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How to approach an unfamiliar cuisine


Fat Guy
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LOVE Zingerman's - but I count them as a deli. They plan to open a full scale restaurant - Zingerman's Roadhouse - traditional American food. Can't wait. Perhaps I can taste my first burger there?

Sneak preview at menu:

Chesapeake Bay crab cakes

New Orleans gumbo

Grilled Carolina grits

Amish chicken and dumplings

Plank roasted Alaskan salmon

Steaks and chops from Niman Ranch, Marin county

Six varieties of Mac n cheese including one with Maytag Blue Cheese, walnuts and grilled cherry tomatoes

A bunch of barbecue stuff from an open smoke pit

Perhaps you could try it when you're here SP?

Love Annam's - one of the good places I had thought of when I made my post.

Have not tried Emily's or Lark's but when I do, I will report back to you.

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

I think the stakes are good.

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

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

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

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

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Edit: please stop knocking the Dutch

What's with that? My impression from a friend is that they eat a kind of Belgian/Nordic range oif foods.

I like herring.

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

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

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

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

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Oh. This just in. I've received millions of PMs from experts telling me I'm wrong. Herring is not good.

Live and learn.

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

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

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

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

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I find it hard to believe that the Dutch are physiologically inferior or flawed in any way.   

but you are going to have a very hard time convincing me that it is because Protestants are genetically inferior or flawed somehow. I just won't wear that.

GREAT NEWS! I'm off to tell the Dutch and the Protestants IMMEDIATELY!!

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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

Until the late 19th or early 20th century, almost all of them, I believe. You seem to be making an unwarranted assumption: that meals balanced for humoral hot and cold will not please a gastronome. I would strongly assert that there is no basis for making such an assumption. Humoral theory does not conflict with gastronomy.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Are you going to tell me that gefilte fish tastes as good as the best fish mousse or the best quenelles? Unfortunatelty it doesn't. And I wish it did because both my mother and grandmother made some pretty good gefilte fish, that they served with Manischevitz. Too bad they didn't know how to make a nice fish mousse from something like Pike and Crayfish and serve it with a Sancerre.

A treife gefilte fish? Crayfish? Just as treif as a cockroach, and you know it.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Since when was I calling this difference either an "inferiority" or a "flaw"????! Just because they may not be able to perceive olfactory input the way you do says nothing about their intrinsic character or worth. While you may be disgusted by the state of dutch frying oil, maybe there is some ineffable quality to raw herring that you could never experience without the dutch sensory equipment.

If this was true, the world would be one sorry place to live in. Fortunately, the world only acts like this is true and it exploits the fallacy of it all for profit. Fortunately there are those of us who know better.

All that remark means is that you're so convinced of your own taste that you effectively have an absolute belief that it is the best and all who disagree with you are WRONG. Think about that: You can't be that arrogant, right? So what did I misunderstand in your remark?

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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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.

Excuse me? It is the so called "jugdgements" that you hand down on cuisines that are the "sweeping generalisations". "African food is crap". "Indian food overspices". "Austrian food stinks". These aren't "judgements" in any sense that I understand the term. They are merely opinionated generalisations based upon a handful of meals in a couple of ethnic restaurants MASQUERADING as "judgements".

Some of us understand that it is tricky making such generalisations because we recognize that in cuisine good and bad can co-exist. I'm not going to conclude that African food is crap because someone with virtually non-existent experience tells me it is. I'm going to refrain until I have acquired some understanding of the cuisine. Which may include actually eating a fair amount of the stuff, reading about it, visiting Africa and trying a range for myself, visiting a few different African restaurants etc. Along the way I can offer my opinion but I don't try to kid myself and everyone else that I'm doing any more than that.

And what is my opinion? It is that African cusine will be improved when people don't need it to sustain fourteen mile a day walks in the blazing heatand is therefore less dependent on starch and carbohydrate. If you think that historical, social and economic conditions do not have an influence on cuisine development then you end up having absolutely ludicrous discussions about whether the Dutch or the Austrians or the Germans or the Africans or the Greeks or the Jews have all got something congenitally haywire about them! :blink:

If you seriously think that that is a more fruitful avenue for discussing the topic than looking at culinary conditions in context then you'll just end up hitting a brick wall, as you already have when all you can say after all the bluff and bluster is that you really don't know why some cuisines and tastes appear to differ so markedly from each other.

Edited by Tonyfinch (log)
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Fat Guy:

I think that the people who read your reviews count on getting an honest reaction based on your taste. But I doubt that you can really accurately judge an African cuisine based on eating in restaurants in the U.S. So what I'd suggest you do is simply describe the food you ate and give your readers your appraisal of how it tasted to you. It's my belief that the most obvious and least problematic way for a reviewer of anything - movies, paintings, music, restaurants - or at least anything that can't be objectively quantifiable (e.g. this car is best in its class because it's inexpensive, gets good gas mileage, scored best in crash tests [objective]- and also drives smoothly and has comfortable seats [subjective]) is to be upfront about having an opinion. Taste is subjective, and you contribute your knowledge and taste and your writing ability when you write a review. So don't say "the cuisine of x African country sucks"; say "I have eaten n times at restaurants a, b, and c, in City D, and I have found the x-African cuisine found at these restaurants wanting."

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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You seem to be making an unwarranted assumption: that meals balanced for humoral hot and cold will not please a gastronome. I would strongly assert that there is no basis for making such an assumption. Humoral theory does not conflict with gastronomy.

i would think that it poses limitations to the enjoyment of food. just like present-day limitations like low-fat, no-carbs or similar.

my point is that, thinking that this-or-that is healthy will of course influence the way we eat, and we may even end up not eating what we really want - or actually liking what we eat, as it makes us feel saintly and healthy. but this has nothing to do with the gastronomic striving for the most refined combinations and preparations in food. so, popular and quasi-religious beliefs do conflict with gastronomy.

i know, the bach fugues are often given as an examle of great art within limitations. but the kind of limitations i'm thinking of in gastronomy would be the equivalent to "g minor is sinful". would have been a pity not to have the g minor organ fugue with us, right?

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

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Tony, Tony, Tony, you have to respond to what I've said in the context of how I made the statements. I said Indian food overspices for the western palate. And if you read what I said about it in the various threads, you would see that everytime I raise the issue it is in the context of the cuisine being more successful in restaurants in the west. I have also said that in the struggle between cultures of cooking, and the Indian way of spice being the centerpiece of the meal as opposed to the proteins, that Indian cuisine will conform to western standards. But nowhere do I say that Indian food is crap. You want to extrapolate that beause I couch the comparison in terms of flaws. You want to take my use of the word "inferior," because I say that a spice based cuisine is an inferior culinary concept and say that I am calling the food crap. That's all nonsense. I love Indian food and I eat it all of the time, relative to the quality that is available to me. But that doesn't mean on an evaluation of it's culinary merit, it isn't flawed and it doesn't mean that it isn't more then glorified home cooking.

I wish you could talk to the many friends I have who refuse to go out to eat Indian or Thai food. In fact, Mrs. P and I realized that we had only one other couple we were friendly with who like to eat Indian food. And we don't go eat Thai food because Mrs. P hates it! And it isn't that these people don't like to eat or don't know good food or don't know how to cook. They do. I don't think you quite understand how big a hurdle Indian food has to leap over to be something other then an overspiced ethnic cuisine to many, and possibly most diners. You live in London where a large percentage of the population is from the sub-continent. It's not like that anywhere in the world.

Chinese cuisine in the U.S. used to be marginalized this way. But what changed that, and what caused a resurgance of Chinese cuisine was the huge influx of people from Hong Kong. They brought their banquet cuisine with them and there were dozens upon dozens of new dishes to try that nobody every heard of before. And not only did that happen, but small, regional restaurants from unusual proivinces in China opened as well. It was a complete and total reinvention of Chinese cuisine in America. This phenomenon has not happened with Indian cuisine. Because despite the huge influx of immigration from the sub-continent, the menus still revolve around tandoori chicken and lamb curry. So I'd know you would like to call my "judgements," "sweeping generalizations," but they are a lot more considered then you give them credit for. I am a pretty keen observer of what is happening on the food scene. And when I make a statement about it, it's based on what I have heard and often experienced myself.

People make this cuisine thing so much harder then it is. If Tibetan cuisine is bad, then we should just say it's bad. No sugar coating. And if eating it depends on understanding some unsual taste that needs to be acquired because it is too subtle for the untrained palate to appreciate, then lets hear about it. But let's not confuse it being good with our wanting it to be good because we have some type of empathy for the Tibetan people. All of this talk of a vegetarian society and ancient etc., it's all nonsense. It either tastes good or it doesn't taste good. And if you don't know whose definition of taste good we use, it's what the preponderance of knowldgeable people in the west say about it. And you know why the west? Because Fat Guy is a western style restaurant reviewer writing for a western style readership.

Most cuisines are preceded by their reputation. I'm of the school that believes that if Dutch cuisine was so good, or German cuisine was, or African cuisine was, there would be literature telling us to get on a plane to go eat in those places. If you didn't know this already, there isn't literature like that. And if you want to know the reason why that is, it's because most people I meet who have come back from those places report that the food is crap. I have yet to meet the person who travelled to Holland, Germany, Czech Republic, Phillipines, Russia, sub-Saharan Africa excluding South Africa, and many other places who came home and said, "yum delicious." They all say the same thing. Bad food, if you are going for the food, don't go. So don't pin the sweeping generalizations on me, I believe that most of the gastronomic world feels the same way about these places.

As to why certain cuisines turned out the way they did, who cares? Yes it is interesting to discuss as a matter of anthropology, but what does that have to do with reviewing whether the food tastes good? When I go to New England and have clam chowder, should I take into account that the settlers of the U.S. brought the English fish house tradition with them as a way to mitigate that my soup is bland? Anecdotal information about food is only a method of explaining why it tastes good or bad. But it doesn't make the food taste any better or worse. That is a sensory perception issue. And if you allow your sensory perceptions to be compromised by external issues, that is called a bias.

i know, the bach fugues are often given as an example of great art within limitations. but the kind of limitations i'm thinking of in gastronomy would be the equivalent to "g minor is sinful". would have been a pity not to have the g minor organ fugue with us, right?

Oraklet - This is an excellent point. One of the things the French did that made their cuisine so successful was to concentrate on the concept of sensual pleasures. That was previously a taboo, and stayed a taboo in other cultures for quite a long time. In fact some cultures haven't rid themselves of it.

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But nowhere do I say that Indian food is crap. You want to extrapolate that beause I couch the comparison in terms of flaws. You want to take my use of the word "inferior," because I say that a spice based cuisine is an inferior culinary concept and say that I am calling the food crap. That's all nonsense.

Er Steve I think you doth protesteth too much. If you read my last post I do not quote you as saying Indian food is crap. Nor do I think you think that. If I thought that you DID think that then believe me I would not even be involved in a discussion with you.

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Well I'm sure Mrs.P's hatred of Thai food is genuine but what is it based upon? Or your friends' dislike of Indian food? Do they see the problem as being with the cuisine or as being with them? Is it like Portnoy's mother with the bacon " Bacon can kill you. I ate some once and I nearly died"

We used to have the same problem over here with garlic. When I was younger people would express their hatred and loathing of garlic in extreme terms. Neither my parents or anybody we knew cooked with it. My father still believes that the only thing it does is make your breath stink.

But most people here now don't cook without it. They love it. So what has changed? Well garlic hasn't has it? People have. Through education, experience,travel, literature. People are constantly broadening their culinary minds and it is an ongoing process.

To me all opinion and judgement about cuisine results from the INTERACTION of the food itself and the attitudes, experiences, prejudices, hopes etc. etc. that I bring to it at any given point in my life. The fact that Mrs P hates Thai food does not mean that Thai food is awful, nor that Mrs P. has awful taste. It's that right now the INTERACTION between Mrs P and Thai food isn't one which is working to either's mutual benefit. It may change if she's open to it. This is why it is only possible to deliver ongoing opinions on cuisines and not definitive judgements.

Edited by Tonyfinch (log)
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I think that the people who read your reviews count on getting an honest reaction based on your taste.

A food writer owes the audience more than that. He needs to be willing to put some of his tastes aside in favor of certain standards, and he needs to make a good-faith effort to acquire expertise or at least an incrementally higher level of knowledge than the reader. Some reviewers are content to go out, eat on the company dime, and supply an impressionistic "gee whiz" report -- and some readers are willing to accept it as long as it's well written. I find that to be an inadequate approach, one that is both limiting (it will never help people to expand their taste horizons) and ultimately not good for the reputation of the profession. Pan, let me ask you this: do you think it's possible for a reviewer to understand and explain why something is excellent, even if he personally doesn't like it? For example, if someone just plain doesn't like mackerel, do you think it's still possible for that person to distiguish between bad, okay, good, and fantastic mackerel? I never voluntarily eat mackerel for recreational purposes. But if I'm out writing about a sushi restaurant I always order mackerel because it's one of the best pieces of fish to evaluate when you're trying to place the restaurant's ingredients in the quality hierarchy. I used to gag at the mere thought of eating mackerel -- it is an acquired taste for many, and many refuse to acquire it. I'm now at the point where low-grade mackerel makes me want to hurl, but super-excellent mackerel at a place like Sushi Yasuda is acceptable to me. I am slowly acquiring the taste. If the trend continues, I'll actually enjoy eating the stuff some day. But until then, I don't feel the need to burden my readers with my bitching and moaning about mackerel. What I tell them is that the mackerel at Yasuda is great. Because whether I like mackerel or not, it is.

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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Well I'm sure Mrs.P's hatred of Thai food is genuine but what is it based upon? Or your friends' dislike of Indian food? Do they see the problem as being with the cuisine or as being with them? Is it like Portnoy's mother with the bacon " Bacon can kill you. I ate some once and I nearly died"

Well I know that none of them see it as a problem. And they are all quite clear about it being based on their personal preferences.

We used to have the same problem over here with garlic. When I was younger people would express their hatred and loathing of garlic in extreme terms. Neither my parents or anybody we knew cooked with it. My father still believes that the only thing it does is make your breath stink.

Yeah but, this was really a matter of racial prejudice. "Garlic eaters" came from southern European countries and were looked down upon. What changed the way people felt about it was that a new cuisine, that used garlic but wasn't loaded with it the way immigrants would use it, was invented for the children and grandchildren of those very same immigrants. In effect, a compormise was reached between the old and the new.

To me all opinion and judgement about cuisine results from the INTERACTION of the food itself and the attitudes, experiences, prejudices, hopes etc. etc. that I bring to it at any given point in my life. The fact that Mrs P hates Thai food does not mean that Thai food is awful, nor that Mrs P. has awful taste. It's that right now the INTERACTION between Mrs P and Thai food isn't one which is working to either's mutual benefit. It may change if she's open to it. This is why it is only possible to deliver ongoing opinions on cuisines and not definitive judgements.

That doesn't really get us anywhere because her relationship to food is more casual then yours or mine. She's had Thai food a good half dozen times or more in her life and it doesn't do it for her. Why go eat it when there are so many other things to eat that she likes? Me on the other hand, I would try to find a way to like it because if people think it's good, well then their must be a reason. But most people aren't that way. They eat something and reach a conclusion and swear it off.

I used to gag at the mere thought of eating mackerel -- it is an acquired taste for many, and many refuse to acquire it. I'm now at the point where low-grade mackerel makes me want to hurl, but super-excellent mackerel at a place like Sushi Yasuda is acceptable to me. I am slowly acquiring the taste. If the trend continues, I'll actually enjoy eating the stuff some day. But until then, I don't feel the need to burden my readers with my bitching and moaning about mackerel. What I tell them is that the mackerel at Yasuda is great. Because whether I like mackerel or not, it is.

Fat Guy - This absolutely 100% correct. But what I want to know is how do you know? If I'm with someone else who is expert in mackerel, okay I will rely on their opinion. But how do you say something is good when nobody there knows? I guess this question comes down to, can you tell high quality when you dislike something? I know I could never give a recommendation of something that I disliked without some type of disclaimer. Unless I was really sure I knew how to differentiate between quality outside the context of my bias.

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As to why certain cuisines turned out the way they did, who cares?

I think your use of the past tense is telling there.It indicates that you don't see cuisines as being in ongoing development. What you see is a finished product. This is why you feel you can deliver definitive judgements.

Context is vital if you see things my way because it can explain where a cuisine falters and give hope for better things to come. For example if there economic development in Africa led to better roads and transport infrastructure and more schools people wouldn't have to walk so far and the cuisine would utilise less fuel foods and be better balanced. If irrigation and water distribution systems work properly land can be more fertile, grazing land can be of higher quality whih would lead to fatter cattle and sheep which would lead to tenderer and more flavoursome meat which in turn might lead to a wider use of cooking techniques than braising.

To me all this is inextricable. It's not just a question of it either tastes good or it doesn't. Food either tastes good or not good but cuisines don't. Some African food is delicious and some is not. Same with any other cuisine. In order for a greater proportion of it to be more delicious than not, you work to create the conditions under which more delicious food can be produced and distributed. And that might mean facing up to some very entrenched vested interests.

It's either that or or its throwing up your hands and telling Africans they've got innately crap taste and that they need their taste buds and neural taste pathways re-configuring, along with the Dutch, the Germans, the Austrians, the Greeks, the Poles, the Bolivians, the Protestants............................ :blink:

Edited by Tonyfinch (log)
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can you tell high quality when you dislike something

People do it all the time in many areas of human existence.

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 think your use of the past tense is telling there.It indicates that you don't see cuisines as being in ongoing development. What you see is a finished product. This is why you feel you can deliver definitive judgements.

But the only thing I am judging is what is on the plate in front of me. What else am I supposed to be judging? How it happened, what is happening, that is anecdotal and only helps to explain why it tastes the way it does. But restaurant reviewing is about how something tastes.

I happen to like the Canard Apicius at Lucas-Carton very much. That it tastes good, and that it is a 2000 year old recipe based on the way Apicius prepared duck in ancient Rome, have nothing to do with each other. If that recipe didn't have a pedigree, it would taste just as delicious.

Restaurant reviews are definitive judgements, unless you can't make up your mind about a place or cuisine. But they are only judgements for the present tense. They are definitive about the present tense only. That's because cuisine is fluid. Today the cuisine in Holland can be bad and 10 years from now it can be great. And 15 years ago the haute cuisine in France was outstanding and today it's a bit of a gamble. That's how cuisine works. It's organic, both internally as to the ingredients, and externally as to the people who prepare it and eat it. But the only thing I can say when I eat something is whether it tasted good or not, or whether it is interesting or not. It's really a very short menu.

People do it all the time in many areas of human existence.

That I know. I happen to have a hard time doing it.

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Pan, let me ask you this: do you think it's possible for a reviewer to understand and explain why something is excellent, even if he personally doesn't like it?

I think you can like examples of things even if you don't like the genre. I mean I don't like opera but I think Debussy's Pelleas and Melisande to be a beautiful piece of music. However I could never be an honest opera writer on that basis because I would be out of sympathy with the whole kit and caboodle.

Andrew Sarris cites Sight and Sound magazine in the 60s which only sent a reviewer along to review a film if he/she liked the director's films. Since nobody liked David Lean's work, Lawrence of Arabia was left without a review. The editor defended the omission on the grounds that it was the critic who was most sympathetic to the director or the film who would write the "best" review, even if it meant saying it was a poor example of that director's work. A review from an unsympathetic critic was useless.

Does that sound heretical to anybody? If the answer is "yes" then you believe that FG can review the mackerel because you believe in the critic's ability to transcend his own tastes for the higher good , as it were, or is capable of having his/her tastes changed? I'm highly dubious myself.

You're the food writer Steven. Tell us what you think.

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