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How to approach an unfamiliar cuisine


Fat Guy
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Even if every restaurant in a country sucks, it doesn't necessarily reflect on the cuisine. There are lots of things that can happen to ruin restaurants. Communism was a big one, and it messed up the restaurant scene in China for a good long time (not to mention all of Eastern Europe). But nobody is out there saying, "I went to China and every meal I ate there sucked; therefore Chinese cuisine sucks." I've never been to Austria and it's not really on my list, but David Bouley seems to like Austrian food ( http://www.thedanube.net/ ). Maybe every restaurant in Austria really does suck; I wouldn't know. But doesn't that famous place that sounds like "steer a wreck" (somebody can I'm sure provide the actual name) have a couple of Michelin stars?

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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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.

Really? Listen to me Steve. Rich fat white man does not help skinny poor black man by wagging his fat bejewelled white finger in his face and telling him that he thinks his food is shit.

I didn't know we were talking about how to help Africa but If you really want to know I can deliver a lecture on it which will lead to a world where Africans don't have to eat a ton of carbohydrates every day in order to keep going because, they don't have to walk fourteen miles a day to work or to school or to collect fresh water etc., we can talk about land management and irrigation sysytems, energy distribution and transport infrastucture, political corruption and climate variation etc.etc.......but I won't because it'll make your head swim.

But the truth is one's not making any kind of mega-statement by saying that some sub-Saharan African food is delicious. Why should it not be so? Is it so beyond the parameters of your philosophy that some African people know how to cook? And know how to turn the ingredients available to them into delicious meals? Doe it THREATEN you somehow, the idea that you can eat lovely food in Africa if you know where to find it?

In your Quixotic crusade against "relativism" (I do admire a man with a little cause-no matter how daft) is it really neccessary for a national cuisine to be either "crap" or "not crap"? So you didn't lke the food in Austria. Does this mean ergo that it is impossible to get good food in Austria? This reminds me of that great scene in Portnoy's Complaint:

Portnoy's Mum: "Alex. NEVER EVER eat bacon. It can KILL you."

Portnoy: "How's that?"

Portnoy's Mum "Because I ate some once AND I NEARLY DIED!" :unsure:

Edited by Tonyfinch (log)
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Plotnicki is your finger bejeweled? If so I would find that extremely disappointing.

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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Although the range of produce and cooking techniques is limited in a place like Kenya, such food that is commonly eaten is usually locally or home grown, very fresh, free of processing, artificial flavourings and e -numbers, organically produced, very healthy and very tasty.

In terms of everyday quality (as opposed to quantity) your average African who is not subjected to famine or food shortages is eating much fresher and healthier produce than your average American or Brit. All markets are "farmers' markets", virtually all non-imported produce comes directly from local growers so that there is minimal time between the product coming out of the ground and going into the pot.

Chickens are all genuinely free range and have a full, rich gamey flavour, much nicer than bog standard British supermarket chickens. Fish and seafood comes out of the sea and into the pot. Herbs spices and seasonings are used straiight off the bush. Meat and dairy are eaten in relatively limited quantities but roasted and barbequeued meats and fresh fish frys (Tilapia, Grouper, Snapper) are a common feature of Sarurday night social get togethers. Salads and legume dishes are ubiquitous and various.Fruits are fabulous. Roadside chargrilled sweetcorn is sprinkled with salt, chilli and lime.

True this is not "refined " cuisine. but in the hands of a skilled cook it can be healthy, nutritious, vibrant, colourful, full of flavour and delicious. For someone to dismiss it all as "crap" is as pathetically an ignorant a statement as any that has yet been made around here and I fear for the American culinary mind and soul (not to mention body) should Steve's lfetime battle eventually result in triumph. :sad:

Edited by Tonyfinch (log)
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... 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.

This is a fascinating discussion because in rationalizing how we might address unfamiliar cuisines we are also highlighting the elements of our basis for addressing familiar cuisines.

I am all for the intellectual approach to food, but for me this list of "three divisions" will always come after my own top priority, which is simply "Do I enjoy eating this ?".

Of course the food that qualifies under that test changes almost month by month. Once upon a time I hated raw fish, but now I love it. Same with rare steak. Time was when I was wary of oriental spiced foods -- but no longer. When I first tasted Mexican cuisine I thoroughly enjoyed it, but have now come to dislike it. Some of this change is the result of "acquired taste" and some of it the result of continuing experimentation giving me a broader palate.

This purely subjective response to food works for me across each of FatGuy's three categories.

On the "raw material" front, I could still not eat an insect as do many Asians, but I absolutely accept that I might acquire the taste were I to experiment. I might think I couldn't eat rotten meat, but I do enjoy hung game. I guess that around the world people eat pretty much anything that isn't actually poisonous. Why would they be wrong ? Who says that fruit or vegetables at a certain stage of their growth are "fresh" and anyone who eats them at another stage is eating "poor" food ? That's clearly nonsensical. Green bananas are "unripe" according to Western taste, but they taste terrific to me in the West Indies :smile: In Western society, we have an acquired taste for "good quality" vegetables, but many Eastern societies have a totally different, and perfectly right, notion of what that means.

The concept of "getting" the cuisine is one I understand, but I don't find it necessary for my enjoyment. Yes it adds a layer, so I certainly don't decry it. This issue starts to move the topic away to that "left brain/right brain" discussion, so I won't push this too far. But I sometimes find that if I work too hard at understanding a cusine I may stop deciding whether or not I actually like it :laugh:

I'm not at all a fan of the "higher orbit" issue that completes FatGuy's list. I like to treat food for what it is for me, and I'm not overly influenced by what it was to someone else. If the Chinese happened to have a plethora of wild bamboo and had to slice it because they hadn't invented stewing pots because they weren't able to build ovens because they were nomadic and .... well I just happen to love fried bamboo shoots, and while the historical reason may be interesting in a wider intellectual context, it doesn't remotely affect my assessment of the food :laugh:

Of course the requirements on me are not the same as the ones FatGuy defines in his post. I eat entirely for my own enjoyment, not for the edification of others. And my approach to unfamiliar cuisine is pure "bull in a china shop". I'll try it because it's there. Then I'll try it again a few more times. I'll ask people in the restaurant what I should try. And somewhere in that process, of course, I'll analyze anything that strikes me as interesting or different. Then at some stage I'll sit back and ask myself "Am I enjoying the food?"

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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.

I think that the objective v subjective thing can be left for another day. However I would have though that there were plenty of examples were the taste of food was altered (subjectively or not) by symbolism and sociology.

To take the Emperor's shrimp thing, OK maybe it doesn't make the shrimp taste better, but in more subtle ways how do you as a food writer escape from your particular 'Fatguy' world view? I read you three point example and I get that, but there must be examples that fall ouside this analysis.

OK, the Emperor doesn't change the taste of the shrimp, but what it all that stuff is fundimental to the cuisine? As a food writer, how do you seperate the 'objectively, the taste of this food sucks' Fatguy form Fatguy writing about a particular food culture, which the non-food componants play an important part of a meal? Let's face it nobody eats food in complete isolation to non-taste/smell imput, so shouldn't this be a central issue in food writing?

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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, I'm not sure that the three categories are completely independent.

Consider the rhythm of feasting and fasting in the Catholic countries. Quite a few French and Italian dishes evolved as they did because they were "fat" or "lean" foods, intended to be eaten either during a period of abstinence ("lean" foods) or after ("fat"); and this applies even more strongly in the Orthodox countries like Greece. And there is an interesting dynamic between "real" fasting and dishes like brandade de morue that are notionally dishes of abstinence but manage to convey a pleasing degree of richness.

In this case, the context (the "back story", if you like) is not merely an amusing anecdote about the origin of the food. It is a key determinant of why the food is prepared in the way it is. At a physiological level, of course, the molecules of a brandade de morue that go into your mouth are the same, whether or not you know about the broader context. So the "actual taste" is the same. But I would assert that a great deal of "actual taste" is in fact in the mind, not the mouth; what we think affects how things taste. I think I posted once before about a group that cheerfully dined on red-cooked ducks' tongues, right up to the point that they realised what they were eating. Taste is more than molecules.

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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Most people who go to Union Square Cafe think it's the top restaurant in New York because Zagat said it was for so many years, so they self-fulfill that prophecy and love anything they're served there. People who think Alain Ducasse is the world's greatest chef are susceptible to forgiving imperfect food at his restaurants, or, in some cases, they allow imperfections to be amplified, ruining their meals. I understand that taste can be influenced by psychology -- in fact it almost always is -- but I see that as the enemy of reasoned, intellectual analysis of food. I don't really care if the source of the psychological influence is a wonderful cultural tradition or shallow manipulation of expectations by guidebooks. It's still something I try to separate. To use one of the narrowest examples of food writing -- the consumer-oriented restaurant review -- I think the critic fails each time he allows any of those externalities to convince him that the food tastes a certain way. The goal is to treat all tasting as blind tasting, at least in the first instance. To do your job well, you need to begin by freeing yourself from the associations and focusing on what's actually there -- what the consumer is actually paying money for. The backstory can be had for free.

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 are you suggesting, Jonathan, that why a dish is prepared in a particular way actually affects your assessment of it from a culinary point of view ? Or affecting how much you enjoy it ?

Both.

I was tempted to be Fergus Hendersonesque and stop there, but I'll go on.

Knowing the "back story" affects, for example, what you might serve with what. Or when you might choose to eat a particular dish. Or understanding that a particular taste may bring pleasure even though it is bitter (e.g. the bitter dishes served as part of the Passover meal).

We are not disembodied intellects. But neither are we mindless sense machines. Interpretation makes a difference.

Edited by Jonathan Day (log)

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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But I would assert that a great deal of "actual taste" is in fact in the mind, not the mouth; what we think affects how things taste. I think I posted once before about a group that cheerfully dined on red-cooked ducks' tongues, right up to the point that they realised what they were eating. Taste is more than molecules.

This is so obvious it surprises me that it needs to be dscussed The idea that something either tastes good or it doesn't is bogus. And we all know it. Take cheese. Tastes good to half the world's population. Tastes like repulsive rotted vomit to the other half. These are culturally, socially and geographically induced preferences. You can tell a Japanese that he's "wrong" for disliking cheese until you're yellow in the face, just as he can rail at you that you've got crap taste for not appreciating some dried out fermented fish paste-it won't change either opinion.

What WILL change opinion is a willingness to taste things within a context, a geography a specific milieu, to see cuisine's place iagainst the background of the society from which it springs. It's possible then that the Japanese living in or holidaying in England may be prepared to try cheese and begin to see how it could occupy a place in cuisine. The cheese isn't changing. He is. He is broadening his culinary mind.

The other night at St. John I tasted the braised squirrel with its pureed guts on toast. I didn't like it. Others loved it. But I could understand its place on the menu in the case of that particular restaurant and the wider context of "English food" and I was willing to try it.

Context is everything with cuisine.

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Here's an example -- Years ago I had just bought The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews by Edda Servi Machlin. I came home with the book and wanted to cook with it immediately. I had pork chops (purchased the day before) in the refrigerator, and I looked in the index of the book for pork chop recipes. And for a minute I was really pissed off and disappointed that there were none. Clearly a case of brain lock, but how many times do we make assumptions without adequate knowledge.

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I think the critic fails each time he allows any of those externalities to convince him that the food tastes a certain way

I think that this is a goal for the strict analysis of taste, but in practice how easy is this to do and how consistant can you be?

It can be said of many tasks that they're never done easily or with perfect consistency. My brother-in-law the cop thinks about that every day, since his job is to stop criminals from doing bad things to people -- a surefire recipe for feeling ineffective and inconsistent.

Unless you get yourself into very controlled double-blind comparative tastings, you're always going to be susceptible to projection. But that doesn't mean you have to embrace it as inevitable. You do your best to maintain critical distance from your subject. And I'm not saying the externalities aren't important or relevant. I'm saying that the best way to handle them is to get a handle on them, separate them out from the matrix, and then put it all back together when you've figured out what's really what.

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 idea that something either tastes good or it doesn't is bogus. And we all know it. Take cheese. Tastes good to half the world's population. Tastes like repulsive rotted vomit to the other half.

Neither half's perceptions are particularly relevant to what I'm trying to do. What I care mostly about is any particular example of cheese as evaluated against the standards of great cheese. Even if I have a personal preference for that crap "string cheese" sold in individual shrink-wrapped sticks in the supermarket, it's not my job as a critic to tell people that it's good cheese. I also think, Tony, that you're confusing two issues. On the open-mindedness front, I totally agree with you. But that doesn't mean the various stories attached to food are relevant to its taste. Taste is not a fictional construct. If it is, we're all wasting a lot of time here on eGullet.

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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what it means to those who prepared it:

most of us have been brought up, food-wise, in the tradition of gastronomy (which is an analytic method, really: "how do these tastes and textures and tempratures work together?"). we do try to keep religious beliefs and symbolic thinking (and this includes medieval ideas of hot/cold etc.) apart from our enjoyment of food. it is probably impossible for us to enjoy a meal that's been prepared on the basis on such beliefs - though we may of course intellectually understand it. i don't know how many cuisines still operate on that basis, but from what i read here, it does play a role in some eastern cuisines.

african food south of sahara:

i've only tried it twice, once sudanese and once nigerian. both nice "stew-food". what most people in africa eat. the poor have less, the rich more (at least, that's what i've been told).

christianh@geol.ku.dk. just in case.

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The goal is to treat all tasting as blind tasting, at least in the first instance. To do your job well, you need to begin by freeing yourself from the associations and focusing on what's actually there -- what the consumer is actually paying money for. The backstory can be had for free.

Tasting, yes, as in "Does this taste good?" But is this the goal of the journalist or the critic? Is it your goal? Wouldn't this discussion benefit from distinguishing among the types of reporting that might be done? A restaurant review, which is, as you say, quite narrow, is meant primarily to advise the consumer. A lengthy piece in a magazine, or a chapter in a book on a particular cuisine might have another, wider and deeper goal.

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

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Really? Listen to me Steve. Rich fat white man does not help skinny poor black man by wagging his fat bejewelled white finger in his face and telling him that he thinks his food is shit.

Tony - I'm sorry you have to frame it in terms of race. I don't see what race has to do with something tasting good or not. It is sad that everytime we try and evaluate a cuisine on the merits, somebody has to make excuses for the ones that are poor cuisines. Imposing a non-culinary standard on food evaluation is relativism no matter how you cut it. The only way anyone will ever eat better is to point out that the food they might find acceptable, is not very good. That is how standards get improved. Otherwise the world is happy eating one big deep fried haggis.

In your Quixotic crusade against "relativism" (I do admire a man with a little cause-no matter how daft) is it really neccessary for a national cuisine to be either "crap" or "not crap"? So you didn't lke the food in Austria. Does this mean ergo that it is impossible to get good food in Austria? This reminds me of that great scene in Portnoy's Complaint:

It is necessary if it is true. It is the truth that will set you free. And the statement doesn't purport to say that you can't find a good meal in Austria, it just gives a generalized overview of the cuisine that one will most likely find when they go there.

True this is not "refined " cuisine. but in the hands of a skilled cook it can be healthy, nutritious, vibrant, colourful, full of flavour and delicious

Only delicious counts. the original question was about restaurant reviewing. Do you think the standard for restaurant reviewing is going to change? Yes we can see Jay Raynor now tell his readers to travel to sub-Sahara Africa for "healthy and nutritious" meals, which might be delicious if you happen to find the right cook but might also be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

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

Pan - The phenomenon of the food being dramatically different when you cross borders is one that has puzzled me more then once. Just look at Belgium and Holland? The food is phenomenol in Belgium and poor in Holland. And they used to be the same country less then 150 years ago. That's why they probably split apart, the Belgians couldn't stand the Dutch dragging their cuisine down! Or cross the border from France into Spain and see how the quality of the bread detriorates in a few short miles. Ot drive from Italy into Switzerland and the culinary standard changes.

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Unless you get yourself into very controlled double-blind comparative tastings, you're always going to be susceptible to projection. But that doesn't mean you have to embrace it as inevitable. You do your best to maintain critical distance from your subject. And I'm not saying the externalities aren't important or relevant. I'm saying that the best way to handle them is to get a handle on them, separate them out from the matrix, and then put it all back together when you've figured out what's really what.

Yes I can see this as a very valid form of food writing, but people don't go out to eat food, no matter how good it is, alone in sound proof white box. I get the point that you are making about externalities being an important part of the food experience, but should be maintained at a critical distance, but at what point do you stop seperating he externalities from the matrix?

Would there be any point in making a critical analysis of drinking 150 ml of 1989 Ch. Y'quem, out of a paper cone, blindfolded, in a room by yourself? Would not the addition of externalities not make the food writing bit much easier/better? If it is true that in a given situation externalities are extremely important to the entire food experience, how can you be really sure that you are getting all this as a food writer, if you lack the experience/education etc? I think you have a very tough job.

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Tony - I'm sorry you have to frame it in terms of race. I don't see what race has to do with something tasting good or not. It is sad that everytime we try and evaluate a cuisine on the merits, somebody has to make excuses for the ones that are poor cuisines.

Steve, I was framing it in terms of "help". It was you who mentioned "helping" the people of Africa cuisine wise by being "honest" and telling them their food is crap. Since 99% of sub Saharan Africans are black that summed up as particular image in my head which would be disingenuous to say you didn't understand.

No-one is "making excuses" for "poor cuisines". I'm saying it is possible to understand and explain why cuisines have developed as they have. That once you do understand that your understanding of the society can lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of those aspects of the cuisine which are delicious and enjoyable. You may also be in a better position to understand ways in which the cuisines could be improved. Just walking around holding your nose saying "this all sucks" doesn't sound to me like the way to approach helping or improving anything.

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Adam and Robert, the idea isn't to ignore anything. The idea is just to have it all sorted out so there are no illusions.

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 walking around holding your nose saying "this all sucks" doesn't sound to me like the way to approach helping or improving anything.

It's a good way to convince locals and local investors that when they build hotels they shouldn't bother to attempt any sort of regional authenticity in the restaurants, and that white people should always be given special tourist menus at the restaurants that do offer the real stuff. Still, I ultimately agree that it's okay to conclude that something sucks. The problem is with prejudgment.

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 phenomenon of the food being dramatically different when you cross borders is one that has puzzled me more then once. Just look at Belgium and Holland? The food is phenomenol in Belgium and poor in Holland. And they used to be the same country less then 150 years ago. That's why they probably split apart, the Belgians couldn't stand the Dutch dragging their cuisine down!

Spain's low country possessions split in 1579. The Protestant northern provinces signed the Union of Utrecht, won their independence from Spain and became the Netherlands. The Catholic southern provinces didn't join the Union and remained under Spanish, and later French, rule. Those southern states only became an independent country, Belgium, in 1831.

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