January 18, 2010

Ethnicity in a Bottle

It was not so long ago that we tossed words like Szechuan and pesto about as shibboleths distinguishing ourselves as educated diners.  Today, we exhibit our culinary sophistication with words like balsamic, za’atar, and ghee, but the basic error remains the same.  We focus on a few foreign condiments while ignoring the vital context of place: the history of how a cuisine has developed and for whom; the raw ingredients, kitchen equipment and cooking techniques commonly used; and the broader social traditions and customs from which this all evolves.

The most superficial approach to ethnic cooking is the one most often urged on us today: “dump and stir” with a broad range of tinned exotica and bottled potions.  For example, I can’t count the times I’ve watched some TV chef demonstrate Chinese cuisine by first lining up a bewildering array of condiments—soy sauce, oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, toasted sesame oil, black vinegar, five-spice powder, ginger, and rice wine—then proceeding to dump and stir it all in a wok robotically, with no regard for which cooking method might suit the principal ingredient.

The misguided impulse behind this familiar performance is to infuse “Chineseness” into the food, however incompetently it might be cooked.  I’ve seen it more times than I care to recall with Italian cooking, too, where clichés like garlic, basil, Parma ham, extra virgin olive oil, Parmigiano Reggiano, pancetta, and balsamic vinegar always loom large.  In reality, these cooks are doing little more than choosing a main ingredient and using it as a vehicle for foreign condiments and essences.  That’s not cooking; it’s product assembly, and it exhibits disrespect, even contempt, for the principal ingredients.

Nevertheless, we continue our search for that magic bottle of “genuine foreignness.”  After decades of immersion in ethnic clichés, it’s now unthinkable that we would call “Mexican” a dish without chilies, or pass off a Thai dish without fish sauce, an Italian dish without extra virgin olive oil, or a Chinese dish without ginger.  We’ve been conditioned to believe that ethnicity comes out of a bottle or a packet.  But the reality is this: foreign condiments will no more turn some bland, supermarket chicken into a fine ethnic dish than a hairpiece, a Ferrari, and a prescription for Viagra will turn a middle-aged salaryman into Brad Pitt.  Not that this keeps anyone from trying.

The question to ask is not which bottled embellishments do Italian people or Japanese people or Mexican people pour onto their food, but rather, which raw materials do they work with, and how, precisely, do they cook them.  What techniques do they use?  What equipment?

Proper kit is a crucial element in any cuisine, but again, just as we do ourselves no favors by latching onto a few foreign lotions and potions, we should be wary of gadgets promising an authentic cooking experience out of the box.  There’s often a larger system of hardware on which a given item will depend.  A brilliant example is the wok, the premier object of superstitious veneration among non-Chinese cooks.  And while it’s true that the Chinese do use them, in a Western kitchen, the wok is paramount among the most dysfunctional of kitchen gizmos—the leader of a class including pasta rakes and shrimp scissors.

To stir fry properly, a wok requires a fantastic amount of heat, in the range of 100,000 to 300,000 BTUs.  Its energy inefficiency alone should qualify it as the greatest source of Chinese embarrassment after the Cultural Revolution.  Still, it will work so long as you satisfy its outrageous appetite for thermal energy.  Professionals who use woks do so on stoves designed specifically for them.  Unfortunately, conventional Western stoves are designed along more conservative lines, and can’t deliver a fraction of the energy required to feed a wok.  The typical consumer-grade stovetop delivers 9,500 BTUs per burner, while a “prosumer” model might deliver as much as 16,000.  Thus the better class of Western pots and pans are made thick and heavy to accumulate enough thermal ballast to work well in a relatively low-energy environment.  It’s not necessary to torch them with 300,000-BTU fire.

The wok, in contrast, is paper thin and accumulates no heat.  Of course, so long as it’s bathed in roaring flames, it performs well enough.  But when you put it onto a Western stove, it fails comically.  It cools immediately when food is added and invariably produces a stew, never a proper stir fry.  And yet, I’ve never known a Chinese chef who didn’t insist, against glaring evidence and all reason, that using a wok is crucial to stir frying.  Millions of consumers in the West have been duped into buying these ridiculous things in vain hopes that they will one day master the mysterious art of Chinese cooking.  But they’re destined to be frustrated: like the ethnic condiment, the ethnic gizmo is rarely adequate in itself.  You need the whole system.

But take heart.  One can duplicate proper stir frying, including the mystical wok hae—that is, the unique flavor of wok cooking—with Western gear.  It’s not difficult.  Remember, stir frying is nothing new, nor is it in any way “Chinese.”  We Westerners have been doing it for centuries, only we call it sautéing.

If you’ve got a well-ventilated stove, and a gas burner that can deliver at least 12,000 BTUs (16,000 preferably), all you’ll need is a conventional, and very heavy, cast iron skillet.  You can even prepare, or season, your skillet in the traditional manner, with pork fat rubbed into the moderately hot metal with a fistful of Chinese chives.  When it’s time to stir fry, the chief trick is to keep the fire cranked up and to get the skillet frighteningly hot before you begin, so that it’s primed with plenty of thermal ballast.  Stir fry in modest batches, and give the skillet a minute to recover its heat between each.

To develop wok hae, follow these simple rules: make sure the skillet is very hot before you commence cooking; add fat or oil just before you add foods so that the fat won’t burn while the skillet is heating; never boil foods in the skillet because this will remove its seasoning layer, and never wash it—just wipe it with a paper towel after each use.  Finally—and only if you’ve got adequate ventilation and space to do this safely—you should tip the pan during cooking to ignite the oil vapor for several seconds.  Droplets of burnt oil will fall back onto the food.  This little trick is the principal source of wok hae.  You can do it toward the end of stir-frying each batch.  This maneuver is far more convenient with a wok because it’s light in weight and its bowl shape makes tossing foods in the burning oil vapor easy.  But instead of tossing, which is nearly impossible with a cast-iron skillet, you could simply ignite the vapor by tipping the pan, then lift it straight up into the column of flame to expose the food to the burning oil droplets, the majority of which, naturally, will be rising rather than falling.

Incidentally, the wok most likely originated in India approximately 2,000 years ago and was later introduced to Han Dynasty China.  It’s believed to have been designed for stewing, as its shallow, wide shape is ideal for evaporating liquids quickly, easily reducing them to gravies.[1] Thus it’s hardly an accident that on a Western stove, it produces stews by default: that is its nature.  The classic Chinese stir fry is accomplished through the brute-force application of extreme heat, using a utensil that could not be less suited to the task.

Speaking of India, let’s consider the tandoor, a clay-lined oven used throughout much of southern Asia.  One of my favorite foods is Indian flat bread baked in a tandoor, for which a Web search will turn up thousands of recipes.  Those that I’ve seen recommend using conventional bread flour and a hot oven with a baking stone to duplicate the tandoor’s effect.  Following this advice, one can certainly create a tasty loaf that looks like Indian flat bread.  Unfortunately, its flavor, aroma, and texture will be quite wide of the mark.

The problems are several: first, a tandoor is charcoal fired and therefore reaches temperatures over 800 degrees Fahrenheit; Western ovens operate at only 50 to 60 percent of that at their maximum.  But there’s another issue besides raw BTUs: charcoal produces a characteristic flavor different from that created by electric or gas heat.  Even if you coax your Western oven to the required temperature, the bread will not taste the same.  Second, Indian bread flour, often marketed as chapati or atta flour, is unlike bread flours used in the West.  It contains a small amount of bran; it’s milled extremely fine; and it’s very high in protein (i.e., very strong, or hard).  Western whole-wheat flour doesn’t resemble it in any way: it’s too coarsely ground, and it contains germ along with too much bran.  Conventional white bread flours are different as well; typically, they’re more coarsely ground, and while they come from the same basic variety of wheat (i.e., durum), the sub-variety used in India is unique.  So you can forget about adding a small amount of whole-wheat flour to regular bread flour; it won’t work.  And then, of course, we have the issue of house yeast.  Unforgettable breads are made with a unique starter.  If you rely on supermarket yeast, the battle is already lost.

Similarly, there’s no way to duplicate tandoor-roasted meats in a Western kitchen.  Slathering lamb cubes with the contents of a jar labeled “tandoori seasoning paste” and chucking them into a conventional oven is a useless gesture.  “Tandoori” is not a paste; it’s a technique.  The tandoor is exceptionally hot, and, because it’s lined with clay, exceptionally dry.  Chunks of meat are exposed to this extreme environment and their removal is timed so that residual heat will just cook them through, leaving them crusty and chewy on the outside, and moist and succulent within.

Again we’re confronted by the stubborn fact that cuisines are a product of place.  You can buy all the “authentic spices” in the shop, but unless you’re willing to install a proper tandoor in your back garden and obtain basic ingredients imported from India, you simply are not going to make Indian lamb or Indian flat bread or Indian anything else.  The material culture, the social traditions, the cooking techniques, and the ingredients associated with the place where you cook will always determine what you cook.  There really is no escape.

“Déjà Vu All over Again”

If you visit a restaurant in Madrid, don’t be surprised if you’re served a paella full of clams, mussels and prawns, just like the ones served in London, Paris and New York.  This is hardly because Spain’s food culture was instituted around seafood, as many travel and food writers insist.  It’s because tourists, conditioned by the media, expect Spanish dishes to be full of those ingredients.  Naturally, local restaurateurs must satisfy their customers’ expectations, although in Madrid you literally can’t get any farther away from the sea without crossing an international border.  Many people in that region prefer their paella made with rabbit, but when tourists think “Spain” they think “seafood,” so seafood it is.

This is one illustration of the globalization of dining today, a movement in which popular ingredients are given a bit of regional spin, and little more.  For another quick example, consider the paillard: a pounded escalope of meat.  This workhorse of the restaurant trade, with only superficial changes, becomes cotolette alla Milanese, chicken-fried steak, pollo con queso, chicken Parmigiana, tonkatsu, Chinese lemon chicken, Wiener schnitzel, and scores of other dishes that are virtually indistinguishable because they are, in fact, the same basic thing.  Except in fine restaurants, most breaded paillards will arrive prefabricated and frozen, made from boring, supermarket-grade meats.  If a cook should get the pork ones and veal ones mixed up, hardly a diner in the world would notice the difference.

With posh accompaniments like braised radicchio, quince chutney and saffron foam, the paillard becomes more sophisticated, but hardly more ethnic.  And that’s the key substitution today: sophistication in place of authenticity.  When we see fairly outré ingredients used in an old standard, we often think to ourselves, that must be how it’s made in its place of origin.  But in truth, the dish is usually being tarted up with expensive ingredients to make it appear authentic while increasing its appeal among international diners.  Creamy lasagna made with lobster and morel mushrooms would be a perfect example of this impulse: sophisticated, yes, and about as Italian as I am.

Significantly, internationalization has created a feedback loop between regional dishes and their popular restaurant, cookbook, and magazine recipe versions, with the originals actually conforming to their commercial variants.  The power of mass commercialization is such that even in their native regions, dishes come under evolutionary pressure from the expectations of a public conditioned by the tourist industry and the many glossy publications and TV programs that sustain it.  This has brought fiction and reality together so seamlessly, and has created such widespread ambiguity, that even serious chefs and food writers are routinely misled.  Thus a student in culinary school will be told, with earnest conviction by his expert instructor, that paella is a popular seafood dish.  Only it’s not.  It’s a popular rice dish.

As dining has coalesced into a global industry, the details of culinary history and place have dissolved in a stew of commercial mythology.  In today’s world of mass tourism, it’s easy to spend weeks in a foreign country without tasting a morsel of the native cuisine.  And here’s the kicker: you probably wouldn’t like it if you did.

Just as there are unique cultural elements in ethnic cooking, such as cooking techniques and kitchen equipment, there are crucial social ones as well.  Real native foods evolve to appeal to certain people, not every person.  Korean food certainly satisfies Koreans, but I’ll take meatloaf over griddle-fried chicken in a horribly sweet chili paste any day of the week.  Koreans will, quite rightly, disagree.  They probably regard the American practice of hanging steer carcasses until they begin to rot as vile, and might express their disgust while enjoying a bowl of beef intestines in hot chili broth or munching on the steamed silkworm larvae available from street vendors everywhere.

There is a material culture influencing every cuisine, and there is a society: an intricate web of shared history, beliefs, customs, rituals, and expectations that are specific to a people.  Japanese cuisine is instructive here, especially in the context of a famous illustration: the  Saturday Evening Post 6 March 1943 cover by Norman Rockwell featuring a roast turkey and a salivating family.[2] The central image could as easily be a standing rib roast of beef, a crown roast of veal, or a whole roast leg of lamb: the gesture, and the abundance it signifies, is powerfully secuctive to anyone from Western Europe or North America.  But to a Japanese family, it would appear grotesque.  Japanese people do not bring massive slabs of meat to their tables.  Perhaps they ought to; perhaps they’ve got no idea of the pleasure they’re denying themselves.  But for better or for worse, to a Japanese diner, slabs of meat belong in the kitchen, not the dining room.  A whole turkey or rib roast would appear crude and unfinished, and its cook lazy and inconsiderate.  Food must be cut sensibly and arranged prettily before it’s considered fit for the Japanese table.  Cooks put thought into the appearance of each dish, and into their ability to compliment and contrast with each other when viewed as a whole.  A holiday feast will often involve a score of different foods and numerous sauces, condiments and dips, served in portions amounting to a mouthful or two each.  This is hardly because the Japanese are any less concerned with, or charmed by, abundance at the table; like people everywhere, they’re very much concerned with it, but they signal it differently: with variety in place of gross tonnage.

Basic flavors are different as well.  While grilling is fairly common, roasting is not, and Japanese foods therefore tend to lack Maillard compounds, much to their detriment in my opinion.  And as for raw fish and seafood, well, that’s just wrong.  I say this not because I’m squeamish, but because most of them simply taste better cooked, preferably on the bone or in the shell.  Cooking creates flavor and aroma: fats sizzle and brown; essences from the bones and other tissues enter the flesh and enrich it; juices caramelize.  To slice the flesh away and eat it raw is to leave half the potential behind in the carcass.  If wasting food is a sin, so is wasting flavor.  Indeed, I can think of only two seafoods that can’t be improved by cooking: oysters and tuna.  Oysters because they are perfect, and tuna because cooking destroys its incomparable texture.

Because Maillard compounds play a decidedly minor role in Japanese cuisine, earthy flavours are often derived from fermentation and from glutamate, found in soy sauce, kelp, mushrooms, miso, and monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is used liberally and turns up in most condiments, even mayonnaise.  I object strenuously to infusing foods with outside flavours and condiments: I believe that a food’s own natural essences should be exploited fully.  Sliced pork in dashi has a savory flavor, all right, but an artificial one; it’s far better to roast the meat properly and make a gravy from its own, browned pan juices.  Thus I find Japanese foods interesting insofar as they are different, but ultimately inadequate despite the high level of technical skill that often goes into their preparation.  Japanese people will, quite rightly, disagree.

Social forces influence our taste.  Most Westerners wouldn’t enjoy real Chinese foods such as dried bird sputum, dog meat stew, or snake soup, just as most Chinese would gag on the slimy, mold-ripened cheeses that make so many Westerners salivate.  If Chinese people encounter cheese at all, they experience it as the tragically inoffensive substance sprinkled over a mass-market pizza from the likes of Domino’s: a shabby introduction to Western food to be sure, but hardly shabbier than our own encounters with General Tso’s chicken.

So here we’ve got another obstacle to ethnic authenticity: few people want Icelandic decaying shark meat (hákarl), or Japanese rotten soybeans (natto), or Chinese dog meat (gourou), or Korean silkworm larvae (bondaegi), or Vietnamese duck fetuses (hột vịt lộn).  We Americans are far happier with our rotting beef and moldy cheese.  Native dishes remain limited to small geographic areas, first, because they depend on regional equipment and ingredients that are difficult if not impossible to locate elsewhere, and second, because few outsiders are truly eager to have them.  We all like the foods we grew up with, even the weird ones.  Other people’s weirdness, not so much.  Ortolan, anyone?  That is, French buntings force-fattened, drowned in Armagnac, roasted whole, and eaten feathers, bones, guts, and all.  Sound yummy?

I didn’t think so.

With that in mind, I offer a confession: this essay has appeared to be a paean to lost arts in ethnic cooking, but it’s no such thing.  Inauthenticity is the reality; authenticity is the lie.  Personally, I line up in the internationalist camp: the only sensible response to all this commercial ethnic silliness is simply to ignore it.  My advice is plain: cook what you love to eat using quality local ingredients and solid techniques, and take inspiration from abroad only insofar as it pleases you.  There’s no rational justification for cooking anything that you and your friends and family don’t enjoy eating.  Life is just too short.

The Joy of Heresy

There is a terrible earnestness surrounding foreign cuisines.  We’re lectured by celebrity chef evangelists about using the right ingredients and gadgets—often expensive ones—even when our objective is quite out of reach.  Think of Mario Batali, Paul Prudhomme, or Rick Bayless.  This type of resolute public sincerity can become a great source of anxiety for amateur cooks nagged by a suspicion that their efforts will never quite measure up.

If there are any principles for which the Wired Gourmet stands defiant, they are, first, that cooking is one of life’s greatest pleasures, and second, that anything threatening to take the fun out of it must be beaten back ruthlessly.  Ethnic piety is just such a threat.  I’m reminded of the 1981 movie The Four Seasons, in which the character Danny Zimmer (actor Jack Weston) throws a full-on tantrum when another character sabotages his pot of chili con carne by adding chopped garlic.  Real chili is made with “cracked garlic!” Danny roars, red faced and spluttering.  Even in 1981, we knew that a pot full of kidney beans, supermarket ground beef and canned tomatoes wouldn’t become one iota more or less “Mexican” on the difference between chopped and cracked garlic, and we laughed at the thought.  In 1981, we knew that real ethnic dining was largely out of reach; the restaurant dishes and popular recipes of the day were all so uniformly shabby that no educated diner mistook them for the originals.  Today, however, we’re deliberately tempted to imagine that “ethnicity” is within our grasp by a restaurant and publishing industry that feeds our desire for an experience of foreignness, but rarely delivers more than ambiguity and vague disappointment.

That said, it’s by no means pointless to work with imported ingredients or to take inspiration from ethnic cuisines and even from ethnic clichés; it can be great fun and add much to your kitchen repertoire.  You need only to liberate yourself from the tyranny of tradition, authenticity, and earnestness.  A dish’s provenance is irrelevant: all that matters is whether you enjoy making it, and whether you and your companions at table enjoy eating it.  Where author Michael Pollan sees an “omnivore’s dilemma” to be mediated by some new-found reverence for dietary history, tradition and custom, I see instead limitless possibilities for adventurous cooks to explore and enjoy, and with which to delight their families and friends.  If you use quality ingredients and prepare them well, and avoid bizarre combinations, the dish will always please, even if it’s completely made up.  My own kitchen manifesto couldn’t be simpler:  If it tastes good, it is good.

For example, I like to make a quick sauce for white fish out of pan drippings, beurre noisette, homemade fumet, and a splash of soy sauce—my own variation of sole Meunière.  There’s nothing remotely Asian about it; indeed, there’s nothing European about it, either.  It just works.

For sauerbraten, I prefer cheap, supermarket-grade balsamic vinegar, so long as it’s made properly from grape must.  It might not be terribly German, but balsamico cheapo has the ideal balance of sweet and sour, and the right woody/dark-fruit flavors.  It also adds color to the gravy, which I thicken with a bit of lightly-browned roux.  There’s just one caveat: if you try this, don’t use ginger snaps; the gravy will become sickeningly sweet.  To avoid the dry, crumbly texture of “authentic” sauerbraten, I use skirt steak, which I brown thoroughly in a very hot pan, rest, then slice into bite-sized pieces.  It’s a bad idea to marinate the meat in vinegar ahead of time; it will become too soft and dry.  Just cook it like beef stew using the vinegar as part of the liquid.  The meat will become tender sooner than usual.  Because skirt steak is thin and has an open texture, it will pick up plenty of sourness in the short time it takes to cook.

I prefer Thai-style chili sauce (sambal) to make that most American of treats, cocktail sauce.  The best tasting popular brand is Huy Fong, which, instructively, is produced not in Thailand but in California.  I use about a cup of sambal, a tablespoon of prepared horseradish (not horseradish sauce), and a tablespoon of ketchup for a little sweetness.  It’s hardly Thai, yet hardly American.  It is, however, the best cocktail sauce I’ve ever tasted, if I may say so myself.  I use it as a condiment for cold cooked shrimp, of course, but also for deep-fried cod, on which it is positively brilliant.

I also use sambal to make a dish that I call chili prawns, which I think might be Chinese, at least in some form.  First I peel and de-vein the shrimp, refrigerate the meats, and make a quick broth from the heads and shells.  While that’s going on, I sauté chopped green jalapeño peppers and chopped shallots in whole butter until they soften.  I add the strained shrimp broth and sambal to the sautéed vegetables, buzz it all with a stick blender, and strain it.  The shrimp can then be pan fried or deep fried at a moderate temperature until barely done, and quickly tossed in the warm sauce.  I serve it on jasmine rice with a sprinkling of chopped scallions.  It has ingredients from everywhere: is it Chinese, Thai, American, or European?  In truth, it’s all, and it’s none.  But who cares?  It’s delicious.

For roast chicken gravy, I like to deglaze the roasting pan with boiling water, thicken the liquid with pale roux made from butter and flour, season it with soy sauce, and enrich it with cream.  There’s no regional connection between soy sauce, cream, and roux, but they work beautifully together all the same.

I always use Korean red pepper flakes (gochu) in place of Hungarian paprika.  The flavor is the same, except that the Korean variety has got more of it.  It’s also about one fifth the cost of Hungarian paprika.  It can be ground further in an electric coffee mill if it’s too coarse for the application you’ve got in mind.  It doesn’t make my goulash Korean; it just makes it cheaper, and better.

For turkey stuffing, I prefer the American standard, cornbread.  Unfortunately, American-style cornbread contains no gluten, and inside the bird it becomes a mush virtually indistinguishable from the original batter.  So instead, I make a yeast-raised loaf of Portuguese-style cornbread.  I use stone-ground yellow cornmeal and hard (high-protein) bread flour, and I add extra gluten powder to strengthen it further.  I cut the loaf into cubes and dry them thoroughly in a low oven.  They never go to mush.  This hardly makes my stuffing Portuguese, but it does make it spectacular.

I make a soup base with kombu (kelp), dried shiitake mushrooms, bonito shavings, and soy sauce.  It’s similar to miso soup, only I use soy sauce in place of miso.  First, I soak the kelp in cold water, then heat it slowly to about 170 degrees F, take it off the heat, and discard the leaves.  Next, I add dried shiitakes and simmer the liquid gently for about ten minutes, then strain the mushrooms out, taking care to squeeze the liquid they hold into the pot.  I bring the liquid back to a boil and take it off the heat, then add the bonito shavings and let them steep for about one minute.  I strain and discard the solids again and run the broth through cheesecloth to clarify it.  Finally, I add splashes of soy sauce until it tastes right, and warm it almost to simmering, but no more.  It makes a superb broth for any noodle soup, and accommodates additions of seafood and meats equally well.  I don’t know if it’s authentically Japanese, nor do I care.  It tastes too good to worry about that.

Mustard is one of my favorite condiments.  At home, I prepare it several ways.  Sometimes I go Dijon-style by combining two parts of an acidic white wine and one part unsweetened white grape juice, and reducing the liquid gently by half.  This is an adequate substitute for the traditional verjus.  I use this liquid, cooled, to moisten ground French brown mustard.  I always add a good pinch of salt and a splash of Champagne vinegar for extra tartness.  It’s as good as any French commercial brand, and quite cheap.

I also make a hybrid using only three ingredients: ground English yellow mustard, French (Noilly Prat) dry vermouth, and a minuscule pinch of salt.  Homemade English mustard is usually not seasoned with salt; prepared French mustard usually is, and rather aggressively.  English mustard is usually moistened with beer; French mustard is usually moistened with verjus and vinegar.  I’ve never heard of using dry vermouth, but after considerable testing, I’ve found it to be the best liquid of all.  This mustard is neither English nor French, but if you taste it, I think you’ll agree that it’s better than either one.

Now, don’t you just love garden-fresh corn on the cob, boiled until it’s barely done, seasoned with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and finally anointed with the most delicious melted…lard?

Lard?  What lunatic would put lard on sweet corn?  None that I know, thankfully, but I do know plenty of cooks who make a Mexican maize dough called masa harina with lard, and use it for tamales.  Harina is flour (in this case, white corn), and lard is the fat traditionally used in Mexico for making the masa, or dough.  In tamales, the masa is steamed within dried corn husks.  When cooked in this way, it becomes a fluffy pastry surrounding a core of seasoned meats and vegetables in the center.  Using lard is quite the authentic touch, all right, but the flavor of butter complements corn so perfectly that it’s inexcusable to use lard if butter is available.  Tamales are a peasant dish; local cooks preferred lard simply because butter was expensive and hard to come by.  But that’s no reason why you and I should follow a bad example.  The fact is, “authentic” foods can be terribly boring.  So make your defiantly inauthentic masa with butter in place of lard, and your tamales will taste better than you ever imagined.

Have fun with ethnic dishes and foreign ingredients.  Play with your food.  Drizzle some soy sauce and beurre noir on your char siu.  How about combining a little five-spice and vanilla—in Peking duck, and in tarte Tatin?  Try a martini with sake in place of vermouth.  They say that rum makes fine eggnog, but to my taste, a good, drinkable Scotch makes it even better.

Put sambal in your chili con carne, nước mắm in your sauce américaine, tarragon in your tom yum goong, soy sauce in your Irish stew, or Parma ham in your phở.  They work.

If this all seems disturbingly irreverent, you might benefit from a round of therapy.  Here’s all you need to do: first, make something Italian without garlic, basil, or extra virgin olive oil.  Follow that with a Chinese dish containing no toasted sesame oil, garlic, or ginger.  Finally, wrap up with a Mexican, Thai, or Indian dish containing no cilantro.  Repeat until the world begins to look sunny and the air begins to smell fresh again.

They will, I promise.

[1] E. N. Anderson: The Food of China.  Yale University Press: New Haven 1988, p. 184, 185.

[2] The illustration, entitled “Freedom from Want,” is commonly thought to commemorate the American Thanksgiving holiday.  It is in fact one from a series of four Post covers commemorating a 6 January 1941 speech by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt declaring four essential human freedoms: of expression, of worship, from want, and from fear.


June 9, 2008

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