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

Mmm, you're half right, Steve, which is better than completely wrong. Yes, we evaluate cuisines within a framework created by our own experience, perspective and understanding. If a cuisine doesn't fit that framework, however, that doesn't necessarily indicate that the cuisine is at fault. It may be that we need to re-calibrate - if I may - our critical parameters. I can conceive of a cuisine so poor that we can't find any parameters by which it can be judged positively - but I think such cuisines are pretty rare. Evaluating all cuisines by a single, narrow set of standards - as my signature now indicates - tells you very little.

Wilfird - We are going in circles. Every cuisine is compared against the following criteria. How do the restaurants that feature this cuisine stack up against other restaurants? That is the whole thing in a nutshell. Everything else is irrelevent. We are talking about restaurant dining (in this thread) and the restaurant is either good or it isn't good. If you go to a Tibetan restaurant and it stinks, that there might be good cuisine in Tibet doesn't mitigate the fact that the restaurant stinks. And yes Tibetan is compared to all of the other successful ethnic cuisines that are available.

So using a narrow standard is a good thing. It seperates the good tasting food from the bad tasting food. And when a new cuisine comes along and it tastes bad in whole or part and there is a good argument that it really tastes good, we rely on our intellect to correct the situation. Many of us couldn't stand sushi at first but learned how to like it. And I believe that very few cuisines that are good, do not come with a custom and culture of how you are suposed to eat them, and why you are supposed to like them.

Must we use the Western palate (or is it Plotnicki's palate), and success in restaurants in the West as criteria to judge the goodness of food?

But we are talking about restaurant food, not what some grandma in the Himalayas is cooking. If the food at a Tibetan restaurant is bad, but the food in Tibet is good, it doesn't make the food in that restaurant taste any better.

Indeed I am, and naive in the hopeful belief that objective evidence of subjective experiences could sway the immobile Plotnicki.

You need better evidence then what you put forth. You need to put forth evidence of good meals in restaurants. Most cuisines have a reputation that is well deserved. For you to convince me their reputation is undeserved is a pretty large obstancle.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

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 simply disagree with you. Clearly, you've never lived in a country in which nearly everyone believes in the humoral system. There is more than enough choice in the humoral system to cause it not to interfere with gastronomy one iota. You might as well claim that French cuisine is too limited for gastronomy because they don't eat wichety grubs, waterbugs, and dirt. You might be interested in reading some anthropology books or/and articles that discuss the humoral systems in Malaysia, India, the Arab world, Latin America, the Mediterranean, a different system of a comparable type in China, and the Greek humoral system itself as applied to food. Does it aid in showing pairings? Yes. Does it interfere with gastronomy? Only if you think "gastronomy" involves eating so much, say, durian that you get sick. My Malay former neighbors would give the reason for the sickness as an excess of humoral heat and you would attribute another reason, but it wouldn't change the fact that you'd be sick. All those traditional medical beliefs aren't all hokum, you know. Now, sure, if gastronomy to you means eating something or everything to tremendous excess, the humoral system conflicts with it - as does every other medical system.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I think at best a religious or cultural restriction on gastronomy will be harmless (the humoral system sounds this way), and most likely it will be limiting (as in the Jewish or Islamic dietary laws). To say that it's possible to cook delicious food under those systems seems beside the point. A really good athlete may still be able to play well with an injury, but there's no reasonable way in which the injury can be seen as a good thing.

Chinese banquet food is a good example. I get the sense that a good percentage of the dishes served at any formal Chinese banquet are symbolic foods that vary with the time of year and purpose of the banquet. I like to know about the symbolism behind those dishes, and space permitting I'd choose to explain that symbolism in anything I write. But the reality is that the symbolic dishes are the ones most likely to be disappointing from a gastronomic perspective. I've had that experience enough times that I feel confident generalizing about the phenomenon. Because I'm not culturally Chinese, there's little benefit to me in limiting my choices for Chinese cultural reasons. I'd rather just pick all the best dishes in a gastronomically sensible progression and make a banquet that way. That's essentially what I think Eddie Schoenfeld did for us at Sweet-N-Tart. It was sort of a free-form Chinese banquet that no traditionally oriented Chinese person would have assembled. But for the audience -- a room full of mostly non-Chinese gourmets -- it was the better banquet.

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

I think at best a religious or cultural restriction on gastronomy will be harmless (the humoral system sounds this way), and most likely it will be limiting (as in the Jewish or Islamic dietary laws). To say that it's possible to cook delicious food under those systems seems beside the point.

Sometimes I cook vegetarian dishes for vegetarian or kosher guests. The way I always think about it is that cooking without meat is like painting without using the color blue. It doesn't mean you can't make a good painting, but it limits your subject matter a lot.

If you go through the Met, you will run across some interesting paintings that happen to not use any blue. In some cases the subject matter may not have required any blue. In others, the artist may have meant to say something specific via the lack of blue. In still others, blue pigment may have been particularly unobtainable or unaffordable at the time and place the painting was made, forcing the artist to come up with a creative way of getting his message across without it. In all of these cases, the curators decided that the paintings in question were still interesting and worthy of display. If, however, the curators had decided to refuse to show any paintings with blue in them, the museum would be a curiousity, rather than the home of one of the world's great collections.

My point is that you can cook valid and interesting meals without meat, or without pork, or shellfish, or whatever else you might wish to exclude from your diet, but you can't argue that you are not missing out on the full range of culinary experience.

Chief Scientist / Amateur Cook

MadVal, Seattle, WA

Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thats a very good analogy Darren, but outside of that worldview, which I think is a legitmate one, I think there is also a difference between meals which are prepared with the intention of being "Vegetarian" as opposed to vegetable dishes.

I mean, there are tons of vegetable dishes in chinese (and thai, and indian, and well, lots of cuisines) cooking that are prepared without meat for the express purpose of showcasing the vegetables, not because of some inherent aversion to meat or any other kind of animal protein. They just -are-.

But I realize that was only one example.

Jason Perlow

Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

offthebroiler.com - Food Blog | View my food photos on Instagram

Link to comment
Share on other sites

[snip of well-chosen points]

My point is that you can cook valid and interesting meals without meat, or without pork, or shellfish, or whatever else you might wish to exclude from your diet, but you can't argue that you are not missing out on the full range of culinary experience.

Would you say the same thing about excluding insects and worms from your diet? Objectively, the same holds true in those cases, right? So are most of us gastronomically impoverished because of our refusal to eat such protein sources?

Michael aka "Pan"

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

As to the specific example, probably not. But in general, yes, squeamishness will often prove limiting when it comes to gastronomy. Most cuisines -- even the ones that, like French cuisine, are very much oriented towards cuisine-as-end-in-itself -- are in one way or another self-limiting. And to relate all this to the food-writing issue, while I don't think it's necessary for a food writer to eat every substance under the sun, I do think a picky eater shouldn't even think about trying to do the job.

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

And to relate all this to the food-writing issue, while I don't think it's necessary for a food writer to eat every substance under the sun, I do think a picky eater shouldn't even think about trying to do the job.

I agree with you.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Most cuisines -- even the ones that, like French cuisine, are very much oriented towards cuisine-as-end-in-itself -- are in one way or another self-limiting.

But that's because every cuisine is based on a theory. And as a general rule, there are no successful aesthetic theories that are not self-limiting, i.e., they exclude other theories. Every single cuisine in the world fits this description.

The issue is a lack of diversity. Limitations on any aesthetic, whether self-imposed like religious restrictions, economic restrictions or political restrictions, have historically thwarted creativity. There are dozens of threads on this board that illustrate various cuisines stopping short of their best performance because of some type of restriction that was imposed. Creativity in aesthetics does not happen in a vacuum. It's a competition just like anything else. It is unlikely that a cuisine which can't use a salted or smoked pork product to flavor a dish when that would be the right choice, is going to produce the best overall cuisine. Who knows how much better or farther those various cuisines would have gone if the chefs had the same degree of choice as other chefs? Or how much better cuisine in Spain would have been without the Inquisition? Or Indian food without the caste system? Adherence to rules is a good thing when the purpose of the rule is to keep the aesthetic true to its purpose. But when the rule is to keep the aesthetic loyal to an external purpose, like god, art is compormised. It might be great art, but what I see when I walk around a museum is a hell of lot of religious pictures. And while they are great art, who knows how much greater the art might have been if it wasn't tied to religion in that way.

Are bugs on Atkins?

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

I mean, there are tons of vegetable dishes in chinese (and thai, and indian, and well, lots of cuisines) cooking that are prepared without meat for the express purpose of showcasing the vegetables, not because of some inherent aversion to meat or any other kind of animal protein. They just -are-.

These are like the paintings that have no blue paint, but belong in the museum anyway.

Chief Scientist / Amateur Cook

MadVal, Seattle, WA

Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Would you say the same thing about excluding insects and worms from your diet? Objectively, the same holds true in those cases, right? So are most of us gastronomically impoverished because of our refusal to eat such protein sources?

If we refuse, under any circumstances, we may well be impoverished. That's the point that Shaw has been making, and I tried to reiterate.

In some cultures the idea of eating an egg, or rotten moldy milk (aka cheese) is disgusting. If a food writer refused to eat them, we wouldn't take their writing seriously.

For all I know, every time we saute some diced onions in oil we should be tossing in a handful of grubs too. It chould be that there is a compelling flavor there that we are missing out on. Or, it could be the culinary equivalent of a pukey green color with orange spots. Actually, now that I think about it, fiddleheads have probably already claimed that role.

Chief Scientist / Amateur Cook

MadVal, Seattle, WA

Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code

Link to comment
Share on other sites

For all I know, every time we saute some diced onions in oil we should be tossing in a handful of grubs too. It chould be that there is a compelling flavor there that we are missing out on. Or, it could be the culinary equivalent of a pukey green color with orange spots. Actually, now that I think about it, fiddleheads have probably already claimed that role.

But the point about great creativity is that it reflects the feelings of the creator, whose choices have not been overly compromised. And saying you can't use blue paint, or saying that grubs "should" be included, are both restrictive positions. Creators create, and critics and audiences weigh their creations. Somewhere in between they find a sense of balance.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

If the food at a Tibetan restaurant is bad, but the food in Tibet is good, it doesn't make the food in that restaurant taste any better.

No, but you may want to hold fire on deciding that Tibetan cuisne as a whole is bad until you have a wider knowledge and experience. It's like comimg out of Cafe Rouge after a meal of gritty, watery moules and tough onglet and six hour old baguette and deciding that all French food is bad.

Now its true that there may not be a better example of a Tibetan restaurant in town for you to get an opposite picture so you may be entitled to conclude "Tibetan restaurants in my town are crap". But switching to African (I know nothing whatsoever about Tibetan food) there ARE some African restaurants in London where you can get a meal where only those determined to hate the cuisine could honestly come out and describe it as "crap".

For the food writer I think its OK to admit being on a learning curve with a cuisine, and attempting to see what it is that appeals to the millions who clearly don't think its bad.

And when one says a plate of food tastes "bad" do we mean bad as in just not particularly good, or do we mean bad as in yuk, horrible, nasty? Because the latter was how I felt about the Braised Squirrel with pureed guts at St. John last week, yet I still like the restaurant and its cuisine.

Do we really know a reputable restaurant of whatever ethnicity where all the food tates "bad"? Can we REALLY characterise whole national cuisines down to it tastes either good or it tastes bad?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

No, but you may want to hold fire on deciding that Tibetan cuisne as a whole is bad until you have a wider knowledge and experience. It's like comimg out of Cafe Rouge after a meal of gritty, watery moules and tough onglet and six hour old baguette and deciding that all French food is bad.

But this is really silly. Tibetan cuisine has a reputation that you can research. If you go to a Tibetan restaurant, and the meal is bad, and you want to find out if Tibet is generally held to have good or bad food, there is a way to find out. In fact, here is the Let's Go Guide link to Tibet. Scroll down to the food paragraph;

Food in Tibet

My favorite part by far is;

The yak, a pungent, hairy creature well-suited to high altitudes, is also essential to Tibetan cuisine, which uses yak butter, yak meat, yak milk---basically any yak part or derivation thereof.

The word delicious seems to be conspicuously absent.

This really isn't rocket scientry. People usually have a tradition of eating well. If Tibetans eat well in Lhasa, it is doubtful they will open crap restaurants in NY or London. Eating well is a hard habit to break. Once you get the hang of it, you know it's like riding a bicycle.

Do we really know a reputable restaurant of whatever ethnicity where all the food tates "bad"? Can we REALLY characterise whole national cuisines down to it tastes either good or it tastes bad?

This is a version of the absolute truth argument. The issue is what is it fair to say? It is fair to say that the food in Holland is bad, and is of much worse quality then the food their neighbors eat. And it is fair to say that the food in Italy is delicious. That's because the vast majority of people who visit those places agree with those statements.

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

I've had Tibetan food with Tibetans in the west many dozens of times. A complaint heard more than once is that cow's butter just doesn't get rancid in the same way as yak's butter.

Tsampa. Roasted barley flour mixed with strong black tea with salt, baking soda, and rancid butter. Mixed in the bowl or in the hand, pull off balls, pop in mouth. Yummers.

"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

Link to comment
Share on other sites

But when the rule is to keep the aesthetic loyal to an external purpose, like god, art is compormised. It might be great art, but what I see when I walk around a museum is a hell of lot of religious pictures. And while they are great art, who knows how much greater the art might have been if it wasn't tied to religion in that way.

I think you weakened your argument with that tangent. Since a lot of the greatest art of all time is specifically religious, it's kind of preposterous to suggest that it could have been greater if it was secular. Perhaps you might want to stick to food in this argument?

Michael aka "Pan"

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

For all I know, every time we saute some diced onions in oil we should be tossing in a handful of grubs too.  It chould be that there is a compelling flavor there that we are missing out on.  Or, it could be the culinary equivalent of a pukey green color with orange spots.  Actually, now that I think about it, fiddleheads have probably already claimed that role.

I had fiddleheads once and didn't think much of them. I preferred the tiny wild ferns people sometimes eat in Malaysia and somewhat larger ferns also eaten there, but on the whole, I think ferns are weird-tasting and not meritorious. To each his/her own.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

But when the rule is to keep the aesthetic loyal to an external purpose, like god, art is compormised. It might be great art, but what I see when I walk around a museum is a hell of lot of religious pictures. And while they are great art, who knows how much greater the art might have been if it wasn't tied to religion in that way.

I think you weakened your argument with that tangent. Since a lot of the greatest art of all time is specifically religious, it's kind of preposterous to suggest that it could have been greater if it was secular. Perhaps you might want to stick to food in this argument?

I have to throw my hat in the ring with Steve here. When an artist chooses his/her own parameters with respect to creating art, that can be a positive force and can provide focus and specificity. When limitations are imposed from without it often compromises the work. Of course, its a hard position to prove due to lack of control comparisons but from my own experience I find imposed limitations to be deleterious.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

A yak is basically a cow that lives at high altitudes. Many people think its milk is superior in flavor to that of the cow. However, it isn't a huge producer. But Jonathan White, one of the most talented cheesemakers alive, gives the following testimony:

A yak is as big as a Jersey cow but only gives as much milk as a goat, a few liters per day. But the milk -- oh, that milk! Rich, sweet and fragrant from the wildflowers that made it. Milk from animals that breathe clean air and drink pure water. When I tasted my first sip of yak milk, out of a can in a saddle-bag, with bits of butter created by the horse's canter, I knew that the lack of equipment wouldn't hurt us a bit. This milk had the soul of a fine cheese in it, and all we had to do was help it find its way out.

Ellen brings a kilo of yak cheese home from Nepal each year. We brought some to our friend, the maitre-fromager at a very reputable restaurant, and he thought it was fantastic.

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

in search of balance, i found this:

http://www.tibet.ca/wtnarchive/2000/4/9_3.html

This really isn't rocket scientry. People usually have a tradition of eating well. If Tibetans eat well in Lhasa, it is doubtful they will open crap restaurants in NY or London. Eating well is a hard habit to break. Once you get the hang of it, you know it's like riding a bicycle.

extract from review, link provided above:

Stomach clenched in anticipation of another round of fermented yak milk, I was shocked by the mouth-watering scents of sauteeing cilantro and garlic that greeted me at San Francisco's Lhasa Moon. Perplexed by the extensive menu redolent of herbs, spices and vegetables (and the conspicuous absence of tsampa), I told Tsering Wangmo, the owner, that I

had never encountered these dishes in Tibet.

"This kind of food you won't find in Tibet," she laughed. I felt

vindicated in my withering summary of this faked Tibetan cuisine; the restaurants in the U.S., I thought, simply cater to an American palate. But her next words caused me to reconsider. "Tibetan cuisine went into exile with the Dalai Lama's court; the only thing left to eat in Tibet is tsampa, yak meat and Chinese food," she said, wrinkling her nose.

When the Dalai Lama left, the elite of Tibetan society went with him -- taking along their cooks, their traditional recipes and a lifestyle that delighted in lavish entertaining. The historic exchange of Tibetan salt for Indian spices narrowed to a trickle when the borders with India and Nepal were closed. Transport within Tibet was restricted, so that the low-lying regions that traditionally provided fruits and vegetables were unable to trade their wares. Authentic Tibetan cuisine was marked by its

subtle seasoning and liberal use of ginger, garlic and emma, a

peppercorn-like spice with an electric zing, found only on the Tibetan plateau.

what do we know?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The way I always think about it is that cooking without meat is like painting without using the color blue.  It doesn't mean you can't make a good painting, but it limits your subject matter a lot.

\

The analogy is not bad, but it still reveals a bias. Blue is a primary color. If you counted by number of edible species of plants and animals, animals would not be that large a percentage.

Unless you included bugs.

Then I could say, if you aren't cooking with bugs, it's like painting without the color blue. So I think you need to move to the right to keep the blue analogy as opposed to kelly green.

beachfan

Link to comment
Share on other sites

 Share

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

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