Thursday, September 8, 2016

Best and Worst Meats

One of the great joys of eating street food in a country you are visiting is the opportunity to try meats you've never tried before (both new animals and new parts of familiar animals). In the course of researching this book, I added a couple of new animals to my own list (donkey and dog come to mind immediately) and loads of new organs and things, and it was always a thrill. Something about new experiences--there's nothing like it. Unfortunately, that little jolt of excitement when you try something totally new to you is not always accessible when you are at home, so we are stuck living vicariously through others. This list of the best and worst tasting animals as judged by Andrew Zimmern--a man who has tried a wider variety of animals than probably anybody on earth (and whom I've discussed previously on this website)--is the crème de la crème of vicarious living. Many readers may have tried crayfish; fewer will have tried porcupine. Take note that donkey is his second item on the list. This won't be a surprise to citizens in parts of China, as I've written before. Donkey aside, the whole list is a lot of fun. What a good reminder of how many foods there are for us to try in one short lifetime!

I'm establishing a tradition of using this photo of Andrew Zimmern.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

On the Value of Breaking Routines

Routine: we're all guilty of it. It serves it purpose, to be sure, but it also has a sinister side, for routines can often lead to ruts. That's one of the great things about travel--it gets you out of your routine and into a whole world of new experiences. Of course culinary experiences are high on that list. How much fun is it to eat something you've never eaten in a place you've never been? Lots of fun!

Even when traveling (or living abroad, in the case of expats), however, it's easy to fall into routines and opt for familiarity over expanding horizons. This list of "5 Dishes Every Expat Over-Orders" from City Weekend Shanghai is a good reminder that there is a lot out there beyond the comforts of...well, comfort food. Read it for fun or to remember the value of breaking routine. Full disclosure: when I lived in China, the only one of these I was guilty of over-ordering was the 西红柿炒鸡蛋 (stir-fried tomato and egg). What can I say? It was (and is) reliably delicious.


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

There You Have It: Even Obama Likes Street Food

This website rarely touches on politics, but this story was too good not to mention: When President Obama was in Vietnam this week, he made a point of sharing a meal with famous food-eater Anthony Bourdain. Not just any meal, of course--they ate bún chả at a hole-in-the-wall Hanoi noodle shop! Perhaps it isn't Chinese street food, but I think an American president stopping by a street food shop in East Asia merits a mention here on Read more about the Obama-Bourdain dinner here.

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 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.

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.