Thursday, November 21, 2013

This and That. Ethnic Authenticity, Thanksgiving, and One Short Recipe

Sorry again TERP Muffins for my lack of an appearance lately.  Life is a whirlwind these days.  I hardly have time to sit down at the computer at these days, and when I do, it’s always to make narcissistic blogs about my weight loss progress.  My time in the kitchen has been utterly lacking in creativity with me relying pretty heavily on old standbys like turkey meatloaf or turkey burgers or turkey Bolognese over spaghetti, or turkey chili, or a roast chicken.  I think I made a lamb chop and some sole filets last week too. 

I have probably spent way too much time eating out as well.  I haven’t eaten at any new restaurants, so I can’t even review anything.  However, restaurants have been weighing on my mind lately.
How do you feel about ethnic foods?  What draws you to them?  What do you hope to gain?  Are you looking for a connection to another culture, are you looking to expand your culinary horizons and increase your foodie cred, or are you just looking for something that tastes good?

For example, one of my favorite local restaurants is an Italian restaurant.  I use the word “Italian” lightly.  It’s Italian food interpreted by Italian immigrants to the United States and further refined by future generations to suit the American palate.  It’s what you might call Italian-American or just a “red sauce joint.”  It bears very little resemblance to the home cooking I ate in Italy.  Red sauce Italian tends to be rather homogeneous, but it’s hard to pin down “Italian” cooking as food can vary from region to region.  There are restaurants that do try to be more authentic and imitate the food of a particular region, and I enjoy them, but their existence doesn’t negate my enjoyment of Italian-American food done well.

There are plenty of foodies out there who would disdain such a restaurant not because the food is bad, but simply because it's not truly Italian.  It's not the Tuscan farmhouse cooking I ate on that Italian trip.  It's not authentic Bolognese ragu.  It's just meat sauce.  Let's not even get started on pizza, which is always best in New York anyway.

Foodies who think an Italian-American "red sauce joint" is a special cuisine unto itself do exsit.  They will admit to enjoying it.  However, very few of these places pass muster because even Italian-American cooking has to be prepared a certain way.  You need an actual Italian grandparents in the kitchen before they accept it.

Asian restaurants of all stripes suffer from this type of reinterpreation, and then rejection.  My neighborhood is filled with "Pan-Asian" restaurants that are mostly extensive sushi bars with some typical Chinese menu items, some teriyaki meat dishes, a noodle soup or three, and one or two Thai offerings.  Food snobs often take offense that a single cuisine can be so badly watered down or else take offense that one can distill the multiple cuisines of a very large continent into one menu.  While the politically correct points are well made, does that make the food any worse?

Even single Asian cuisines can't escape the scrutiny of authenticity seekers.  When I go see a show at the New World Stages, I always have dinner at Bann. It's a Korean restaurant that supposedly has fusion elements to it.  I don't know enough about Korean cuisine to know just how fusion it is and how far it slips from authenticity. I do know food snobs love to hate Bann because it's not "real" Korean.

The single element that keeps me going back to Bann or Chef Antonio or any of the Pan-Asian places on my block is simple.  The food tastes good.  I enjoy it not because it purely reflects the culture from which it came.  I enjoy it simply for the taste.  Is my taste too "American" and that's why I only like Americanized versions of ethnic dishes?  I don't know.  I do know that if I enjoy a meal somewhere, I am not going to let my enjoyment of it be hindered because it contains a few ingredients or techniques not found in its native country.  Do you ever wonder if the chefs prefer it that way?  Maybe it's not authentic because the chef has decided he or she really likes how certain inauthentic ingredients or techniques in the dishes.

Have Americans become too obsessed with food as the epitome of a culture and the best way for Americans to connect to the exotic?  What are we eating when we eat at an ethnic restaurant, or even eating a meal in a foreign country?  No matter what, we are eating the best of what that culture has to offer unless we're living in someone else's home. We're eating occasion food.  We're eating the stuff that is served to company.  What we are eating in the best and most authentic restaurants possible, we are still eating differently from what the average family eats every day.

Soleil Ho argues that one of the problems is that American chefs are interpreting the cuisines to the detriment of authenticity, not to make it more suitable to American palates, but to increase the snob appeal.

The menus usually include little blurbs about how the chefs used to backpack in the steaming jungles of the Far East (undoubtedly stuffing all the herbs and spices they could fit into said backpacks along the way, for research purposes), and were so inspired by the smiling faces of the very generous natives—of which there are plenty of tasteful black-and-white photos on the walls, by the way—and the hospitality, oh, the hospitality, that they decided the best way to really crystallize that life-changing experience was to go back home and sterilize the cuisine they experienced by putting some microcilantro on that $20 curry to really make it worthy of the everyday American sophisticate. American chefs like to talk fancy talk about “elevating” or “refining” third-world cuisines, a rhetoric that brings to mind the mission civilisatrice that Europe took on to justify violent takeovers of those same cuisines’ countries of origin. In their publicity materials, Spice Market* uses explicitly objectifying language to describe the culture they’re appropriating: “A timeless paean to Southeast Asian sensuality, Spice Market titillates Manhattan’s Meatpacking District with Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s piquant elevations of the region’s street cuisine.” The positioning of Western aesthetics as superior, or higher, than all the rest is, at its bottom line, an expression of the idea that no culture has value unless it has been “improved” by the Western Midas touch. If a dish hasn’t been eaten or reimagined by a white person, does it really exist?

It seems in this case the chef is trying to prove himself as both a seasoned traveler, a culinary adventurer, as well as the ultimate creative chef.  I can see how it would insult someone who came from that culture and it might be something many food snobs seeking the most sophisticated ethnic cuisines wouldn't think about.

But then there are the foodies who crave authenticity in food in order to prove their own authenticity?  Do they feel the need to show just how adventurous they are? As Ho puts it:

The foodies’ cultural cachet depends on being the only white American person in the room, braving inhumane spice levels and possible food poisoning in order to share with you the proper way to handle Ethiopian injera bread. But they can’t cash in on it unless they share their discoveries with someone else, thereby jeopardizing that sense of exclusivity. Thus, happiness tends to elude the cultural foodie.

Are we all trying to be Anthony Bourdains or Andrew Zimmermans always trying to push the envelope of what and where we are willing to eat?

The truth is for me it doesn't really matter.  When I am looking to try a new restaurant I look at menus and see if they sound interesting and tasty.  I don't worry about whether or not they eat mangoes in China.  Globalization has made isolated, pure, cuisine almost impossible.  Think of it this way, we don't question the authenticity of tomato-based sauces on Italian food, but we forget that tomatoes are not native to Italy.  Spam didn't originate in Hawaii.  Chili peppers are not native to Asia, but we hate to think of Chinese or Thai cuisines without them.

How about we all just enjoy a plate of food and not worry about the recipe.

*I have eaten at Spice Market and enjoyed it.

And now for something completely different...

Thanksgiving is upon us.  I hope all of my friends reading this blog are planning to spend a plentiful meal with family and loved ones.  

My own Thanksgiving plans are doubtful.  I was planning to fly to Chicago, as I often do on Thanksgiving, to have dinner with my brother-in-law and his family.  It's always a great trip filled with great food.  We had our hotel and flight all set.

Now with the horrible storms heading to the east coast, our trip is doubtful.  We doubt our flight won't be cancelled.  Chances are we're going to be spending Thanksgiving at home, with no one to share it with.  We will eat our Thanksgiving dinner at the Diner, knowing we at least have each other.

I have mixed feelings about our dinner plans.  The diner is open 24/7/365, so it's not as if it being open is anything unusual.  They are open Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day, Easter, Groundhog Day and every holiday in between.  It still doesn't sit well with me.  I am among those who refuse to shop on Thanksgiving day.  I will boycott WalMart (I refuse to shop there anyway).  I will boycott Best Buy.  I think it's a terrible abuse of the overworked and underpaid workforce as well as a hijacking of Thanksgiving.  Is patronizing a diner that's open on the holiday any better?  I know it's open all of the time and people will go there anyway, but I still feel bad.  At least it's a small, family-run business with a fair amount of long-time loyal staff.  They aren't a big corporation doing its best to take advantage of the workforce while raking in millions.

This year it seems so much harder not to think of those less fortunate.  What's my big hardship?  I don't get to board a plane, stay a weekend at a hotel, eat in expensive restaurants, and see family?  At least I'll have a meal and I have a husband to share it with.

Too many people this year aren't so lucky.  WalMart is paying its workers so little that it has food drives by employees for employees (instead of just paying them enough to buy their own Thanksgiving dinners in the first place).  More low-wage workers are depending on SNAP, but as SNAP benefits have been cut across the board, there isn't much to live off of these days

Please during this holiday season don't forget to give a thought, a few dollars, some time, or a few cans of food to those less fortunate.  None of us really knows how many paychecks we are away from the breadlines.  Don't judge those who have so much less than you.  Give them a helping hand.  You never know if that person needing help might be you some day and you will be glad someone returned the favor.

And now for the recipe...

I threw this one together on a "casual Friday" recently, just trying to so something simple and different with chicken.

I know this is a terrible photo.  I'm lucky I remembered I had a camera this night let alone set up the light box and props.   I served with a nice cauliflower mash.

Apple and 5-Spice Chicken Breasts

  • 6 thin chicken breasts cutlets
  •  1 onion, diced
  • 1 golden delicious apple, sliced
  • 1/4 cup brandy
  • 1/2 tsp 5-spice powder
  • Juice and zest of 1 orange
  • 2 Tbl olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Heat olive oil in a large pan.  Over low heat cook onions until soft.  Add apple and cook until apple is soft.  Remove from pan.

Brown chicken breasts on both sides, about 5 minutes.

Mix together juice, brandy, 5-spice powder, and zest.  Add that to the pan along with the apples and onions.  Cook another 5 minutes and serve.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We have a place to dine here called the Old Spaghetti Factory, their version of Italian food takes a lot of licensing..They used to have many years ago a full meal with decent bread, salad or soup an entrée, two kinds of butters garlic and sweet cream butter, beverage tea, coffee, milk, and a dessert..Now all the food tastes exactly the same bread is not what it used to taste like, salads have no tomatoes in them, only one butter garlic, dessert tiny tiny and the soups are like campbells (barely) so much for progress!!!!!!!!!!!! they serve a good meal for little money it is just not any semblance of an Italian meal like the people I used to live by and grew up with who were from the Parma area of Italy, now that was some food! Things never change for the better.for good authentic food cook at one's home and if lucky get invited to people who know how to cook authentic dishes from the country they came from to the the USA..ciao!