Friday, April 22, 2016

"Ethnic Food" in the USA

American cities and suburbs are teeming with so-called "ethnic" restaurants: Chinese, Thai, Lebanese, Mexican, Vietnamese, Indian, etc. There are thousands of them, and they are often quite popular. But what makes a type of food "ethnic" while others aren't (take Japanese, French, or Italian, for instance, all cuisines that don't usually get ghettoized in the same fashion)?

What does that even mean?

Why are Americans willing to pay higher prices for some countries' cuisine (again, check out French, for example) but expect "ethnic food" to be cheaper, even if that means sacrificing some quality? Speaking of quality, why are some culinary traditions seen as tasty but one-dimensional while others are marveled at for their complexity and variation? Americans frequently express an interest in "authenticity," but what does that word actually mean, especially if your only familiarity with the cuisine comes from the restaurants here in the States? What does all of this say about subconscious views about inferiority and superiority of different cultures? These and other fascinating questions and issues are discussed at length in this interview published in the Washington Post with Krishnendu Ray, the chair of nutrition and food studies at New York University and author of the new book "The Ethnic Restaurateur." I encourage you to read it and ponder the issues therein (especially if you are one of those Americans who craves "ethnic food"...time to do some self-examination, perhaps).

One particularly relevant quote from the article for me was this: "The more we know about a culture, the more we can understand about its nuance." That, in a nutshell, is one of the main reasons I wrote this book. You can't appreciate the complexity of a culture unless you get out there and dig past the surface. Of course I'm obligated to say that if you really want authentic, high-quality food, and you really want to explore the nuance of a culture, there's no better method than travel...perhaps with a guide to local food in hand...not that I have anything in particular in mind.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Why Chinese Food is So Addicting

Reports out of China this week indicate that 35 restaurants are suspected of illegally lacing their food with opium poppy powder. Why? Presumably because the powder might provide a mild narcotic effect, and potentially even get the patrons addicted to that restaurant's food. (Apparently it's not clear how effective it actually is, but that's the goal.) It all becomes so clear now...it always was hard to put down those persimmon cakes in Xi'an...

Friday, January 22, 2016

The East-West Flavor Divide

I've written several times about my distaste for classifying unfamiliar (to you) foods as "bizarre" or "exotic," as it tends to say more about the classifier's world than about the food itself. It suggests too narrow a cultural framework, and typically carries some uncomfortable Western-centric (often even Caucasian-centric) baggage. That being said, I do get it. I can understand why somebody who grew up in one culture would find some foods from another culture a bit odd (rabbit heads, for instance). It's not how I would normally choose to classify foods, but of course it makes sense that others might.

With all that in mind, it was with great interest that I read this article on PUNCH (an "online magazine focused on narrative journalism—both written and visual—about wine, spirits and cocktails") that talks about baijiu (the biggest Chinese spirit), the different ways Chinese folks and Westerners feel about it, and the different language they use to describe it.

Jiugui
Baijiu photo by Wikimedia user Badagnani

The article is fascinating, and I encourage you to read the whole thing. To whet your appetite, as it were, here are three quotes from the article:
"What the Chinese prize most [in baijiu] is fragrance: its intensity, complexity and duration. Ditto for strength—the stronger the better. Incidentally these are also the two qualities that outsiders find most objectionable in baijiu."
"It’s not simply that we can’t agree on the language we use to describe flavors, it’s that we don’t even agree which flavors are desirable." 
"If it follows wine’s lead [in entering the Chinese market] in the West, baijiu must take the path of the wandering missionary: Adapt to local custom, convert the natives and arm them with the tools they need to create more converts. Proselytizers must seek common ground and embrace local substitutes. Foreign drinkers might grasp a baijiu’s pineapple notes, but perhaps grassiness is more intelligible than Chinese medicine, fruit leather better than dried dates. Admittedly, this approach does little to bring us closer together. So long as we lack a common international language with which to describe flavors, we are left largely where we started: in a segregated barroom, enjoying the same beverage at a distance from one another. They cannot participate in our discussions, nor can we in theirs."
If all of this is true for baijiu, then it is likely true for street food as well. I wrote my book for a Western audience; perhaps I would need to use entirely different words if I were writing for a Chinese audience. We don't share the same language when talking about food and, like baijiu, we can't always agree on what tastes "good." This is the kind of cultural divide that, although fascinating to me, is worth bridging. By eating local foods that don't fall into the categories that you've come to expect as "good," you come to understand the local mindset a little better. Just as the author of the article transitioned from thinking baijiu tasted like paint thinner to being a connoisseur, so can everybody learn to appreciate different standards of quality. There will always be differences in taste and differences in language, but it's well worth one's time to seek opportunities to better understand those differences (and, if you're lucky (like me), you can learn to love the unfamiliar flavors).

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Why Do They Use Metal Chopsticks in Korea?

Admittedly this has only a tangential relationship to both China and street food, but I thought this article was interesting and wanted to pass it along. The question: why do Korean people (apparently) use metal chopsticks, when most of the chopstick-using world favors wooden or bamboo chopsticks?

Here's a helpful graphic from the article.

One theory proposed by the article:
One major theory is that royalty during the Baekje period began using silver chopsticks as a way of protecting themselves from being poisoned by their enemies, as the silver would change color when in contact with a poisonous chemical. 

Interesting thought. The article also lists several other theories, all of which seem to have a reasonable level of plausibility. I wouldn't want to steal all their thunder (and page clicks), so I'll avoid sharing those other theories and let you click on over to read more on your own. Just some fun stuff to file away in the "you learn something new every day" category.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Four Year Update

In a pleasant little confluence of events, the very same day I left for China to conduct research for my book, some of our favorite friends had their second child. Earlier this week, that child turned four. Unbelievably, this means it has been four full years since I embarked on my big China journey. I never imagined it would take so long to get this book out into the world, and yet here we are.  Some delays have been worthwhile and some haven't, but all have contributed to the long process. 

All that being said, you may be asking where things stand with the book right now. Well, here's the good news: earlier this week I sent my last bit of text to the publisher! What a lovely feeling to have that off my plate. Now the publisher is working on layout and design. Once that's complete, I think we'll be pretty close to publication. Stay tuned here for updates in the coming months.

In the meantime, thanks for your continued readership and interest. I'm grateful to every set of eyes that has skimmed through this page.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Street Food in the Michelin Guide

Good news! Hong Kong street food is going to be featured in the Michelin Guide for the first time. According to this article 23 different street vendors will be reviewed in the storied guide. Does this matter? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps it adds some legitimacy to street food as an important world cuisine; perhaps it takes some of the fun out of the "street" part of street food. I'm optimistic, so I'll lean towards the former. In any case, there are thousands of street vendors in Hong Kong, and it's nice to know that some of them are getting some recognition.

Hong Kong's famous egg pancake

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Cleaver Quarterly

Apologies are in order. I try to share press coverage on this site as soon as it comes out, but I am a little bit late on this one. It's worth the wait, though, I promise. Today I am happy to finally share with you, dear reader, this article I wrote for the excellent, print-only, Chinese-food-focused magazine The Cleaver Quarterly. My topic: street food head to toe (and everything in between).

If you want to look at the whole magazine (and you should...it's a beautifully assembled magazine with loads of interesting content), you'll need to buy it either from a physical location or from their online shop. That being said, I've been granted permission to share the proof of my own article here. I've embedded the PDF below, and I've linked directly to it here.

If you look at nothing else, I'd encourage you to check out the illustration that forms the centerpiece of the article. It's a magnificent street food chimera based on the foods in my article. Many thanks to Ru Brown for this fantastic visual accompaniment.



Outstanding, right?  Anyway, without further ado, here's the embedded article. Thanks to The Cleaver Quarterly for inviting me to contribute this article, and thanks to you for reading.