Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A Trivial Pursuit?

One of the common discussions in expat or foodie forums and blogs worldwide is the availability of ethnic cuisines in whichever city in question; where could one find authentic Hungarian food in New York, or are there good restaurants other than Italian ones in Tuscany, etc? Indeed, the same questions are being asked by expats and local foodies worldwide everyday.

I was reading with interest a forum hosted by the Good Living section of Sydney Morning Herald in search of good Mexican restaurants in their city, already packed with great restaurants across cultures. It generated keen response and some heated debates; the interesting part for me was that I recognised the same vibes as any other forum or blog across the world where any cuisine is being discussed by a group of people drawn from all walks of life.

The conclusion is always that recommendations are based on personal experiences which are completely subjective; they should never be fully relied upon. Further, many seem to be of the opinion that there is no authentic cuisine outside of the land where it originates.

Being an expat with a keen interest in food, I have been giving this matter a lot of thought, not limiting to my own immediate needs within Buenos Aires but whether fellow expats and foodies in other parts of the world are suffering the same unfulfilled cravings.

First of all, I think it is a bitter-sweet curse to be a foodie which means one is going to place much higher importance on food than the average Joe. He/she is more exigent not only with the quality of the ingredients but probably their authenticity and provenance; and that's just the painful start.
Foodies are going to differentiate real chefs from the ethnic immigrants who are just trying to make a living cooking whatever they could come up with. In any culture, there are ones who can cook and others who are clueless; a Mexican/Chinese/Japanese cooking in the kitchen does not necessarily make his/her food quality authentic cuisine. All in all, foodies are less likely to be pleased by the standard deemed acceptable by others.

When I visited my gourmand friend in Tokyo one late spring, he and his charming Japanese American wife organised a week of gourmet ventures; earthy tonkatsu (fried food, usually succulent and thick pork cutlets), feather-light tempura, twilight visits to the Tsukiji fish market for the freshest sashimi, even an impressive ten-course Kaseiki banquet which resembled art more than food.

However, the greatest impression made on me was a humble pile of soba noodles served on a bamboo mat in a small noodle shop packed with locals. I have had soba many times over in my life but that particular pile was different. Upon my first bite, I asked my learned friend what was added to the dough. It turned out that I was very much in luck; it was the limited season of yuzu (a citrus native to Japan) so the chef was offering a special soba made with yuzu zest for that week only.

With such culinary experiences under my belt, I won't be able to declare any of the Japanese restaurants in Buenos Aires exceptional but it doesn't mean I avoid Japanese food here and it would certainly be unfair of me to say none of the restaurants are any good.

I just stick to the few decent bits they offer and ignore the rest; in short, I put these Japanese restaurants within the local context, I wouldn't hold much hope for Genmaicha to be served after my sashimi and sushi platter but I'm not going to be too disappointed with Green Hill's té verde. My only gripe about Japanese restaurants in BA is their more than liberal use of Philadelphia cream cheese – it has no place in any self-respecting Japanese restaurant at all!

I adopt a similar pragmatism towards other Asian cuisines offered in this city. I have had some success with Korean food when approached with this mindset. Chinese restaurants, however, are really the worst. They all have almost identical menu, only listing plebeian dishes because those sell easily.

Quality Chinese restaurants outside of Asia need an affluent Chinese population to make them feasible business ventures because some of the ingredients can be mighty difficult to obtain outside of Asia and very expensive to stock. Further, most foreign patrons know little about the distinctive regional offerings within the authentic cuisine to ask for any dish other than the proverbial.

The only places where great Chinese restaurants are found; and I specifically mean those as authentic and exacting as the very best in Asia, are located in San Francisco, Vancouver, Toronto, Melbourne and Sydney. All of these cities have a significant middle class and above Chinese population. London and New York have made tremendous and impressive improvements over the last ten years but my criteria are being deliberately stringent.

Moving away from Asian food, both Guillermo and I yearn for a hearty rhubarb crumble and other gastro pub grub from England. I also miss modern Australian cooking which draws inspiration from its multi-cultural population and bountiful produce. Hence, we are realistic that these dishes simply cannot be replicated in Buenos Aires as the required ingredients are lacking.

I think the search for authentic ethnic cuisines is a futile effort but if we look on the bright side, food really doesn't have to be authentic to be good. Food made from the freshest and choicest ingredients, cooked by people who know what they are doing has my thumb up any day.

The Australian gastro mega star Tetsuya Wakuda, who ranks along side Hestor Blumenthal of The Fat Duck and El Bulli's Ferran Adria as the world's best, is most famous for his confit of Tasmanian ocean trout with konbu, daikon and fennel and his restaurant's sublime degustation menu. This is a much less well know recipe from his early and humble days, it's easy but the result still fabulous.

Slow Cooked Confit of Chicken:

2 poussin (spring chicken) split in half
1 bottle of dry white wine
2 tbsp salted capers, rinsed and drained
20 black olives, pitted
4 cloves of garlic, sliced
A few tablespoons of oregano
100 ml olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 tbsp chopped parsley
Preheat the oven to 200°C. Place the chicken halves into a baking dish skin side up. Pour over wine until the liquid reaches half way up the side of the birds. Add water if you don’t have enough wine to get up to this level.

Scatter over the capers, olives, garlic and herbs, season with salt and pepper and drizzle over the oil. Cook for 60 – 80 minutes and baste a few times with the liquid, until the skin is dark golden brown. Serve with some of the olives, capers and herbs scattered over and garnish with parsley and some of the juices.

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