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).


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