Friday, May 19, 2006

Ethnorestaurantology 101

A few recent experiences swirling around in my head have inspired me to coin a term, ethnorestaurantology ("say the word after me, boys and girls") and who knows, maybe it'll become a new academic field, and people will one day be able to get their PhD in it. Then you can get conversations like this:

"Is it Mrs. or Miss Hamsterweil?"
"It's Dr. Hamsterweil."
"Ooohh, Doctor. Medical?"
"Ethnorestaurantology, actually."

At least I think the word is new. As I'm writing this now, it doesn't Google up. After I publish this post, it will, though. Definition? about the systematic study of restaurant customs and lore of different human societies.

We are terribly lucky in Vancouver to have such a wealth of restaurants from all different cultures of the world, with some restaurants even specializing in just one particular food item from that cuisine. It's also about the process of dining out with an understanding of the cultural context of the people, the cuisine, and the restaurant, or at least a desire for that understanding. And the possibilities are really endless here, because we now have all sorts of fusions of cultures evolving too. Just look at the Chinese restaurant branch alone, where we have authentic Szechuan, Northern Chinese, and Cantonese lines (some restaurants on this line more general, and some very specific, like a Hot Pot restaurant). And each of those can have offshoots by crossing with other cultures such as your Green Lettuce which is an Indian-style Chinese restaurant, or your local Hong Kong style cafe with Western influences, or your local Chinese Canadian diner (offering selections of either culture separately), or the bastardized food court Chinese food at your local mall.

One inspiration for the term is my own recent interest in recognizing my unfamiliarity with Korean food and deciding to do a little bit of directed exploration of the cuisine and the local Korean restaurant scene (part of it is that I've finally developed a taste for kimchi, which I really didn't like before). I'm getting a sense of a subculture of Vancouver (young Korean visiting students), and a taste of the origin (Korea and Korean culture) just by having a nice little meal out. It's like mental travelling. Leaving home, without actually leaving home. And dining at a restaurant that feels "authentic" is not going to be the same experience as dining at other Vancouver restaurants. Or other Canadian restaurants, and that's cool. For one thing, the servers themselves might be from the country of origin. Or the protocols are set by the owners who are from somewhere else. And those differences are something to be sought after, appreciated, investigated, and enjoyed. Thus, ethnorestaurantology. Would Korean restaurants gain more customers if they translated their menus and tweaked them with a more westernized slant? Probably. But I don't think they should. If they keep at it long enough, eventually everyone will learn the lingo, just like the average Vancouverite now has their own Japanese sushi restaurant vocabulary. How many people in town knew what a chirashi, tamago, or edamame is 30 years ago, compared to now? Foodies, like the people who would read this blog, will always lead the way, but you'll know it's mainstream when one day, say, McDonalds produces little packets of kimchi to accompany their new menu item.

Would you like your reading list for Ethnoresto 101? I just found this book recently at Book Warehouse: The Foodlover's Atlas of the World, by Martha Rose Shulman. The book spends a few pages discussing the food and food culture of each country, to put food in its geographical context. The author would be a good candidate for a Professorship at my imaginary all food-centred university offering a degree in ethnorestaurantology. Food U (FU?)...I can work on the name. But we've gotta have a Kitchen Stadium!

Another recent read that got me thinking about this is a fun book I'm reading called Garlic and Sapphires, by Ruth Reichl. It's a memoir of her experiences as the New York Times restaurant critic. She writes about her putting on various disguises and taking on new personas in order to be able to review anonymously in the New York restaurant scene. She includes the actual reviews she wrote, so you can read them after reading about the escapades she went through to come up with the review. She is now the editor of Gourmet magazine, and has some distance from the critic job, and can really tell about her whole experience, including her personal life at the time, and how that fit in with getting the story. She would visit a restaurant five times first and then reduce that all down into a nice, thick short piece. What I like about her reviews, is that she is hugely knowledgeable about the history of food, the cultures and cuisines of the world and she does her research in terms of the history of the specific people involved in the restaurant and even the building itself and the history of the city. She incorporates all that background into her writing, so that she's not just describing the restaurant, but putting it in all that context for the reader, as well as making it very personal to her own life and palate, as eating should be. In fact, dining out is all about personal experience. And believe it or not, dining out is something that you can get better and better at, but of course, ultimately it's all about your personal enjoyment. If you get a chance to read the book, there is one chapter on a fine Japanese sushi restaurant that is wonderful. And it comes from a place of familiarity and respect for the culture of Japanese cuisine and really, the entire society. That's what I mean when I'm saying we should all aspire to be ethnorestaurantologists. She should teach the first classes in it, at the first fully food-centred university. Incidentally, some of her descriptions are so good, instead of making me hungry as reviews do, reading them sated me like a food/restaurant experience substitute. In other words, she's so good at dining out - noticing all sorts of nuances in the food and in the overall experience - and so good in conveying them in writing, that I feel like I get as much out of reading her words, as I would experiencing it all myself..but without the calories.

Compare that review to this recent Globe and Mail review of Tojo's, by Alexandra Gill, which is another reason I was inspired to come up with the term. First though, I do want to point out I understand that all of dining out is subjective, and everyone's opinion on their experience is interesting to me. And there are all sorts of people out there, so there should be all sorts of reviews out there to represent different segments of society, and you simply tend to follow those who you think would enjoy things the way you do. If she didn't enjoy the experience, well, then, that's what happened, and no one should be faulted for that. And in this case, I think the review is fair in pointing out the huge difference in treatment you get when you're a big spender versus when you're going in for a few dishes (as this is something I've complained about myself), but some of the complaints of the service are just a bit annoying, because they aren't really a problem if you take into account the cultural context of the restaurant. One complaint is not being warned that a mushroom is very hot. But it's part of Japanese culture to serve something like noodles as piping hot as possible, and trust that the customer can make their own judgement, and wait until it has cooled down to their own preferred temperature. She also notes that she was surprised by the complimentary shooters, when they weren't "even offered water" but why would one expect to be offered water in a Japanese restaurant that wants to be authentic? People drink hot tea in Japan, and you get served that right away, and it's complimentary (like tap water is here). If one wanted water, all you need to do is ask. And really, the more authentic a restaurant is, and the truer the staff are to customs of their homeland, the more interesting it makes it for the diner. And the more open you are to this idea of culinary "travel," the richer your dining experiences will be. Do some graduate level dining, and eat well in the name of research! Just hand in a draft of your thesis next week.


too_much_thinking said...

Clearly, "Dr Nancyland" enjoys her writing and publishing results, as much as her field research. I will eagerly look forward to her next work.

Dumpling_Girl said...

Ooo, a student who knows how to kiss ass, that great! Thanks for reading, too much thinking!

linda said...

Have you checked out the Hungry Planet (I think that is what its called). It was a James Beard winner this year and really shows the difference in eating habits and food for various cultures around the world... Looked really interesting..

Dumpling_Girl said...

Thanks, Linda! Here's a link to a description if anyone else is interested in Hungry Planet. It does look really interesting.

Also, it's by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio, who wrote a book I that I already have a copy of, Man-Eating Bugs, a photographic survey of various bug dishes in different cultures. Also very interesting.