Monday, April 18, 2011

Non-Asians and Asian food suggestions (Dim Sum Garden)

Bean-paste noodles (炸醬麵)

Something I asked on Twitter last week... "Is it racist that I don't trust non-Asians when they make Asian food suggestions?" The answers varied. A few Asian people lol'd and told me they do the same. On the other end of the spectrum... someone suggested that it wasn't racist, but that it was ignorance. I won't try to deny that I have more than my fair share of idiotic views in life, but let me clarify what I really meant by this statement - I don't (generally) trust non-Asians when they preach about how deliciously authentic an Asian dish is i.e. don't trust whitey. Is that really so bad? It's not that I don't trust my non-Asian friends' perspectives on food. If you have good taste, you have good taste, but how can someone possibly comment on the authenticity of a dish if they have never had it from the source before? As I've learned from my engineering writing source... if you're just following fobs around, you're simply paraphrasing the source. Give credit where credit is due.

Last week I went with a friend to a small Chinese restaurant near Reading Terminal Market called Dim Sum Garden. The name is kind of deceptive, it's not so much a dim sum place in the traditional sense as it is a place that serves Shanghai style entrees and appetizers.

One of the things I most definitely wanted was 炸醬麵 (zha jiang mian), the Northern Chinese take on black bean noodles. DSG's version was super traditional - gobs of loosely strewn pork combined with a salty and slightly runny black bean sauce peppered with a hint of spiciness and sweetness. It was good, and to me... it was super authentic. My grandfather was from Northern China, ate this shit all the time, and cooked it for me all the time. See? I can say that because I've been there eaten the food, and have a direct comparison.

Shanghai shumai (上海燒賣)

Shanghai shumai (上海燒賣) are apparently a sticky rice variant on normal shumai. Instead of gob of pork you get a gob of sticky rice with bits of pork inside. As much as I love rice, I think I enjoy pork more. I was not in love with this dish, but the texture was admittedly as interesting as anything I've eaten recently. See... I will not comment on the authenticity of this dish because I have no fucking clue if it's legit or not. I have never been to Shanghai, nor do I hail from there... so I will refrain from making assclown statements about whether it is "native" or not. They're fun to eat, I'll leave it at that.

Pan-fried dumplings (生煎包)

We also got pan-fried dumplings (生煎包). These were, in fact, actually awesome. As good as most, and filled with more meat, than any I've ever eaten in Taiwan. The skins were super thin, borderline transparent, and they exploded with pork juices upon puncture. Again, I can make this statement because I know what the OG versions taste like, having sampled directly from the source.

Cold roasted pork (將肉)

What can I say about this? It's a cold dish of roasted pork (將肉). Flavor-wise it's pretty bland, you dip it in sugary soy sauce or vinegar soy sauce, but texturally it's fun to play with. The odd bits of cartilage make for curiously gelatinous nuances, adding a slight crunch to an otherwise plain cooking of meat. Twas good. Again, I have no clue where this dish actually originates, but it's something that was always on my table growing up... so I feel 100% validated in making asinine statements about it.

To conclude on this post which I'm surely to get bashed for... it's not that I completely distrust non-Asians when it comes to Asian food suggestions, I just find it ridiculous how often people make ridiculous commentary on things that they're completely oblivious to (I'm sure I do this too... and I hate myself for it). I mean, I'm sure an aeronautics engineer could explain to you how an airplane flies from reading books, but I wouldn't want them flying a plane. Similarly, you can tell me food is good, but leave out the commentary on authenticity unless you've hard the original for comparison. Until then, I'll continue to listen to Asians when it comes to Asian food.


James said...

There are a couple things to consider when someone says "the X food at Y place is great!"

-The assessment in question of X food, entirely regardless of race, could be biased not by inexperience with a particular cuisine/culture but by general inexperience with food, or just plain bad taste (yes, I believe that people can truly have bad taste). For example, "whitey" might be bad at assessing Asian food but equally bad at assessing burgers. At a certain point, the breadth of bad assessments stack up, and race ceases to become a tangible variable.

-Even if we accept as a given that non-Asians aren't great at recommending Asian food, it doesn't logically follow that Asians are great at recommending Asian food. I've known plenty of Asians who value a good deal so much over good taste that they'll rave about anything that's a bargain, even their mother country's food. Certain people just don't make the effort to really assess food and its value quotient. This is one reason I'm wary of going out for sushi and Korean barbecue with groups of Asians... or ordering a pizza with pretty much anybody who's not a serious eater :P

I think you're right to note that "authenticity" is a different conversation starter entirely. If we make that distinction, though, I feel like we should also make it when putting a value on someone's advice. Ultimately, that action measures a gradient of experience or various discriminative capacities, which is harder to gauge in casual conversation but I think ultimately more useful :)

frankie said...

totally agree! love your blog- about to go stalk you down on twitter

Dominic said...

So why don't you 100% trust my judgement on "American" food?

Greedyrosie said...

Oh! This must mean I can only trust white people on what good whitey's food tastes like :0)

You probably are right, I don't know.

Anyway, great blog as usual. I read it a lot - I'm off to casually stalk, No! I mean, follow you on Twitter too

Rodzilla said...

This is exactly why I don't trust your recommendations for Doughnuts.

Nicholas said...

James - you're right... an assessment of food probably shouldn't be based on ethnicity, yet for me I have a built in prejudice for it.

You're also correct in saying that Asians don't always know good Asian food. A lot of it's cultural since eating is often dictated by the wallet in Asian families. That said, it is far more likely that someone who grew up in Taiwan will have similar culinary experiences as I did growing up, and that our palates would be more closely aligned. I think that's a fair statement.

I guess what I failed to convey was your last point of authenticity. That's the primary reason I take non-Asian suggestions for Asian cuisine with a grain of salt. I find it hard to believe someone can identify a "great Szechuan place" without truly knowing what Szechuan food is. Like you said, it's damn near impossible to qualify whether or not someone is experienced or not in a certain culture's food conversationally, which is why, for now, I'll have to go by ethnicity haha.

frankie - lol, the only people who agree with me are Asian.

dominic - because I would argue that I've had equal exposure to "American" food. In fact, it's probably fair to argue that I've eaten a greater quantity of it as well. That said, I do trust your judgment, which is the only reason I'll ever give Five-Guys another chance.

Greedyrosie - well... I mean, I grew up in America, so I feel perfectly justified in making statements about food in the states. I am Asian. So in that sense, the statement is kind of broken? Like I said, good taste is good taste, it's only when people start using how "authentic" something is (without having a shred of background) as a superlative that really bothers me.

Rodzilla - you must've missed the part where I grew up in America. Perfectly valid for me to make ridiculous statements about things I grew up around.

Rodzilla said...

In case the attempt at humor wasn't obvious, I know he was born in the states.

Johnny said...

Authenticity is a hard thing to talk about in general, and usually not as helpful as describing if something is good or bad because some authentic stuff is just horrible.

Yeah, I generally wouldnot trust a white man's assessment on asian food especially when I know for sure that he doesn't know what he's talking about. Especially if he's yapping on california rolls being his favorite japanese food.

Call it ignorance, but like in all warranted generalizations, you are most likely correct in ur prejudice. It's kind of like when people ask us to copy our math homework...they will generally get a good grade.

Shirley said...

Nic, I agree with James, but seriously, I had the exact same thought in my head at one point in my life.... but now, I will fight to the death with Indian friends of mine about the best Indian food!

Anonymous said...

---I mean, I'm sure an aeronautics engineer could explain to you how an airplane flies from reading books, but I wouldn't want them flying a plane. ---

this is just a bad analogy. if you're talking about people making commentary on things they know nothing about aeronautics engineer + airplane flying does not work. it's not like you would alternatively want the pilot to build the plane, but he can still comment on the plane parts.

i think it would be a better analogy if you were discussing non-asians making you asian food, in which case i would still disagree.

---Similarly, you can tell me food is good, but leave out the commentary on authenticity unless you've hard the original for comparison.---

this seems to have nothing to do with ethnicity; only experience. also a typo.

you're allowed to have your opinions, and i'm sure it has worked in your favour at times, but generally, blanket statements just make people seem like jerks.

Nicholas said...

Johnny - I've let people copy my math homework before... and they've gotten very bad grades. I just don't like doing homework haha.

Shirley - more power to you! If it isn't evident yet, I'm not the most eloquent person at putting thoughts on paper/web. My response to James is MUCH closer to what I actually meant than my initial post!

Anonymous - I think you might've misunderstood my analogy. It's not based on the pretense that someone's making commentary on something they know nothing about, it's about someone making commentary on something learned secondhand. An aeronautics engineer understands all the fundamentals and mechanics behind flight, and even possibly the flight controls... but all that's useless without actual experience. If you consider it from that point of view, the reverse statement doesn't have to be held true the way you wrote it.

Which brings me to the experience vs. ethnicity point. You're right. I shouldn't make blanket statements. Assuming correlation = causation is idiotic at best (STAT 101!). However, from my own personal experiences, it is certainly true that Asians have had far more direct experiences with Asian food than non-Asians. I can logically make the leap to say that they've had more firsthand experience as well. Maybe that is a blanket statement, and circular logic as well, but it makes sense at a fundamental level. If that makes me a jerk, then so be it.

I'm not saying you're wrong, opinions can't be wrong... it's just a view I've developed from personal experiences. Nothing more, nothing less ;).

Danny said...

man i do that shit too. it's allowed and not that offensive. try this on for size, do you actually think that any whitey absolutely beyond a shadow of doubt, when he gives you a Szechuan food recommendation that he/she might not know what is actually good? now, obviously if fushia dunlap was sitting in front of us with Sichuan suggestions, that's different... but generally, I'm down with using ethnicity. It's not like it's the final opinion anyway. I can be dubious and still try it and then agree with whitey. It's all good. What I don't like is this stupid assertion that making blanket statements make people seem like jerks. It's like I'm not allowed to say, "I thought that opinion by X was stupid." And then later say, "I was wrong about X, that opinion aligns with my own." TOTALLY OKAY.

Ben said...

My dad is the same way - I use Yelp to search for restaurants, because it gives a very broad range of reviewers typically. However, whenever I find a highly rated Chinese place of any sort, he always asks me if the reviewers were Asian. And if they aren't, we ain't going. I find that a little disappointing at times, but we did go to a place with 4.5 out of 5 stars on Yelp, was Chinese, and it turned out to be an absolute letdown despite the high ratings from non-Asians.

I suppose it really depends on your taste. Being a college student, I typically pick the places with high ratings and are cheap in the area - and Yelp has rarely steered me wrong no matter what the ethnicity. I go to Indian places primarily praised by other Asians and Caucasians, and I too find it delicious despite not knowing too much about how authentic it is other than the few Indians on Yelp, or the people who have eaten much more naan than I have.

Nicholas said...

Danny - +1 on the people who do the same... +1 on the number who are Asian. If it were a venn diagram, it'd just be one circle haha.

Just like you said, I'll listen to Ed Levine if he tells me something is delicious, because that dude has a world of experience in all things culinary, but just a random bro I know from school? Probably not.

Ben - man me and your dad would probably get along. And see? If you had gone by your dad's awesome metric, you could've avoided MEGA-CHINESE FOOD SHIT HOLE!

I can empathize on the college student thing. Cheap is good, but a lot of times I feel like that clouds our fair judgment of how good something really is.

Ps - it's pretty hard to make naan with goat curry taste bad.

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