Restaurant Review - United we dine
Good food dissolves cultural boundaries when approached with curiosity and respect
Last September, during a month in Sevilla in Southern Spain, I went to more than 20 performances that were part of the Bienal de Flamenco. This particular festival attracted a huge number of people from Japan. I was told repeatedly that flamenco is something of a fad in Japan and I speculate that its foot-hammering, wailing form is attractive to the Japanese precisely because it is so radically different from their own usual reserved style.
One night, at a particularly duende-soaked midnight performance, several Japanese in the audience broke into the spontaneous cry of "Ole!" that marks the moment when a singer or dancer has, through sheer energy and beauty, dislodged something in your own being. The cry, derived from the name of Allah, spontaneously arises from your gut. Problem is, this "ole," of course, came out more like "O-ray."
Almost immediately, half the international audience was shouting "O-ray! O-ray!" Down on the stage, the dancer began pounding the stage furiously with her feet, bending at the waist, throwing the long train of her dress around, her jaw clenched. Then she threw up a hand that brought a moment of silence from the instrumentalists and other dancers, her lips in a blissful expectant smile. Instantly, the entire courtyard of the Triana broke into the sound of "O-ray!" The full moon above jumped back.
It was a moment, and one for me that happily continued. I ended up at a tapas bar after the performance with a group of Japanese women, none of whom spoke English or Spanish. It rather astonishes me now that I spent more than two hours with people with whom I had no language in common.
We pantomimed, sang and "oohed" and "ahhed" over the wonderful cuisine of Andalucia. The chef came out and jabbered in the rapid-fire Spanish of his region. Nobody understood a word. To show our gratitude, we ordered more of his food. An Italian friend, something of a human jukebox, stopped by and sang ABBA songs to us. The chef rewarded him with more food.
Good food, like music, has this capacity. It absolutely dissolves boundaries of language and nationality, but at the same time allows you to experience a deep sense of "otherness." To dine on the food of another culture with curiosity and respect is to partake of a kind of communion by which your humanity is graced and enlarged. After more than 10 years of "professional feasting," I've come to believe this as deeply as the characters in Like Water for Chocolate believe food can communicate unspoken passions.
Of course, America does live in a paradox in this respect. On the one hand, no country in the world has such ethnic diversity. The French, for all their culinary fascination, are not very diverse outside Paris. (One wonders if they gifted us with the Statue of Liberty, that symbol of immigration, to encourage their own minorities to leave.) The Dutch have their Indonesian rice tables. The Brits like Indian. But, honestly, no other country in the world celebrates multiculturalism as we do, and it is to the U.S.A. where everyone, including the French, come when their class is a liability at home.
On exactly the other hand, however, we see ourselves as a "melting pot." We have ethnic and racial diversity, we pride ourselves on it, but we long have tended to demand assimilation. You are welcome to America, as long as you adopt the values and tastes of the dominant culture. (And if you don't, you will be ghettoized or, as in New York, choose to be ghettoized to preserve your authenticity.)
Of course, our comparative isolation long made homogenization of taste possible. Outside large urban areas with huge ethnic neighborhoods, like New York and Chicago, Americans remained basically xenophobic for most of the 20th century. World War II probably initiated the biggest change in that respect. American soldiers returned from Europe and Asia better educated in copulation and eating, and the country began to press its pleasure boundaries a bit in the '50s. But it was the '50s, the time when we especially wanted to cherish the ideal of diversity but all be barbecuing burgers with our one true love in the backyard anyway.
Minorities complied with the demand that they minimize their differences when they brought them into contact with the dominant culture. So, we really did think chow mein and eggroll with the texture of stone was important Chinese food. We really did think Mexican food was chili con carne basically poured into an over-sized Frito with bottled jalapeño peppers. Nobody told us that Italian food didn't have to be noodles with hamburger-meat sauce and parmesan cheese with the flavor and texture of powdered sawdust, or that there was more to fancy French food than onion soup and crépes.
The taste for such garbage remains. But in the last 20 years, the last 10 in particular, there has been a revolution in our national character, including our cuisine — one that celebrates difference as much as sameness. We have begun to see that we can incorporate many differences without sacrificing our shared agendas as Americans. Part of this is really philosophical. Despite many people's reflexive condemnation of postmodern thinkers, including edgier academic feminists, the fact is that difference is more respected than ever. At the absurd end you get programs in Ebonics, and at the authentic end you get Americans playing with their differences, experimenting with new cuisines, blending them without losing their character.
Many Atlantans don't even realize that they live in a city that, a few years ago, anyway, had the nation's highest number of restaurants per capita. For a while, ethnic restaurants were ghettoized in "Chambodia" — the Chamblee area of Buford Highway. Now, though, they are everywhere — in Marietta and in south Atlanta. Even Buckhead, the white ghetto, now has plenty of ethnic choices. One of America's best Japanese chefs owns Soto in Buckhead.
I would like to offer some advice about ethnic dining. First, always treat it as an adventure — a way of stretching yourself. Neurobiology has demonstrated that the more you do this, the more your taste enlarges and, by analogy, the more your capacity for tolerance and real enjoyment of what is different increases. If this isn't important to you, you should move back to Switzerland. (Just kidding!)
Instead of being intimidated by the language barrier, crash your head against it. You can point; you can use your body. Like stretching yourself to eat jellyfish braised with nida, the effort to stretch your capacity to communicate pays big. Most restaurants, in any case, have someone present who speaks pretty good English.
Realize that Bien Thuy isn't Houston's, please. Everything isn't going to taste the same every time. So you might ask, "What's good?" And then bide your time. The food comes when it's prepared, typically, not in a pattern that suits the usual American sense of service. Also, many ethnic cuisines are meant to be shared. So order with that in mind.
In my experience, all of the ethnic restaurants are deeply welcoming of people outside their own ethnicity. Sometimes, the language barrier makes employees seem brusque or elusive. But I do think there is a sense of hospitality that is deeper and more genuine in many of these restaurants. That means that you, in turn, might want to practice a bit of humility. Please don't point at the jellyfish, hold your nose and make barfing sounds. After all, you, gentle diner, grew up eating Big Macs and Tater Tots.