Thursday, March 1, 2012

Bastardization

I am not really a traditionalist.

Many people either find that tradition should be preserved and many others believe tradition is made to be broken.  I sit right on the fence with this one.  From many perspectives, I treasure the existence, history and proper execution of tradition – but sometimes, I can just as easily renounce, mock and argue many of the antiquated processes of tradition. 

But I will honestly say that I am rooted in the belief of tradition – or rather the romanticism and the tenets behind tradition.  I do not think that tradition is necessarily sacred, but I believe that if someone makes the choice to break tradition, they must only do so in a way that preserves its core principles. 

For myself, the process is sometimes quite simple:

1. I have a clear thought about a certain traditional dish, combination or technique.

2. I try to internalize and analyze its ingredients, its techniques, its components and its execution.  Sometimes there may be gaping holes in the theory process, sometimes there is not.

3. Research.  Confirm your theory.  Execute.

4. Approach.  Is it replication, modernization, localization, interpretation or deconstruction that I am looking to do?

5. Test ingredients, test techniques, test components, test execution.  Depending on your approach, your set of variables are either confined to a tiny subset (localization, replication) or may end up being infinite (interpretation, deconstruction).

6.  Completion.  Record information. 

Somewhere between step 4 and 5, you will need to come to a very logical question: why?  As in, why the hell am I doing this?  If the lucid answer never came to you during the thought process of step 1-3 then you might as well stop what you are doing because the difference between honoring tradition (which exists even when you choose to break tradition) and bastardizing it pretty much lives in this answer. 

Case and point: Heston Blumenthal’s In Search of Perfection with Fish & Chips.

 

Everything you wanted to know about fish and chips.

For many people, this may be a little too geeky in terms of food, but I am a little tired of people consistently apologizing for being too smart on important subjects.  I like to have beers with the common man, but I trust my food, country and beer to the more intelligent man.

With all this said, here are some of the worst examples of bastardized food:

 

1. Sushi Rolls: Indiscriminate burrito sized rice rolls with 6 different types of fish and 3 different sauces. 

“I just love how all the flavors mix with one and another until it all just tastes like sweet mushy fishy rice with seaweed.”

 

2. Pu Pu Platter – When something is named after the same words designated for fecal matter, only then do you know that you are working with a masterpiece.

 

Yes, there have been a ton of stupid racist Jeremy Lin jokes out there, but nothing says I’m borderline racist to thousands of years of Chinese culinary tradition like a good Pu Pu Platter on your menu.

 

3.  Hot sauce

I enjoy food with heat and I like very balanced hot sauces and chili oils.  However, more often than not, there are two things that are very wrong with dishes that are hot.  One of them involves the dish itself.  Any dish that is simply overwhelmed with heat offers almost nothing in terms of flavor, nuance or subtlety.  The other issue is the reception – why is it a technical marvel that something has a lot of chili in it? 

I once spent 10 hours making a chili oil that negated 80% of the full heat of the chili to highlight the actual subtlety in the flavor – sadly nobody really seemed to think it was a chili oil, but it had a very elegant flavor.  Yes, the actual flavor of peppers is not just the spiciness.  And this ridiculous craze over finding hot dishes in different places is actually pretty stupid. 

“Dude, my tongue is totally numb.  This chicken is awesome.”

“Dude, we’re actually eating deer testicles, but with all this hot sauce – it totally tastes like chicken.”

“YAY!”

 

4. The word and genre of fusion.  Ugh, the ultimate f-word.  Using Asian ingredients does not mean its fusion.  Using local Western ingredients with Asian recipes does not make it fusion.  Misguidedly chasing after a generalized pseudo genre of food named fusion because of the narrow limited insight of certain writers, THAT is what is called fusion. 

There are a few things I hate more than the word fusion – one of them happens to be when people see that I am Asian (relatively obvious) and assume that what I probably cook is some form of fusion.

Here is a sample basic conversation:

Person: “Oh, you cook [professionally]?”

Me: “Yeah, I do cook.  It’s tough, but that’s what I want to do, so it’s a blessing.”

Person: “What kind of food do you like cooking, like what’s your favorite dish?”

Me: “Oh, I don’t really have favorite things, I like to work with a bunch of different and try a lot of new things too.”

Person: “Cool, so you cook like…what… fusion?”

Me: “Um, no.”

Seriously, this shit happens all the time.  Every time the conversation comes to a grating halt – and even worse when it involves someone I’m hitting on.  The word fusion is quite possibly the most denigrating and counter-evolutionary word to happen to Asian cuisine since the fucking Pu Pu Platter.

 

Here is how I would hope the conversation could go:

Person: “Oh, you cook [professionally]?”

Me: “Yes, I do.”

Person: “Wow, that’s cool.  How do you feel about the Ferran Adria’s decision to close El Bulli in relationship with the possible sunset of what some people call the molecular gastronomy movement?”

Me: “Well… (long intriguing, charming, well thought-out and articulated answer).”

Person: “You know, I never really saw it that way, but … (interesting response with personal diner’s perspective )”

 

Here is how I would fantasize the conversation would go:

Gorgeous Female Person: “Oh, you cook [professionally]?

Me: “Yes, I do.”

GFP: “Wow, that’s so sexy.”

Me: “Noo…, really?”

GFP: “It totally is.  Let me tell you why.”

 

Here is how my brain wants to answer most of the time:

Person:  Oh, you cook [professionally]?”

Me: “Yeah, I do cook. It’s tough, but that’s what I want to do, so it’s a blessing.  I beg you, ask me anything, but please don’t ask me what my favorite dish to cook is.”

Person: “What kind of food do you like cooking, like what’s your favorite dish?”

Me: “Thank you for asking me my 2nd least favorite question of all-time.  By the way, I like to cook whatever your momma likes to eat.”

Person: “Cool, so you cook like…what… fusion?”

Me: “Um, no.  Please leave me alone.”

5.  The American Omelette

I’m sure not all omelettes fall into this category, but the omelette is now classically known to be overscrambled eggs poured and cooked into thin dry brown sheet on a griddle and then filled with a load of random shit.  An exemplary omelette is beaten with fresh eggs to order and cooked to have a hearty fluffy thickness over a light blend of cohesive meats, cheese or vegetables.  And, the French Omelette or the rolled omelette has some important rules that make it so much better than the standard diner omelette (like the fluffiness, the scramble technique, the rolling and the color).  It’s almost as if nobody ever learned how to make a great omelette and just decided to pass on a shitty one from place to place to place.  To this day, the last time I ordered an omelette was at my college dining hall almost 10 years ago. 

   

Now that you know some of the bastardized things that drive me a little crazy, you can come up your own set of culinary neuroses. 

1 comment:

  1. The current abuse of avant garde techchniques really cheeses me off. As a chef the primary question you are asking yourself should not be: "Does this dish look pretty?" it should always be "Does this dish just blow my tastebuds away?" All else should be secondary, yet there are those that persist on putting little caviars, foams and schmears of gels on the plates that explode in your mouth and slip down your throat with about as much flavor as a plastic bag.

    Case in point, Top Chef Season 8 - Tom chews out Marcel: "Was it (making a parsley foam) the best way to deliver parsley flavor? No."

    I think this season is a shining example of additives can be great in the hands of a person who knows when it is appropriate to use additives and when it's probably a good idea to nix them (Richard) and how they can be misused and can actually hamper a dish's quality when used just for the sake of show (Marcel).

    In this same vein I don't like when chefs do not think about the technique they are using and the process behind it. For example, when making a fluid gel water is needed to hydrate the agar, thereby diluting the flavor of the end product. So why oh why would one gelify products with a very subtle flavor?

    I have recently purchased the Mission Street Food cookbook and after reading it cover to cover, I think Chef Myint is doing exactly what I think additives should be used for: to enhance food through the understanding of their processes.

    In closing I will admit that I have a cupboard full of additives I have been having a blast experimenting with. I love the range of textures and the magic these powders can bring to a plate of food when handled properly, however for now the only diner who will be bearing the brunt of my botched and sometime successful experiments will have to be my girlfriend.

    That was significantly longer than I intended it to be.

    ReplyDelete