[gardeners] Re: Ethnic Foods (long)

Brenda Pink (gardeners@globalgarden.com)
Tue, 28 Jul 1998 23:58:24 -0600

My FIRST real post and it's not even going to be about gardening!

I feel I have a little expertise in this area (real vs. authentic).  My bosses,
whom I've worked for for ten years, are both East Indian.  They are a married
couple, she a Hindu, he Muslim (imagine that!).  As well, my mother is Chinese.

Penny and Liz have both nailed down for the most part the topic.  But here's my
own added experience.  Hindu's are, of course, vegetarian.  And for the most
part they are strict.  My boss (the wife) will often not even eat cakes that
have many eggs in them.  She won't eat soups that are made with boullion, even
though we try to convince her there's no actual beef or chicken in it (after
checking labels).  She won't eat vegetarian burgers or hot dogs.  Her reply to
all is "why would I want to eat something that even LOOKS or TASTES like
meat".  The fact that she is a beef nutritionist is beside the point :)  My
boss (the husband) eats everything but pork.  It's religious reasons.  He also
won't eat the pseudo bacon bits made out of soy product.  You're probably right
in that pork is not good quality in India.  Why should it be?  Virtually nobody
eats it down there anyway - most of the population is either Hindu or Muslim.
Their daughter is being raised, in terms of food, Muslim.  They have decided it
will be the daughter's choice of whether to eat meat or not.  She is now 12 and
is choosing to eat meat (not pork).

The bosses frequently have us over to their place for and Indian buffet.  Since
it is not catered for the millions of restaurant goers, I will assume that what
they serve us is indeed authentic.  I know that except for the odd Indian
restaurant (that in fact THEY have taken us to) I do not see these dishes in
any restaurant that I've been in.  Samosas are like the Chinese egg roll.  They
are authentic and have caught on with the caucasions, so much so that they have
become popular in North American restaurants.  As have a few other dishes.
This does not make them any less authentic.  It simply makes them a "crossover"
food.  About 90% of the dishes we have eaten and been served by the bosses have
been vegetarian.  Dishes containing meat are USUALLY (but not always) a simple
version of the vegetarian dish with meat added.  As someone mentioned, beef,
lamb, and chicken are often used.  My boss also highly enjoys fish.

Most North Americans will not take to the "authentic" Indian cuisine.  As
someone mentioned, this will be mostly due to the fact that they have not
really been exposed to it in any great amount.  And restauranteurs know this
and will indeed cater to serve the greatest number of people.  If this means
taming down or Americanizing the food, so be it.

As a person who is part Chinese I can testify as a fact that 95% of the Chinese
restaurants you go into in North America DO NOT serve Chinese food.  Fact.  No
doubts.  No questions.  It's not to say it isn't good (I don't enjoy it, but
obviously many do).  It just isn't Chinese.  Chop suey is a sloppy version of a
stir fry that most Chinese people won't touch.  And I have not yet seen any
Chinese person fry up an omelet with junk in it (Egg Foo Yung).  And Sweet and
Sour?  Gee, lets take some bones cover them with flour paste, soak in oil for
several minutes and cover with a sauce made with sugar, vinegar and RED food
colour (not necessarily in that order).  Yum.  Yuck I say.  The first clue is
that there's no Chinese name for Sweet and Sour....at least that I know of.
Now, to be fair, some Chinese Restaurants in recent years have finally realized
that the North American  crowd is actually becoming very well travelled, and a
large portion of the population is now demanding authentic food.  You'll find
these restaurants in larger centres, but you may have to know people who can
direct you to them.  Some hints - you can't go by the names of the restaurant -
glamour names like "Golden Dragon", "Jade Palace" often are thought up by
Chinese restauranteurs who have been here awhile and know the North American
psyche, and know how to attract the crowds.  I've been to restaurants such as
the "Foody Goody" where they've served some of the best authentic food I've
had.  And you can't go by how they look.  Some of the best I've been to have
looked like dumpy holes in the wall.  Some of the worst have looked like
palaces.  Here are some clues as to whether you're in an "authentic" Chinese
restaurant or not (any one or more of these may indicate so) - and hey guys,
this is slightly tongue in cheek, but is true:

- are the patrons mainly Chinese and do they speak mainly Chinese?
- does the menu list the Chinese writing first and either not have English, or
it's in small writing next to the Chinese characters?
- is the menu totally devoid of the standard "dinner for four, dinner for six"
- are the majority of waiters/waitresses Chinese or at least oriental?
- if you go for dim sum, is there a huge lineup? (dim sum is a big thing in
Chinese families and is usually the Sunday outing)
- are the tables round instead of square or oblong?
- do they serve duck feet?
- or tripe steamed in a bowl?
- do you have to ask for a fork?
- do they understand what it means when you turn the teapot lid upside down?
- do you have to ask for soy sauce?
- is there a mah jong parlour next door?

And some hints about ordering in authentic Chinese restaurants:
- if you ask what it is and they say "shrimp" don't necessarily believe them -
they've figured out that if they say shrimp, most caucasions will order it (dim
sum mainly)
- don't ask them to pick out something for you - 9 times out of 10 they'll pick
the most Americanized things on their menu - just find some stuff that looks
interesting, live "dangerously" and try it - you never know, you might just
like duck's feet
- if you go with a group, one dish per person will probably be sufficient food,
more will just give you variety
- dim sum can be one of the cheapest meals around - we've had a virtual buffet
for 12 for as little as $50 total bill - and dim sum is great, you get to look
at it before you order, if you try it and don't like it, you're usually out
less than $1, and if you REALLY like it, you can get more when it comes around
again - and sometimes you get to eat dessert first!
- if you go to an authentic dim sum place, be prepared to wait in line, know
that you have to approach the hostess or the desk and either take an number or
give your name, and practice up on your Chinese numbers, or learn how to listen
for you name as it is mispronounced with a strong Chinese accent - the numbers
are easier!
- the more people you have ordering with you, the cheaper it is - you'll often
see groups of (Chinese) people who may not even know each other joining up just
to make the meal more varied and cheaper (ha-ha, and also because sometimes the
bigger tables open up first!)
- knocking on the table means "thank-you" but even most waiters/waitresses
won't know this unless they have a royal upbringing
- if you don't have an authentic restaurant in your area, you can usually order
"off menu" if you can gain audience with the chef - almost all Chinese
restaurants will do this for friends and relatives and it's not a well known
fact - the problem is, you have to know what to order (try phoning up in
advance if you prefer, so that they'll have the ingredients in)
- oh and, turning the teapot lid upside down means your teapot is empty and
you'd like it refilled

Brenda, Lethbridge

- who's looking forward to some authentic Chinese in Calgary this weekend and
who also thanks Penny for the kimchi recipe, I love the stuff!