Jump to content
  • Welcome to the eG Forums, a service of the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters. The Society is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of the culinary arts. These advertising-free forums are provided free of charge through donations from Society members. Anyone may read the forums, but to post you must create a free account.

How to approach an unfamiliar cuisine


Fat Guy
 Share

Recommended Posts

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.

:laugh::laugh: Oh LOL Jonathan :laugh::laugh:

... 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).

Now that's unkind, JD. You just reminded me of the forthcoming "festivities" (only three weeks now) when I have to enter culinary purdah and pretend to enjoy taking matzoh sandwiches with me to work every day :sad: Take it from me that the "bitter dishes" (I assume you mean the bitter herb and the salt water) are not designed to bring pleasure, and they do their job very well :laugh:

On the general point now being discussed, I certainly lean towards FG's interpretation. I think that taste is taste, independent of the many external considerations that affect how we judge that taste. So horseradish tastes "hot" and bitter no matter who is doing the tasting. People who have become acclimatized to eating horseradish find it less hot and bitter and (presumabl;y) find the taste enjoyable, people trying it for the first time are likely to find the opposite. Similarly, I would guess that anyone tasting their first live witchetty grub may well not like or "appreciate" the taste. Jonathan is saying that an understanding of aboriginal culture is likely to increase his enjoyment, whilst I think it wouldn't affect my view :laugh:

Edited by macrosan (log)
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Funny thing is, the Dutch probably like their food that way. Because there would be nothing to stop them eating like the Belgians if they didn't. Brainteaser: Is this because

1. The Dutch have different olfactory receptors than the Belgians?

2. The Dutch are dumb?

3. Preference in food is as much a social and cultural construct as something arising from a chemical analysis of what is on the plate?

Edited by Wilfrid (log)
Link to comment
Share on other sites

But remember, they have to be significantly dumber than the Belgians.

(In fact, we are having the same argument we had a long time ago about the British and the French; because there are people here who can't grasp the fact that, over a long period, many British people, having experienced French food, continued to prefer British food. That's a real problem for the "non-relativists" unless they think there's different physiological wiring going on, or take a racial view of relative intelligences.)

Edited by Wilfrid (log)
Link to comment
Share on other sites

A friend of mine's 18 year old daughter recently went on a three week holidy trip to France to the Ardeche. She came back and told me that she had a great time but the food "stank". She's not a teenage food loony so I expressed suitable indignation. She went on to say that they had lots of "greasy" omelettes, horrible gritty mussels, that she'd tried frogs legs and snails and found them "gross" that the steaks were like chewing shoe soles and the frites were limp, greasy and cooked in "rancid" oil. She and her friend took no guide books. They just fetched up in places that "took their fancy"

My point is that its possible for all cuisines to "suck". You have to be guided. Why else do tourists roam through France clutching copies of Michelin and Gault Millau? OK these girls were on a budget but we all know that with a bit of research and effort they still could have eaten brilliantly.

So FG, in the absence of a Michelin guide for Tibet or Senehgal I suggest you first catch that food guru you mentioned. There ARE sources of good food information for these and similar countries. I find it hard to respect those who condemn out of hand with no experience and having made no effort. if you do those and it STILL sucks........well then it probably sucks. :wink:

Link to comment
Share on other sites

To get back to your original point, Steven, it depends on what kind of food writer you want to be and in which outlets. The Q&A with John Thorne was very instructive on this whole point.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I don't think the outlet really matters to one's approach to learning about food. When it comes time to plan an itinerary or do the actual writing, you can evaluate whether the outlet in question wants to go heavy on culture, or just wants service-oriented restaurant recommendations. But that doesn't change how I'd go about acquiring knowledge. Anyway, I'm a freelancer, unlike someone like Thorne who is almost entirely self-published and unlike a staff writer for the New York Times who does one thing over and over every week. I need to be able to parlay experiences into multiple written permutations. So I try to be as exhaustive and disciplined in my research as possible. But I think any food writer will benefit from doing that. Thorne is such an iconoclast and such a unique talent that I'd hesitate to hold him up as a model for anyone -- it would inevitably result in disappointment because he can't be emulated. He's more of the exception that proves the rule.

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)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

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.

Tony - Nonsense. An understanding of a culture and their traditions does not make anything taste any better or worse. Taste is a function of quality and proficency of preparation. A standard that has no borders and sees through race and religion.

Fat Guy's original question had to do with what a western restaurant reviewer would do when confronted with strange cuisines that peformed poorly in ethnic restaurants. Clearly the context is that this is information to be presented to readers who patronize other ethnic restaurants. Those readers have a universal standard they impose which measures cuisine(s). Anything to do with sociology, socio-economics, anthropology, while interesting as anecdotal information, has nothing to do with how the food tastes. Unless you are the restaurant reviewer for National Geographic. People just want to know if it tastes good or not.

A friend of mine's 18 year old daughter recently went on a three week holidy trip to France to the Ardeche. She came back and told me that she had a great time but the food "stank". She's not a teenage food loony so I expressed suitable indignation. She went on to say that they had lots of "greasy" omelettes, horrible gritty mussels, that she'd tried frogs legs and snails and found them "gross" that the steaks were like chewing shoe soles and the frites were limp, greasy and cooked in "rancid" oil. She and her friend took no guide books. They just fetched up in places that "took their fancy"

This is just more relativism. When someone says that a cuisine is good or bad, or executed well or poorly, they are making a statement based on what is generally available in restaurants. What is available in a ski-resort town that is populated by transient foreigners who are a captured audience is bound to suck, and is not a good example of anything.

But I feel like you keep mixing up two different things. Provencal cuisine can be delicious. It is a well formulated cuisine that is logical in the way it uses ingredients. And the end result has a purpose that is intended to showcase the best characteristics of the ingredients. But go to the Vauclause and the food in the restaurants in the region is resolutely mediocre, and sometimes even worse. I have never found a holiday to that region to be enjoyable gastronomically. I always leave disappointed. And I always tell people that the food in the region isn't very good. But all of that has nothing to do with the fact that a daube, when prepared properly, can be a great dish. The cuisine from the region is great cuisine, but the actual food in the region is not up to the quality you get in most other places in France. Two different things.

Funny thing is, the Dutch probably like their food that way. Because there would be nothing to stop them eating like the Belgians if they didn't

Wilfrid - When my recording company was open in London, our Benelux based distributor had someone who ran their Amsterdam office, a very tall Dutch guy by the name of Wally. Sweet guy. One time he came to my office in Manhattan on a business trip. I had never been to Holland but heard many a tale about how the food was shite. So I cornered him and grilled him about the food. No matter how I asked it, the answer to my question about whether you could find any good food in Holland was no. And I was trying not to take no for an answer! I kept asking him that surely their must be someplace, and he would just shake his head and cut me off and say no.

People liking bad food because it is what they grew up with is no excuse. Good food results as a matter of people being proactive about it. If people demand better quality food, and are willing to pay for it, that's what the suppliers will offer them. And if they are happy eating deep fried haggis, that's what they will get. And the reason the Dutch don't eat as well as the Belgians is because they don't know the difference.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I don't think the outlet really matters to one's approach to learning about food. When it comes time to plan an itinerary or do the actual writing, you can evaluate whether the outlet in question wants to go heavy on culture, or just wants service-oriented restaurant recommendations. But that doesn't change how I'd go about acquiring knowledge.

Back to sorting, then, which assumes that there is something to sort.

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

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Double nonsense, Steve. The Dutch are a very well-travelled people, and if you look at a map you will find that Holland pretty damn close to Belgium and France. The Dutch know the options perfectly well, and there is no problem sourcing the same ingredients as are used in Belgium and France. So, "they don't know the difference" is false. Try to find a Dutch person who can't tell the difference between Belgian and Dutch food. If the following statement is true:

"An understanding of a culture and their traditions does not make anything taste any better or worse. Taste is a function of quality and proficency of preparation. A standard that has no borders and sees through race and religion"

there must be an explanation of why different cultures around the world have such different food preferences. I look forward to learning what it is. And I think that is very relevant to the issue of approaching an unfamiliar cuisine. Why do unfamiliar cuisines even exist?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Toby's last point strikes me as the rub of the matter. FG's query about how one should approach unfamiliar cuisines as a food critic seems to require further analysis about the audience receiving the criticism. The approach to the story would appear to depend entirely on who the expected audience will be. FG appears to be striving for a detached academic objectivity, which I would argue to be too lofty a goal unless the audience is a culinary anthropology seminar.

The essential questions I would ask myself as a journalist in FG's position are:

1) Who's going to read this? -- are you writing for gastronomes and gourmets, denizens of the neighborhood in which the restaurants are situated, casual diners, or culinary adventurers? How much does your audience already know about the subject cuisine?

2) What does the audience want to get out of it? While a dissertation on the finer points of just how acetic a good injera should be (if such a thing exists :wink: ) might be appropriate in a town with a dozen competing Ethiopian restaurants, the simple facts that injera is a spongy flat (very) sourdough bread might be all that is necessary to forewarn an audience unfamiliar with Ethiopian cuisine what to expect were they to adventure out to try it.

3) Does the audience expect a detailed parsing of the presentation, and technical critique of the execution of each dish, and does it expect that criticism to come from somebody authoritative?

4) If they're looking for somebody autoritative, is the expectation that the authority is knowledgable about aspects of authenticity of the subject cuisine? Or are they looking for somebody whose authority stems from knowing what is considered "good" by the intended audience itself? (Watching the tasting panels on Iron Chef when a French chef goes up against the Japanese Iron Chef and noting the different reactions and judging criteria used by the Euro and the Japanese panelists is instructive on this point.)

5) Are you writing to educate, or to provide a sophisticated criticism?

I'm sure that there are more, but those questions struck me as the first attack on the problem that FG presented.

edit:typo

Edited by cdh (log)

Christopher D. Holst aka "cdh"

Learn to brew beer with my eGCI course

Chris Holst, Attorney-at-Lunch

Link to comment
Share on other sites

FG's query about how one should approach unfamiliar cuisines as a food critic seems to require further analysis about the audience receiving the criticism.

I see those as two different issues. The approach I use to learning about unfamiliar cuisines is and should be universal. I don't care if I'm writing for neophytes or chefs, I'm going to try to learn the same things and to do as much as I can within the time and budget constraints I face. When it comes time to write, sure, I'll tailor what I say to the audience.

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)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Double nonsense, Steve. The Dutch are a very well-travelled people, and if you look at a map you will find that Holland pretty damn close to Belgium and France. The Dutch know the options perfectly well, and there is no problem sourcing the same ingredients as are used in Belgium and France. So, "they don't know the difference" is false. Try to find a Dutch person who can't tell the difference between Belgian and Dutch food. If the following statement is true:

They believe the food they are served is good enough. That very same food would be rejected in other countries. That they are happy eating what they eat can only be attributed to, can't tell the difference, don't care about the difference. There is no other explanation I can see that makes any sense. Your explanation seems to be that there is some cultural reason their cuisine and palates developed the way it did, and therefore, they like their cuisine. I say that is relativism. Bulgarian classical composers who tried to write symphonic music are not judged against an intra-Bulgaraian standard, they are judged by a international standard that compares all composers of symphonic music. Same for cuisine. The standard is tastes good. The Dutch, for some reason, do not know, or do not care, what the phrase tastes good means. {i}Tastes good to them{/i} doesn't get us anywhere if the other 99% of the worlds population thinks it tastes like crap.

I see those as two different issues. The approach I use to learning about unfamiliar cuisines is and should be universal. I don't care if I'm writing for neophytes or chefs, I'm going to try to learn the same things and to do as much as I can within the time and budget constraints I face. When it comes time to write, sure, I'll tailor what I say to the audience

To me this is just a fancy way of saying, it tastes good, or it doesn't taste good. And yes there are things you have to acquire a taste for. But there are some things and cuisines that are just plain awful. You can't confuse an assessment of a cuisine based on being acclimated to it with an objective view of the way it really tastes.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

What happened, Steve? You are scraping the barrel of plausibility this week. The Dutch don't know what "tastes good" means? I suppose the Russians don't have a word for "freedom" either. We are not talking about a backwater, but a highly educated, cosmopolitan nation, close to the heart of Europe. The average Dutch person is going to be very familiar with the differences between French, Belgian and Dutch cuisines, so the idea they can't "tell" the difference is beneath consideration.

They don't "care" about the difference? That may just be another way of saying they know the difference, but continue to affirm their preferences.

"Tastes good" is a vacuous phrase - by which I mean literally vacuous, it has no content. Big Macs "taste good" to millions. What you actually have is a very wide global variety of cuisines, each with their own standards of merit. There may be no food in Holland you like, but I guarantee there will be badly prepared Dutch food and well prepared Dutch food.

Part of what it is to understand an unfamiliar cuisine* is to get a feel for those standards - preferably, I'm convinced, by experiencing the food, and meeting and sharing it with the people who eat it; otherwise by reading and learning.

*Just flagging up the relevance here.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

We don't want to get over-distracted into a discussion of the Dutch, I guess, but it's worth commenting that I've been to Holland at least a dozen times, and have always eaten very well. One of my top twenty meals ever was at a well-reputed traditional Dutch restaurant in Amsterdam called Die Boerderij, and other memorable meal were at an Indonesian restaurant (whose name I forget) in Amsterdam and a great mid-range "bistro" called The Four Tulips in The Hague. Generally, the standard of restaurant cuisine appeared good to me, exactly as you would expect.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Perhaps we should have threads on Dutch and German cuisines so we can point out their merits.

I believe I share many of Steve's preferences, and I enjoy arguing with him, but it is a little stifling to find every cuisine raised here for discussion - Senegalese, Tibetan, Indian, Dutch - dismissed with a "that sucks".

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Well you can draw any inference you want, but I am quite confident that the proper inference to draw is that they have a culinary deficiency and that is why they eat crap food. Same for the Brit's who eat deep fried haggis and nagers fill of cereal, and same for the people who prefer McDonald's. over a nice, fresh, juicy and properly grilled hamburger. People are willing to settle for crap food because they accept what's offered to them. And the reason they settle is they can't tell the difference. To say that their preference is what determines good and bad quality is relativism. Crap food is crap food. Either you know it or you don't. The Dutch, do not seem to know it and if they do, they don't seem to care.

"Tastes good" is only a vacuous statement to people who have no sense of taste. You can ask 50 million Europeans how the food tastes in Belgium, France or Italy and they will tell you great. And they will also tell you the food in Britain and Holland tastes like crap. Everyone seems to know what good food tastes like within a reasonable range. That standard isn't changed because people grew up with inferior cuisines so they got to like bad food as a matter of habit. The standard for measure is all food.

Anything else is relativism.

Edited by Steve Plotnicki (log)
Link to comment
Share on other sites

To Steven's point: to some extent the consumer is paying for more than just molecules of food on a plate. Why does the setting matter, for example? Or the service? Even the history of the restaurant. What about the progression of meals you have been eating before the meal being evaluated?

All that said, I agree with Steven that we have to start by "eating with the mouth rather than the brain". But should a critical assessment end there? I think not.

Martin, the memories of passover dinners I was referring to involved fish with freshly grated horseradish. To me, this is a wonderful combination of tastes, but it seemed particularly important then.

And I like the taste of matzo, but as a change rather than a staple.

I guess the inference we are to draw from Steve Plotnicki's post is that the Dutch collectively lost their tastebuds somewhere along the way and are thus to be excluded from the 50 million Europeans who know what's good and what isn't.

Jonathan Day

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

Link to comment
Share on other sites

We don't want to get over-distracted into a discussion of the Dutch, I guess, but it's worth commenting that I've been to Holland at least a dozen times, and have always eaten very well. One of my top twenty meals ever was at a well-reputed traditional Dutch restaurant in Amsterdam called Die Boerderij, and other memorable meal were at an Indonesian restaurant (whose name I forget) in Amsterdam and a great mid-range "bistro" called The Four Tulips in The Hague. Generally, the standard of restaurant cuisine appeared good to me, exactly as you would expect.

ah, this is because you can't tell the difference between 'crap' food and 'non-crap' food. It's easy really. What Steve eats = 'non-crap', entire population of planet minus Steve and people who PM Steve = 'crap'.

:smile:

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Senegalese, Tibetan, Indian, Dutch - dismissed with a "that sucks".

But this is not fair. I never said Indian cuisine sucked. I like Indian cuisine and think it's a great cuisine. But, it does have limitations because of the way the cuisine is prepared. As to the rest, I can't speak for Tibetan cuisine because I never have had it. But Senegalese seems to be based on relatively simple stews, i.e., it is an unsophisticated cuisine, and the food in Holland is world famous for being crap. But the issue isn't whether you can get a good meal in Holland, Tibet or Senegal, you probably could. But will you?

I was just in Amsterdam two months ago. We ate at a mediterranean bistro one night and the food was fine enough. The second night we wanted a riijstafel. So I bought a guidebook and tried to book a table at the highest rated place but they were already full. So I booked a table at one of the famous classic ones that has been in business for 20 years and is on the fashionable shopping street, and which was rated slightly lower then my first choice. That night on our way into dinner, we ran into friends of ours in the lobby of our hotel, he being a famous movie director. They were in town for the opening of one of his movies. They had a reservation at the first place we tried to get a table at. They call the restaurant and are able to increase their reservation to four people so we go with them. The food was pretty good, nothing unbelievable, but fine enough Indonesian cuisine. Later that week I saw them in Paris. They told me that the next night the studio that was releasing the film took them to dinner at the place I was originally booked at. The "classic" place on the fashionable shopping street. They said it was so awful. Food cooked in what they called rancid oil. But the Dutch people there were raving about the food.

Low standards are just what they are. Low standards. Some people just have crap taste. Why they have it is a question that is outside of the one that asks, do they have it? I agree it's puzzling when entire societies seem to have crap taste but it is frightfully true. Drive through America and see what people accept as good food. It is absolutely horrid. Margerine, non-dairy creamer, poor quality baked goods, chickens injected with hormones and antibiotics, vegetables washed with chemicals and raised in a way where they have no color and no taste, frozen fish that is watery and has no flavor, all called delicious by the locals inhabitants. Preference can not, and should not, be a reasonable explanation that excuses their culinary incompetence on the part of the people who prepare the food or the people who eat it.

I guess the inference we are to draw from Steve Plotnicki's post is that the Dutch collectively lost their tastebuds somewhere along the way and are thus to be excluded from the 50 million Europeans who know what's good and what isn't

Nice try. My post goes to the ability of the Dutch to be objective about their own cuisine, and to request wholesale changes that improve it. It does not make any assertion that Dutch people can't tell good food when they eat it, only that they are willing to accept their own bad food on a daily basis. Jews do the same sort of thing don't they? Who would go back to gefilte fish after eating one of the more sophisticated chopped fish preparations like quenelles or Chinese or Italian fish balls? People who have come to appreciate something in a cultural context that's who. Non-Jews are not seeking out gefilte fish which is a big clue. But they are seeking out bagels, and pastrami, and Jewish style chopped liver, all things that are good outside of their original reason for existing.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

 Share

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.
×
×
  • Create New...