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Appetites

01 Apr

flaming onion volcanoPhoto credit Angie Jordan, sister-in-law

When my husband and I lived in Japan, we used to laugh at how the food was “Japanesed” in every non-Japanese restaurant we tried. Chefs doctored Mexican, Indian, and Italian food to include traditional Japanese ingredients and to suit Japanese palates. Not even American fast food chains were exempt from tampering—McDonald’s offered an ebi (shrimp) filet and a “juicy” chicken sandwich made from the fattiest, gnarliest dark meat you’d ever want to see, and Pizza Hut’s menu was a complete shock to an American searching for a taste of home. Who ever heard of putting tuna, mayo, and corn on a pizza…much less squid, seaweed, and fish eggs?

Now that we’re living in a small village in England, eating out has generally been limited to the nearby traditional English pubs where we’ve been sampling what we assume to be traditional English food (meaning loads of delicious, fresh, local ingredients seasoned with a dash of salt and maybe a flake or two of pepper if the chef is really daring). Lately though, our travels have taken us to some larger towns and cities where we’ve encountered a more exotic variety of dining choices, and sure enough, the English corrupt ethnic cuisine as well. In our tourist adventures this weekend, for example, we found ourselves an “authentic” Indian restaurant owned and operated by “authentic” Indians (and not second or third generation UK citizens, judging by their accents) where I could have supplemented any of the “authentic” entrées (i.e. prepared with something approaching the correct amount of spice, which is the equivalent of adding napalm for most Brits) with a side of chips (complete with malt vinegar). We also tried an Italian establishment, where my starter of creamy garlic mushrooms (garlic is also considered heavy artillery in the spice arsenal) was served on top of a Yorkshire pudding. I’m willing to bet I couldn’t walk into a true Thai restaurant in Bangkok and expect to order a sticky toffee pudding for dessert.

Please don’t think that for one second I believe ethnic cuisine in America is unmolested. I knew that Taco Bell was not Mexican food, but until I lived and travelled overseas, I didn’t realize to what extent we’d adapted foreign foods to meet our gastronomic expectations. I’ve been to Hong Kong, where despite their autonomy from the mainland nation, they eat a lot of Chinese food, and they’ve never even heard of General Tso’s chicken. In three years in Japan, I didn’t see a single Japanese steakhouse where a Chinese “chef,” assisted by a Mexican “sous-chef” would toss eggs into his tall white hat, build a flaming volcano of onion rings, or toss grilled shrimp into the open mouths of sixteen strangers seated around a scorching hot griddle-cum-table. However, I think despite its reputation as a cultural melting pot and an abundance of Americanized dining establishments, the US does still offer plenty of opportunities to find authentic ethnic cuisine. Thanks to immigrants who have held fiercely to their native customs and been willing to share their dietary traditions with their adopted homeland, Americans with an adventurous appetite can travel the culinary world without even applying for a passport.

Thus begins the April A to Z Challenge. A big thanks to challenge founder Arlee Bird for inspiring a legion of bloggers to expand their creative horizons, and for fostering a supportive community where they can also receive encouragement and feedback!

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11 responses to “Appetites

  1. tvonzalezt

    April 1, 2013 at 11:53 PM

    I took my son to an afghan restaurant this past weekend to try and expand his culinary horizons. He didn’t eat much during dinner. Ah well, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

    Popped in from the AtoZ Challenge.

    thriftshopcommando.blogspot.com

     
    • dreaminofobx

      April 4, 2013 at 7:31 PM

      Who knows what foods he’ll end up liking…keep trying! I didn’t have a very exotic culinary background growing up (Chinese food meant chow mein out of a can) but thankfully I maintained a willingness to try anything once, which has served me well living overseas.

       
  2. Janet domino

    April 2, 2013 at 12:46 AM

    Oh so true!

     
  3. chloeaevm

    April 2, 2013 at 1:45 AM

    Oh, the corn on pizza! What good memories. When I lived in Japan, I always found it funny, too, that even when they didn’t “Japanese” the ingredients, the size was always half that of what you might find in an American place. Great post, it reminds me of my time overseas.

     
    • dreaminofobx

      April 4, 2013 at 7:26 PM

      Amazingly, I never felt hungry after eating a Japanese meal with its tiny portions…probably because there were so many items that made up the meal. However, I always got up from the table very, very thirsty…I’ve never seen such tiny glasses of water!

       
  4. sherileec

    April 2, 2013 at 4:07 AM

    I found that to be true in Australia as well, when I lived/visited there in the late ’80s. Not nearly as crazy as what you describe in Japan, but definitely different. I love your specific examples of UK-ized food, too. Makes me want to travel more, go figure!

    Looking forward to your posts in the coming 25 days…

     
  5. lillian888

    April 2, 2013 at 6:44 AM

    I’m always interested in the reality behind the images fostered by travel media and wrong assumptions. Thank you for your wonderfully informed perspective.

     
  6. Ameron

    April 2, 2013 at 2:24 PM

    You can really learn a lot about a culture and its people from the tastes and smells that you find in their kitchens. Don’t believe the packaged product you get from the media machine when it comes to ethnic foods in North America; visit the restaurants run by old school families that keep to their traditional roots. You’ll be glad you did (as you seem to have done yourself).

     
    • dreaminofobx

      April 4, 2013 at 7:15 PM

      I’ve found it’s also important to keep an open mind about food when trying different ethnic dishes. I’m sure you can imagine the inner dialogue in my American brain when I ordered dinner in Korea and was presented with a bowl of rice topped with a pile of raw hamburger and served with a raw egg on the side. “The locals eat this all the time. You are not going to die of food poisoning, you are not going to die, not going to die…”

       
  7. Joe Owens

    April 2, 2013 at 7:42 PM

    Most of us have no clue what the true food of a country can be unless we travel there and get an authentic cook to render their version.

     
    • dreaminofobx

      April 4, 2013 at 7:12 PM

      If I’m looking for true ethnic food in the States, I look for the restaurant with the highest proportion of “native” diners…I figure they’d only eat at places that taste like home. So far, that’s been a fairly reliable way to get pretty authentic food.

       

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