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How to approach an unfamiliar cuisine


Fat Guy
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Clearly, all these sweeping generalizations about how just about every cuisine in the world sucks are ridiculous, so I find it hard to imagine why anybody is bothering to try to refute them. Let's all agree they're ridiculous, ignore them, and move on. Or let this thread go down the same sinkhole as so many others, as it is starting to do.

What I'd like to know is why so many people seem to feel so uncomfortable with making any judgments at all about food. Certainly, you all agree that some restaurants, meals, dishes, and cuisines are better than others, right? So let me ask the question of all of you who don't have to write about this stuff for a living: what do you think makes some food better than other food?

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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When you eat in Japanese restaurant, do you use chopsticks?

I usually use my hands for sushi, as I was instructed to do by the sushi chef I respect the most. But it tastes the same whether I use my hands or the chopsticks. What's your point?

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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You're just wrong about the different quality of ingredients on each side of the Rhine. I wonder if the produce in Alsace got better and worse depending on whether it was part of France or Germany?

I wish this wasn't true. I once spent the better part of an evening trying to find a place in Basel that makes choucroute. We couldn't find a single one. Eventually we found a tavern type of place that had had sausages and saurkraut as a side dish, but nothing like Choucroute. Since Basel is in German speaking Switzerland, the style of food they ate was completely Germanic. Not Alsatian, and not like the French part of Switzerland, Germanic. Three very different places with three very different cultures, cuisines, and ingredients that go into their cuisines.

There is a reason that countless Brits put their cars on Eurostar every weekend and shop in Calais or Boulogne. Supermarkets in Britain do not carry the same food. And restaurants in Britain do not serve the same food either. For a very long time, all that seperated them was a short ferry ride. Then a 30 minute hovercraft. Now a train that takes 20 minutes. There was never a reason for the two places to have two different cuisines, using completely different ingredients that were sourced from seperate places. Yet they are like night and day.

I'm afraid all of this cultural segregationism about European history is unfortunate but true. And even now with the EU and no taxation on shipping ingredients across borders, they still buy thir wheat flour in Spain from a Spanish source and end up with an average product, when you simply can walk across the border to a boulangerie in France and the bread is delicious.

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What I'd like to know is why so many people seem to feel so uncomfortable with making any judgments at all about food. Certainly, you all agree that some restaurants, meals, dishes, and cuisines are better than others, right? So let me ask the question of all of you who don't have to write about this stuff for a living: what do you think makes some food better than other food?

What I'd like to know is why there's an us versus them on eGullet. All of you who don't have to write about this stuff for a living now is it?

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When you eat in Japanese restaurant, do you use chopsticks?

I usually use my hands for sushi, as I was instructed to do by the sushi chef I respect the most. But it tastes the same whether I use my hands or the chopsticks. What's your point?

The Oxford Companion to Food is objective in that it writes about food. Davidson and his collaborators don’t say – this is what they eat in Senegal, but it tastes like shit.

If you want to write about your relationship with food, that’s fine, but not with the pretence of objectivity. Your ‘thoughts’ on starting this thread seem like platitudes in the light of your subsequent comments.

There’s nothing wrong with writing for a readership of like minds as long as you’re upfront about it.

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Yvonne: Can we now look forward to being lectured on "us versus them" every time there's a disagreement on the site? Perhaps instead you should try to articulate what it is you disagree with.

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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Your ‘thoughts’ on starting this thread seem like platitudes in the light of your subsequent comments.

And what comments might those be, LML? I have no problem whatsoever with engaging you in a debate, but you haven't said anything. When you're ready to make some real arguments, I'll be here.

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 I'd like to know is why so many people seem to feel so uncomfortable with making any judgments at all about food. Certainly, you all agree that some restaurants, meals, dishes, and cuisines are better than others, right? So let me ask the question of all of you who don't have to write about this stuff for a living: what do you think makes some food better than other food?

Because they are afraid you are going to say this about them;

Clearly, all these sweeping generalizations about how just about every cuisine in the world sucks are ridiculous, so I find it hard to imagine why anybody is bothering to try to refute them. Let's all agree they're ridiculous, ignore them, and move on. Or let this thread go down the same sinkhole as so many others, as it is starting to do
:biggrin::biggrin::biggrin:

So far on this thread, the sweeping generalizations, as have been on all of the threads, are by the people who feel uncomfortable making judgements about cuisines. My question is, why can't people be realistic about cuisine? My assessment of where gefilte fish stands in the world of culinaria is a pretty accurate assessment. As to where quenelles stand as well. Why do people resent that analysis? They always want to draw the inference that the conclusion of the analysis is that gefilte fish is unenjoyable when it doesn't do that at all.

With all the complaining, you hear all types of arguing but very little argument that says, no, such and such a cuisine is really delicious. But you do hear plenty of excuses. If you look at it this way, and if you understood their economic plight, and if you understand they walk 14 miles a day, and if you were invited to a very wealthy home, and they possibly have a genetic defect in how they smell things, blah, blah, blah...... All excuses with no meat on the bones. Nobody is able to say the food tastes good. With all of my having a go at Dutch food, there wasn't a single defense other then herring stands on street corners. This is what someone wants to put forward as the defense to a proffer that says the cuisine is lousy. Why can't people just say the cuisine is lousy and they should fix it?

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you hear all types of arguing but very little argument that says, no, such and such a cuisine is really delicious. But you do hear plenty of excuses.

That's your special perception of what people are saying. I think the more likely explanation is that nobody feels the need to restructure every thread on the site to satisfy the idiosyncratic obsession of just one person. And it's not like I hear you saying much about what makes cuisines good or bad beyond it's-good-because-it's-expensive-and-it's-expensive-because-it's-good and it-sucks-because-it's-stew.

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 they obviously do because otherwise they would ignore it :wink:.

And what I said on the merits was true. Your original post could have just as easily been about Dutch cuisine. If it was, the odds that someone would have refuted you by naming delicious foods are not very good. Rather, they quickly rush down the sociological, anthropological and political road and defend it on every basis other then how people generally think the food tastes. Read back through this thread. Lots of defending the Dutch, no explanation of why Dutch cuisine is any good.

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Read back through this thread. Lots of defending the Dutch, no explanation of why Dutch cuisine is any good.

Read back through this thread. It's not about you, and it's not about whether or not Dutch cuisine is good. As for why people don't ignore your irrelevant posts, I'll be the first to admit you're good at being heard.

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 I'd like to know is why so many people seem to feel so uncomfortable with making any judgments at all about food. Certainly, you all agree that some restaurants, meals, dishes, and cuisines are better than others, right? So let me ask the question of all of you who don't have to write about this stuff for a living: what do you think makes some food better than other food?

FG, I tried to answer your question earlier but I guess I was rather oblique.

As someone who does not ever write about food for a living, let me tell you how I judge it. Or parse it. The lay person's POV, so to speak.

Basically it is the taste. Does it taste good to me?. When I have made some decision on that, I try to figure out why. And this applies largely to cuisines/ingredients I have tasted for the the first time and cuisines/ingredients I have tasted before. And I'll pick both the negative and the positive to enumerate. The points are not made in any particular order.

I like it.

I appreciate the skill with which it is made.

It's spicy, I'm Indian, I'm drawn to spicy food.

It's a new way of doing something. I never tasted green beans prepared like that.

I like the combination or order of tastes in my mouth. They work well with each other.

I like the texture.

I could go on, but what it comes down to is a bunch of entirely rational criteria within which my judgements are entirely subjective.

I do not like it.

It's a new, unfamiliar taste or texture. Exampe: I do not like gelatinous stuff.

It's bland.

It's a new way of doing something and I don't like it.

I do not like the combination of flavors/textures.

Again, I could go on, but what it comes down to is a bunch of entirely

rational criteria within which my judgements are entirely subjective.

While I find my working model here entirely functional (you may disagree) in my personal life, I do not think it is appropriate for food journalism.

As somebody who is interested in food, I go a little further:

If there are so many people who appreciate this taste, what is it that I am missing? I don't force myself to like something based on popularity but it certainly enhances my understanding of it.

Perhaps I do not like something because my upbringing did not introduce me to it. Such as seaweed. Fermented cabbage. Then I try to taste it several times before I decide it is not for me.

Perhaps, it is an ingredient that I am familiar with and I do not like the way it was prepared. I'm less inclined to return in those situations.

Perhaps, a dish has potential but I am suffering from a bad instance of it. This judgement can be limited by my culinary imagination and information. In those cases I try to learn a little and then I try to return to it.

If I like other dishes from this cuisine, why do I not like this one? Or why does this particular cuisine never satisfy me?

Perhaps because I do not understand the context in which it is consumed in that cuisine. For example, mezze are appetizers but many Middle Eastern cafes serve mezze as entrees. If I did not understand that I would perhaps not appreciate the taste because I am expecting entree like satisfaction and not getting it.

If I have repeated instances of bad food from a particular cuisine, I try to understand the context in which it is sold where I am eating it. Chinese food in India is entirely different from Chinese food in the Midwest. Or I certainly would not want people to make judgements about all of Indian cuisine solely from eating it in the US.

And if from reading this, you think I am not capable of judging food, that would be in inaccurate conclusion. There are restaurant where I live that suck for a variety of reasons and I never go there. I recently tried Transylvanian food in a new restaurant here and my lunch sucked. I tempered my conclusions about the entire cuisine with the following facts:

-that I ordered a vegetarian side for lunch and a reasonably educated guess tells me that is not what is being showcased

-most of the entrees came with F-Fries

-it was the first time I had eaten T-food and I knew nothing about it

When I read a review about a restaurant or an article about a cuisine, to be able to truly appreciate it and learn from it, I want to have some information about how the reviewer fits in the context of my thought processes described above. Even when it is all positive.

So to me, the ideal way to approach a new cuisine is:

- to understand some of where it comes from and how it is eaten in it's native state

- to have an experienced guru with me who will function as a guide to what to order and whether the particular instance is good

Failing that, I will temper my judgements with whatever knowledge I can gain and make sure that if I am writing an article about it, I provide full disclosure. Such as:

Hi. My name is Steve Plotnicki. I think French cuisine is the best cuisine in the world. I judge cuisine and taste as independent things. I am not averse to being uber opinionated and not shy about communicating it. I believe the world would be a better place if we all agreed that there is a hierarchy of cuisines and identified what that was. The other day, I went to a Dutch restaurant ......

:)

edited for clarity and grammar

Edited by indiagirl (log)
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I recently tried Transylvanian food in a new restaurant here and my lunch sucked.

India Girl - It warmed my heart to read this. Actually what did you eat, blood sausage? :biggrin:

Tell me though, and let's be honest, how good is the food out in AA? What are the chances of finding good Transylvanian food? Or Carpathian food? Or how about the really hard question, can you find good TV or CP food in TV and CP?

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I just went to the web to see if I could find a menu to post and found out that the restaurant has closed. There is justice in the world. The menu, if I can recall it, seemed pretty Hungarian, but then I've never eaten Hungarian food either.

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I recently tried Transylvanian food in a new restaurant here and my lunch sucked.

India Girl - It warmed my heart to read this. Actually what did you eat, blood sausage? :biggrin:

Tell me though, and let's be honest, how good is the food out in AA? What are the chances of finding good Transylvanian food? Or Carpathian food? Or how about the really hard question, can you find good TV or CP food in TV and CP?

Steve, dahling, don't rub it in so.

I ate some potato concoction with overcooked greens. yech.

Food in Ann Arbor is mediocre at best, frequently blahh. Eating out is something I do when I don't feel like cooking for droves of people. Couple of good places within a 50-60 mile radius that I know of. No French food at all.

And the revieweres gush over almost every restaurant that is reviewed in our local rags. I'm thinking of applying to be their "Open your eyes - there is better food in the world" editor. And this with my limited gastronomic experiences.

:)

Don't know what the chances are of eating good Carpathian food. Or Transylvanian food. Really don't.

If you're looking for judgement in my response - Transylvania is not top on my list of places to visit to find out about their food. Sorry, best I can do.

:)

Edited by indiagirl (log)
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