Tag Archives: Food

Don’t Walk and Eat

27 Nov

When I was in Japan a couple months ago, most mornings started at a local bakery. Every morning we’d stop by a different place to pick up pastries and coffee to fuel our day’s adventures. Naturally, we got more than 1 pastry a day: after all, we wanted to try as many local specialties as we could. From melon buns to red bean rolls to taro danishes, we nibbled our way through a whole new realm of baked goods.

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That green pastry is a melon roll, and it was divine.

Japanese neighborhood bakeries are “self-service,” with pastries laid out buffet-style. You walk around with tongs and a tray to pick your bounty, then an employee rings you up. You can opt to dine-in, or take away. We always opted for takeaway since we had a jam-packed itinerary and wanted to jump right into sightseeing.

But, our desire to hustle created a bit of a cultural conundrum. See, on Day 2, our chosen bakery laid down some rules for us. They had this sign posted right by the tongs and trays, specifically to school hurried tourists like us.

do-not-walk

We giggled at first. After all, it felt a bit silly that the bakery was trying to monitor how we’d consume their baked goods. So they didn’t want us to stand directly in front of their door? Well, ok, I guess that could look tacky to passerby. But why did they care if we ate while walking? How would that impact the bakery at all?

We assumed the sign was trying to steer us away from cultural gaffes. While eating and walking is a popular combo in the grand ‘ol USA, that’s not the case worldwide. When I studied abroad in France, my professor gave us a long list of tips to “blend in.” One tip was exactly what this sign forbade: don’t eat and walk. She was so right! I rarely saw locals eating and walking when I was in France, or when I studied in Spain later on.

So that does that make Americans heathens? Or are we simply different? Who’s to say which way is “right” and which way is “wrong?” When we’re abroad, is it automatically disrespectful to do what we do at home? And on top of all that: is it this bakery’s business to tell us how to act?

I like to think that the bakery was simply looking out for us, like my French professor, and counseling us on how to blend in (or, really, how to stand out less). It’s not like we were about to get ticketed for eating pastries in the streets. But, they were guiding us to act like locals do, perhaps to save us embarrassment, perhaps to save the locals disdain. We did notice that the streets were impeccable in Kyoto, and could imagine the bakery wanting to inspire respect for their beautiful public space.

It’s so hard to respect local customs when you travel, because you can’t know all the rules off the top of your head. Without context, this sign just sounds a tad judgmental. But there are so many little things about cultures that vary around the world. It’s so easy to offend someone simply because you don’t have the right context. And in that sense, I think this bakery was just trying to help us get by.

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Another morning find. This store didn’t lecture us about how to eat, but maybe they just never thought to do it 🙂

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Inside a high-end grocery store.

Much Ado About Toast

20 Nov

Midway through a recent flight, my seatmate turned and asked where I live. When I answered that I live in San Francisco, she started on a rant about SF’s fixation with high-end toast. Turns out: my seatmate makes her own bread, her own preserves, etc. So my usual “pricey toast is ok because you wouldn’t really make this kind of toast at home” argument didn’t work. Instead, she proposed that everyone should produce their own food. But that perspective doesn’t take into account the realities of how most people eat. Most people aren’t milling their own grains or making their own jams. They’re buying what’s easy to find, affordable to purchase and simple to use.

This is such an interesting time in American food culture. Still, we’ve seen some big shifts in mainstream food over the past few years. You can see which trends are going mainstream by looking at grocery store shelves. What you see at places like Target or Safeway reflects what most Americans have access to. Even the largest food companies are putting out products that emphasize “fewer negatives” or “more benefits.” That shift toward “better for you” products is a pretty significant change to the way people eat every single day.

Remember when Marilyn Hagerty made internet waves with her review of Olive Garden? Lots of people laughed at her review of such an “everyday place.” But couldn’t one argue that everyday meals are the most important? They may not provide our most treasured memories, but they do make up the bulk of what we eat. I love to follow food trends and read about new restaurants, but I think it’s equally important to understand what’s happening in mainstream food culture. America’s food culture is largely defined by what goes onto people’s dining room tables, and not just what happens on chef challenge shows.

The next time you’re at the grocery store, try planning a week of meals with products you wouldn’t typically buy. More expensive, less expensive, healthier, less healthy–makes no matter. Sometimes it’s just good to shake up your frame of reference and try to imagine a different day-to-day life. Try to imagine the everyday meals of someone not like you. What would they eat? What would their priorities be? What could you learn from them?

What’s Spaghetti?

30 Oct

I got into a debate about spaghetti the other day.

You might assume I got into a debate about the right type of herbs for the sauce, or how long to cook the noodles. But no: I got into a debate about spaghetti itself. What it even is, at its most basic level.

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From Kawaling Pinoy

It started with a dish called Filipino Spaghetti. This dish includes hot dogs and banana ketchup, adding up to a sort of sweet, sort of savory dish. I’d never had it before, and quite liked it. But then, my dining companion and I got to talking about spaghetti. He wasn’t a fan of Filipino Spaghetti, and said he prefers “Italian spaghetti” with a richer tomato sauce and savory herbs. Which is totally fine: to each their own. Still, we started wondering what makes spaghetti, well, spaghetti. Is it about the shape of the noodle ? The way it’s served? Who makes it?

Technically, “spaghetti” refers to a type of noodle. But when we hear the phrase “spaghetti,” we have specific associations of what that dish should look like. Same goes for most foods, really. What guacamole should be, what fried rice should look like, what ketchup should taste like. These ideas come from our individual food histories: what we’ve experienced so far and what we believe to be true about different foods. Coming up with a standard definition really isn’t that simple, though. There may be traditional ways to prepare foods, but who’s to say what the “right” way is, especially when variations persist across cultures? Where’s the line between “authentic” and “variation” and “reinterpretation?”

Defining dishes has been a hot topic lately because of chefs’ new takes on traditional foods. Recently I saw a discussion about paella that was altered so much, Spaniards didn’t think it should be called “paella.” I also saw a conversation about tacos that shouldn’t be called tacos, since their fillings were so non-traditional. I’ve seen people declare certain dishes a “mockery” of regional cuisine because of ingredient tweaks or technique changes.

When does something become a mockery, rather than a twist on a classic? Where is that line between “creative interpretation” and “offensive bastardization?”

Honestly, it’s sort of hard to tell. Something like Filipino Spaghetti is, in fact, authentic to a specific culture. It is an adaptation that happened over time due to local contexts and local ingredients. This is true with most foods we eat today: few look like the original dish that our ancestors would have consumed centuries ago. Earlier this year, I read a fantastic book called “The Language of Food,” which digs into the linguistic roots of popular dishes to explain how those dishes evolved over time. Most things we eat today morphed over centuries of human migration, crop changes and cultural nuances. Did you know the origins of ketchup are a fish sauce created in 17th century China? That ketchup looked and tasted nothing like our ketchup today. If a restaurant served you that take on ketchup, would you protest it wasn’t ketchup? Or should we rename our beloved tomato sauce something else, instead?

In my opinion, Filipino Spaghetti is equally spaghetti-like to something smothered in marinara. But what about when it comes to more liberal takes on traditional dishes?

And that’s where it starts to get murky. There is a difference between creativity, and disrespect. I often think that switching around ingredients shows creativity, not insult.  I’ll gladly eat your Korean BBQ tacos and your butternut squash paella. But I do think there is a line to watch about respect, about mocking an authentic dish, about claiming authenticity. Which brings us back to the original question: when is paella not paella? Is it about some proportion of ingredients that got swapped out? Is it about who makes it?

Personally, I am satisfied with someone modifying the name of a dish to express that it’s been altered. “Butternut squash paella” or “soppressata kugel” are just fine by me. But I hope that chefs always respect the origins of the cuisine they’re adapting, and that they call it an adaptation rather than trying to claim authenticity or superiority. What ruffles my personal feathers is when chefs get snobby about how they’re “improving” a dish by using different ingredients or techniques–implying that the original dish was not sufficient on its own.

It’s a gray area, to be sure, because lots of people do get offended when they see their traditional dishes “re-interpreted.” But given how much food changes over time, I think respectful creativity is a delicious addition to our menus.

A Perfect Partnership

20 Oct
If only I had an ice cream cone that large...  (picture is way old, and was taken in Toledo, Spain)

If only I had a real cone that big
(picture taken in Toledo, Spain)

When was the last time you ate an ice cream cone? Hopefully for you, the answer is “today.” Now, when was the last time you thought about how ice cream cones came to be? Chances are, not that recently. According to food historians, the first printed reference to ice cream cones dates back to a 19th-century cookbook. But while creation theories abound, there’s no real consensus on how the cone was invented. Some say its origins are in England, some say France, some say the U.S. Still, it seems that historians do agree on one thing: the cone owes a lot of its popularity to its exposure at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

In our modern world, we hear about new mouthwatering desserts practically every day (I’m looking at you, Dominique Ansel). But in 1904, news didn’t spread as quickly or as widely. And so events like World’s Fairs played a rather important part in spreading the word about inventions and ideas. Fairs drew large crowds of people from all over the world, as well as flocks of journalists. They were the perfect place to introduce the world to something new.

So, let’s get back to the cone “creation myth,” shall we? One of the most popular stories says that a World’s Fair ice cream vendor ran out of dishes for his ice cream. In a bout of quick thinking, the pastry vendor at the next booth over rolled up some of his crisp cookies into a cones and offered them up as ice cream holders. And like that, the ice cream cone was born.

A not-so-great picture of where the St. Louis World's Fair was held (now known as Forest Park)

A not-so-great picture of Forest Park, site of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair

For the moment, let’s suspend any opposing theories and just accept this St. Louis story as the truth. Because regardless of whether the vendor truly “invented” the cone, the story teaches us an important lesson: sometimes the best ideas come from sharp, real-time thinking. Today, something like what we see in the cone “creation myth” would be considered a partnership, and before the partners could make it happen, their respective companies would probably make them sign a lot of legal paperwork. But in 1904, it was simply an immediate solution to an immediate problem.

I want the St. Louis story to be true, even if I know that some form of cone existed well before 1904. In all fairness, that pastry vendor at the Fair had likely never heard of ice cream cones, even if they were already in use in other parts of the world- it’s not like he had Buzzfeed sending him lists of “exciting new desserts” on a daily basis. So whether or not he was truly the first to do it, I think we owe him a round of applause for his quick and creative problem-solving. Given that I have a sweet spot for ice cream, St. Louis AND World’s Fairs– I think it’s only fair that I have an ice cream cone to celebrate this fortuitous event, don’t you?

On a related note: the last time I posted a list of favorite ice cream companies, it was really only a partial list- and readers noticed some of their favorites were missing. So here is round 2! Let me know if you have recommendations for other places I need to try.

I consider it my civic duty to try ice cream around the world. This particular taste test occurred in Copenhagen (2009)

I consider it my civic duty to try ice cream around the world. This particular taste test was in Copenhagen

Atlanta

Morelli’s: an Atlanta institution with delicious, creamy flavors

Ohio

Jeni’s: this stuff is expensive, but also inventive and delicious

Graeter’s: get the black raspberry chocolate chip, you’ll thank me later

Southern California

Creamistry : liquid nitrogen-based ice cream, gets extra points for the wow factor

This is technically cake, but isn't it cute? My friends know me so well.

This is technically cake, but isn’t it cute? My friends know me so well.

Northern California 

Xanath: they get a lot of kudos for using organic ingredients, but I’m there for flavors like fig and saffron

Three Twins : (pro tip: they have a kiosk in the Delta terminal at SFO)

Chicago

Bobtail: their flavors include lots of mix-ins

Paciugo: there’s a reason some of the flavors sell out every day

Canada

Laura Secord: they don’t seem to have it anymore, but this is where I had my first ever orange-chocolate ice cream (named “Tiger Tiger,” which is adorable)

Cookie Starts With C

16 Sep
English: Homemade monster cookie with M&M candies

A good breakfast, right? (picture from Wikipedia)

Monday morning feels like a good time for a warm and fuzzy news story and a little laugh. So here you go: I’d like to give you an update on everyone’s favorite cookie expert. Nope, not Famous Amos. Not Mrs. Fields. Not even Betty Crocker. Today, I’d like to talk about (drum roll please)…Cookie Monster.

Yes, that’s right- our favorite oogly-eyed, blue-furred monster has made the news reports lately, thanks to a new skill: self-control. In a recent clip from the PBS masterpiece, Tom Hiddleston from “The Avengers” teaches Cookie Monster how to be a little more patient when it comes to cookies. Instead of gobbling up every cookie he sees, he’s taught to wait a bit to chow down. As Tom explains, delayed gratification can be a very good thing, and can help Cookie Monster appreciate those delicious treats even more.

This clip is adorable and will make you smile, so I suggest you go watch it immediately. I suppose it’s a good idea to teach children restraint vs. the “olden days” character of Cookie Monster, where he simply gobbled up every cookie in sight. If only they’d thought to teach Cookie Monster patience back in my day- I can totally relate to how Cookie Monster acts early on in this clip!

Make It A Triple

10 Sep

These days, ordering a coffee can be a lot like reciting a speech. Tall this, skinny that, add milk here, non-fat there. And top it off with whipped cream while you’re at it, ok?

Custom orders and fancy vocab have helped coffee shops become rather trendy. However, the lingo can be a bit intimidating for the uninitiated, and the rapid-fire approach to ordering makes it hard to ask detailed questions. Baristas don’t always want to answer your questions about what’s what and how much you get for your money. Plus there’s that constant fear of holding up the line behind you- and no one wants that.

a sample menu at the Debenhams‘ trial location (photo from Eater.com)

Enter Debenhams’ revised coffee menu, written in what the store calls “Plain English.”  Debenhams is a department store in the UK that has several coffee shops, restaurants, etc. within its walls.  In late 2012, Debenhams decided to scrap the complicated-sounding coffee menu at its Oxford Street location in favor of a more straightforward edition. On the “Plain English” menu, a cappucino is called “frothy coffee.” “Black coffee” is “simple coffee.” And there aren’t any confusing sizes to reckon with (really, I’ve never understood why you’d call a small size a “tall,” anyway). Instead, the store simply offers drinks in cups or mugs. Debenhams’ press release  claims that they were inspired by a stat that 70% of coffee drinkers experience “coffee confusion” and that a simpler menu will help them better enjoy their drinks. Coffee confusion seems to refer to the state in which one doesn’t know how or what to order- a conundrum indeed.

Clearly the complicated lingo isn’t keeping people from buying at Starbucks- and I’d argue that the lingo actually makes Starbucks more appealing for many, since it makes them feel like they’re in on something cool. But let’s remember: Debenhams isn’t Starbucks. It’s a department store, and its coffee shop is likely visited due to convenience” rather than preference. Perhaps a few employees come by everyday, but the majority of the coffee shop’s customers are stopping by on a rather infrequent basis- which takes a lot of the fun out of having a “usual” order.  Debenhams simply doesn’t need to be that hip.

And yet, my main critique of this menu is that it veers a bit much toward cutesy for my liking. Does a grown person actually want to have to say “really really milky coffee” out loud? In my opinion, these “product names” are more like “product descriptions” and would be better off in parentheses to the right of the product’s true name.  Because really, Debenhams’ “simplified” menu has just taken away the fancy sounding words and replaced them with cute words. And that’s just another kind of gimmick now, isn’t it?

Unfortunately I can’t find any articles about whether the new menu helped or hurt. Any UK readers out there want to report back?

Want to have some fun laughing at ridiculous coffee orders? Check out this order generator.

Picture Prattle: Wave the Flag

29 Aug

a scrumptious version of the Italian flag   (picture from visualnews.com)

It’s easy to forget just how much a nation’s flag symbolizes. Especially since there is so much variation: while some flags are laden with pictorial symbolism, others seem rather plain.

But when you really think about it, flags are immensely rich cultural symbols. Regardless of what’s woven into the design, the flag itself stands for so much more. Flags represent countries at sporting events, in wars, even on the moon. They’re symbols of pride, heritage and hope. They come with almost mythical stories of creation and endurance.

A friend recently posted on Facebook about a delightful (and delicious) project created by an Australian ad agency to promote Sydney’s International Food Festival. The project consisted of depicting a range of flags from around the world… entirely in food. And not just any food: food that’s associated with that particular country’s cuisine and heritage.

On the surface, it’s a rather simple idea, but it’s also such a clever one. I think my favorites are the Indian flag and the British flag. Though right now, I could go for a heaping serving of the Greek flag!

Check out the flags here

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