living in that country for two years.

I think there are some standards that are globally applicable, though. Quality of ingredients is one.

Standards of quality for ingredients are not universal, though. Look at how the Chinese prefer their pork with so much fat that it makes most Americans want to gag. The Japanese like their apples tree-ripened for so long they're nearly rotten at the core.

Good point here. Thanks. I was being rather limited in my thinking - sort of like a good red pepper vs. a bad red pepper. I guess, the apples example proves that wrong too!

Time and effort, which I think anyone who cooks regularly can judge quite fairly

"Sushi is just some raw fish on rice."

The first time ever I saw sushi I was awed by the love and care (and therefore time and effort) it must have taken to put it together. I maintain that if one has enough cooking experience, a reasonable estimate of time and effort can be made even for unfamiliar cuisinse, independent of whether one actually likes the food or not.

I also think it's fair to say stuff like - Don't go here looking for subtle, gentle flavorings. This is in you face food.

In your face food can't be gentle, but it can be subtle, nuanced, complex, and even delicate. Especially when it comes to cuisines that use complex spice mixtures, the flavor often appears unsubtle -- just a generally perceived "spicy" flavor -- to those without experience of the cuisine.

Fat Guy, yes, I do believe I am aware of that. Witness my position in the various Mobius Strip threads. That's why I added the example and qualification to my statement, which actually read as follows:

I also think it's fair to say stuff like - Don't go here looking for subtle, gentle flavorings. This is in you face food. Especially if you've never eaten asafoetida (or kimchee) in your life!
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Steven, I've thought about your question; this is an example of what I meant. I was once a TA teaching a language course in which I was essentially one step ahead of my students. While the course went OK, I came out of the semester feeling I had short-changed my students, especially in comparison to my own teacher, who had been both teaching and continuing his own studies at the same time for 20 years, and whose breadth of knowledge was paired with a constant curiosity and desire to learn more. I suppose, like sensibility, it's a very individual take, in this instance on when each person feels they're prepared enough to teach and impart knowledge in a meaningful way. It's like there's the blurb and then there's the book, the cherry and the whole pie.

As for the internal logic of a cuisine, it grows out of the lives of the people who cook and eat it. I tried once to write a cookbook with some Laotian people. Laotian food is very different, and it only made sense within the context of how the people who were teaching me to cook it lived.

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I'll be the first to acknowledge the difference between reading War & Peace and reading the Cliff's Notes, but I'm not sure that analogy would hold with food. Perhaps it helps to divide food into 1) the actual physical substance on the plate, 2) the inner-orbit culinary concepts that one needs to grasp in order to "get" what's on the plate, and 3) a higher orbit of social and metaporical associations that places the food in a broader context. I find number 3 interesting and valuable, but not essential to grasping number 1 and number 2 and also not related to actual taste.

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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I want to commend all of you for addressing this issue seriously....So I'll address it frivolously:

Just judge the unfamiliar cuisine by the standards of French haute cuisine, find it wanting, and move on. :biggrin:

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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What is juvenile is an approach which says "such and such a cuisine is crap" without looking at the parameters and contexts of the cuisine's development and the widely varied skills of those who cook the cuisine. So no. Cuisine doesn't only taste good or taste bad. It can taste good sometimes and bad other times. Sometimes to find the best you've just got to know whose food to go and eat and where to eat it-no different to France, really

Lots of cuisines are poor cuisines. I don't mean poor as in lacking money, I mean poor as in concieved poorly and executed poorly. It has nothing to do with the parameters of how the cuisine came about. It solely has to do with how the food tastes. When we traveled through Austria many years ago, Mrs. P and I pretty much had to hold our noses everytime we went into a restaurant. That's because they cook with lard, not a particularly good quality lard either if you ask me. Even in high class restaurants. Every meal we ate in that country was horrible. We couldn't wait to leave because the food was so rancid. And it wasn't me, this has been confirmed over the years by a number of my friends who have traveled there.

There is going to be no more relativism regarding food. I am commited to striking it down in my lifetime. The faster everyone admits that crap food is crap, the faster we will all eat better food. And that goes for people in Africa too. You aren't doing them any favors by not being honest about the food they eat. If you really want to help them, speak the truth.

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Between the extremes of culinary relativism and imperialism, there is a middle ground of principled open-mindedness. Both sets of extremists are, in my opinion, equally destructive.

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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Lots of cuisines are poor cuisines. I don't mean poor as in lacking money, I mean poor as in concieved poorly and executed poorly. It has nothing to do with the parameters of how the cuisine came about. It solely has to do with how the food tastes.  When we traveled through Austria many years ago, Mrs. P and I pretty much had to hold our noses everytime we went into a restaurant. That's because they cook with lard, not a particularly good quality lard either if you ask me. Even in high class restaurants. Every meal we ate in that country was horrible. We couldn't wait to leave because the food was so rancid. And it wasn't me, this has been confirmed over the years by a number of my friends who have traveled there.

I've spent only the amount of time in Austria that was necessary to take a train from Rome to Vienna, change enough lire for a tram to another station, hope a train to Budapest, and get from Vienna to Gyor, the Hungarian border town.

However, one of the more memorable meals I've eaten was at an Austrian-style restaurant in Budapest. It was a delicious roast goose. Just fabulous. Nowadays, there are geese on the campus of Queensborough Community College, and I keep thinking "dinner!" as I walk past them. :biggrin:

Hungarian food generally uses lard, and I had several other very tasty meals there. What would have been a classy mid-priced restaurant was across the street from the flat I stayed in for 2 weeks. Meals there came out to between around 850 and 1250 Forint (roughtly 100 Forint=$1 in those days), but that was a really significant sum of money, probably equivalent in buying power to something in the $30s/$40s - in 1994 dollars. And those meals would have gone over that top number if I had ordered more expensive specialties like Libamay (made from goose liver).

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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