Thursday, December 29, 2011

Asian Food vs. Western Food

Though it presents all sorts of ancillary problems, sometimes it's useful to deal in huge, sweeping generalizations. A study recently published in Nature found good use for these sorts of generalizations when it explored why Western food and Asian food taste so different (see Gizmodo for a summary of the study in less technical language). Of course "Western food" and "Asian food" are extremely loose terms that gloss over the incredibly rich diversity within these hemispheric regions, but for the purposes of this study it's a fair enough distinction--these regions' foods do tend to taste fundamentally different.

Now, I was a philosophy major--I haven't read a lot of scientific studies--but as I understand it, it appears that the main difference between the culinary styles is that Western food tends to pair ingredients that share flavor compounds (the ingredients of the ingredients), whereas Asian foods typically avoid matching ingredients with overlapping flavor compounds. For the visual learners out there interested in knowing more about how these flavor compounds connect, here's an entertainingly dense chart showing how different foods relate:

Who knew that Jamaican Rum and Parmesan Cheese shared flavor compounds?

This research apparently flies in the face of some of the recent ideas about chemistry-informed cooking that suggest using seemingly unpairable ingredients (e.g. chocolate and blue cheese) because they share flavor compounds. Obviously--as several millennia of Asian cuisine can attest--this approach is not the only way to develop interesting dishes. 

Anyway, I was glad to come across this study (thanks, Rachel!). It's a great reminder that there is no one way to make good food. The world is full of different ways to please our tongues and bellies, and for that I am grateful.

Street Food Documentary

Here's a neat documentary created and published by CET Academic Programs about street food in Beijing:

The video starts with some man-on-the-street interviews asking folks some questions about street food in China, including questions about the health and provenance of the food. Unsurprisingly, most people enjoy the food but are skeptical about the quality of the ingredients. The video creators took it upon themselves to talk to some vendors about where they got their supplies, and then they went to the market to talk to the suppliers. I was pleased (as I'm sure you will be) to hear their conclusion (around 8:37 in the video):
"We thought that visiting Xing Fa Di would unearth some underworld of street food mayhem. We thought the market would be a mess of chemically treated vegetables and rotting meat, but it wasn't. Contrary to popular belief the vegetables were clean and the meat was fresh.  It's true, not every street vendor is as picky about buying ingredients as the vendors we talked with.  But, Beijing street food is more or less clean." (Emphasis mine.)
As regular readers will know, this has been my experience, too. There's no doubt that unscrupulous vendors are out there deceiving people about the quality of ingredients, lying about what they are feeding customers, using gutter oil, or otherwise harming consumers, but these nefarious nogoodniks are the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, if you use common sense you will be fine.

This documentary is an interesting look at a side of Chinese street food that we don't often see; it is definitely worth a watch. Great thanks to CET Academic Studies (and CET China Studies in particular) for creating this video and for their permission to share it here. Keep up the good work, CET!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Street Food on The Bitten Word

Earlier this evening I came across a great food blog. The couple who write it live in DC (like me!) and primarily focus their energies on the foods they prepare themselves. I'm not much of a cook myself, but I like to eat good food and some of their sample pictures had me champing at the bit. What really caught my eye, though, were their two posts about their recent trip to China, particularly the one entitled "The Wackiest Foods We Encountered in China." In it, they recap some of the more adventurous items they came across, whether or not they actually tried them. Naturally, many of these "wacky" foods were street foods. Their pictures are lovely and do a terrific job of conveying the rich variety of street foods (and foods in general) in China. With their permission, here are some highlights:


 Whole Pigeons

 Sheep Penis

 Stinky Tofu

Visit their blog for more great shots of great food.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

New Street Food Regulations in Shanghai

Changes are afoot in the Shanghai street food scene. Regulation is good if it helps keep people healthy, and it sounds like they are trying to make sure that access to these foods remains the same. Here's hoping this works out exactly like they are planning!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Frequently Asked Questions

Since I announced this project, I've received a lifetime's worth of encouragement from friends, family, and other sundry well-wishers. Thanks to all for your support! In addition to the encouragement, however, I've also gotten my fair share of questions about my project and my sanity. I have noticed certain questions getting asked more frequently than others, so I decided it might be best to put the answers all in one place. That place is here:

Question 1: Why are you doing this?
Answer 1: This one is a little tricky to answer. Here's the short version: I have a great affinity for China and Chinese culture, I love to eat street food, and I enjoy writing. This was a way to combine all of those into one amazing job. There's a bit more detail in this, my second blog post ever. Be warned, though, that you'll have to weed through some other expository details about my project to find the relevant points.

Question 2: What does your wife think of this?
Answer 2: My wife is, without question, the best wife in the world. Real quick, let's review all of the sacrifices she is making here: 1) I will be out of the country with occasional patches of inability to communicate for three solid months, 2) I get to go traipsing across all corners of China, and she has to stay home, and 3) She is going to be acting as the sole breadwinner for six months to a year here. Through all of this, she has remained incredibly gracious and supportive. The biggest issue (and the one people usually ask about) is that three months away from home thing. Leslie maintains, and I agree, that in the context of our whole marriage (which, assuming good health for all involved, will be going strong for at least fifty more years) three months apart is a drop in the bucket. It (along with the other two points) is a small price to pay, she notes, for me to be able to pursue a dream. Like I said, I have an awesome wife and I love her.

(L to R): The Best Wife in the World; Some Clown

Question 3: How are you paying for this?
Answer 3: As of now, all funding for this endeavor is coming directly out of my pocket. I considered a couple other options (including a Kickstarter campaign) but ended up deciding this was the best option. My goal is to keep the costs of the trip under $4000. After I get back, there will also be costs associated with production of the book, but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Question 4: When are you going?
Answer 4: I'm flying out of Washington, DC, on January 11 and coming back on April 11. Three months on the dot (disregarding the fact that I'll actually land in China on the 12th).

Question 5: Where in China are you going?
Answer 5: I'm planning to visit every province in China at least once for a total of 50 - 60 cities. A common follow-up question to this one is whether I have a specific route planned out. The answer to that is no--I have a general plan to start in Shanghai and move west through the south of the country and then go north from Lhasa and move back east through Northern China. This route is mainly designed for reasons of climate (the longer I put off going to Harbin, the warmer it will be...).

Question 6: Do you have a publisher?
Answer 6: No. I am currently planning to self-publish (hard copy and digital) and don't intend to actively seek out a publisher. That being said, if the option came up to work with a publishing company, it would receive my full consideration.

Question 7: Aren't you worried about your stomach?
Answer 7: Nope! I have a mighty strong stomach that can handle most anything I throw at it with ease. That being said, I expect to get sick at least once while in China. As I wrote in this post earlier this year, that's just part of playing the game. Such is life.

Question 8: Is there anything you won't eat?
Answer 8: I'll eat anything so long as it isn't endangered or a primate. Anything else is fair game. Sometimes this question is a polite way of asking if I plan to eat dog. With apologies to any dog lovers in the audience, the answer is yes: if dog is available as a street food, I will eat it.

Question 9: How can I help?
Answer 9: Thanks for asking! In general, I am just happy to have your encouragement, whether spoken or unspoken. If you want to pitch in more tangibly, I encourage you to follow the blog (click that link on the right sidebar) and comment regularly. Once I have my Twitter and Facebook pages established, you can follow me there as well (in the meantime, you can find my personal page on Facebook). If you are really moved to help out, you are also welcome to make a donation with the PayPal button over there on the right. As I noted in answer 3 above, I am paying for this trip myself and am not counting on receiving any donations. Several people asked, though, so I set up the donation button. If you are so compelled, I thank you most graciously. I will make an effort to repay your kind generosity in some way, whether it be a postcard from China, a free copy of my book once it's done, or some sort of mystery prize.

Question 10: I was told there would be pie. Is there pie?
Answer 10: No, I'm sorry to say you were misinformed...there is no pie available on this website.