I started writing this post in June, but never finished it. I thought the moment had passed, but a conversation with my dear fellow food nerd Tammi about her PhD thesis brought the original article to mind, and when I read it again I was still pissed off. I’ve edited it a bit here and there.
The article is “Saucing the best”, written by Necia Wilden in The Weekend Australian Magazine on May 30-31.
For those scoffophiles who’ve had their head under a giant jamon for the last
couple of several months, Wilden and John Lethlean have taken over the food and wine chairs at The Weekend Australian Magazine. I’ve stopped getting the Weekend Australian regularly – I almost never buy a dead tree newspaper anymore – but have checked out a few of the issues since the Food & Wine relaunch.
There’s potential for a beefed-up F&W section in a weekend broadsheet daily to really sing – but it will take more than I”ve seen so far. There was quite a bit of fanfare around the first edition, including a cover shot of Wilden and Lethlean, but it’s hard to work out who the section is trying to appeal to. The part I liked best was the double page focus on a particular ingredient, but I’m yet to see it repeated in the section. (Updated – still haven’t seen it again, but I’ve pretty much given up on it. I wonder if the new Simon Thomsen/Matt Preston section “taste” in the News Ltd tabloids on Tuesdays will be any better?)
The article rankled, but the reason why took some time to percolate through (updated: however the depth of the rankle proved long-lasting, as it turns out) It begins by saying that Ms Wilden’s Asian cooking has passable technique and execution but suffers because she can’t access the top drawer ingredients she uses to cook more familiar ie, European, food. Fr’instance, for Italian, she buys “the best”:
“costly extra virgin olive oil, Ortiz anchovies, imported durum-wheat pasta .. you name it, if it achieves a great result I buy it”.
She doesn’t mention how she learned to cook Italian food or where she buys her Italian delights, but it’s certainly a bit more glam than the Asian grocery, which is mysterious, confusing, and probably poisonous:
“I’m faced with row after row, jar after jar of anonymous muck loaded with sugar, preservaties, artificial colours, MSG and other culinary horrors. It’s odd how so many people seem to turn a blind eye to the truth about the staples of the Asian larder.”
Isn’t that creepy!
“I don’t know why food writers and chefs who should know better tell us to use hoisin sauce in our Asian cooking. Have you checked the ingreedients list on a bottle of standard hoisin lately? Or a bottle of so-called oyster sauce, for that matter?”
Well, inquiring minds and all, let’s see what’s in the fridge. A bottle of Tung Chun Hoi Sin sauce from Hong Kong, which lists these ingredients:
What’s the scariest sounding bit, maybe that “E129” there? It’s a red food colouring, Allura Red AC, the “E” indicating it’s approved in the EC. According to Wikipedia, it’s banned in a number of European countries, and approved for use in food, drink and medicines in the US.
Here’s the ingredients list on the Lee Kum Kee Premium Oyster Sauce:
Not knowning that this brand was the one recommended by Tony Tan “if you must buy oyster sauce”, I picked this brand for the excellence of the label:
If you chose to completely avoid artificial additives, colourants, etc, you won’t want to eat this stuff. If MSG has a nasty effect on you, as it does on some people, ditto. I certainly don’t have any a box of MSG in the cupboard, but personally I have no difficulty with small infrequent amounts of it. Barbara Fisher of Tigers and Strawberries has a post about it here.
Eventually Wilden gets to the nitty-gritty:
“Let’s cut to the chase. In a country where I can buy jamon made from pigs fed on acorns, real buffalo mozzarella, parmigiano-reggiano, carnaroli rice and single-origin coffee, why and I still only dreaming about their premium Asian equivalents?”
“It’s a minefield even for Asians … (says Tony Tan, man of impeccable credentials in respect of both food and personal Asian-ness)… This is a relief to hear, because so far in our tour the usually simple act of identifying the right product has involved so many bizarre clues and riddles I’m starting to feel like Tom Hanks in a Chinese remake of The Da Vinci Code.”
(Updated – as the months have passed the usefulness of twitter has become more obvious for those who lack (or have temporarily misplaced?) “an Asian friend” – there are a huge number of food bloggers and tweeters, particularly in Sydney, who either have Asian heritage or are extremely knowlegeable about Asian food. Twitter operates so often as a gift economy, and I have found people I’ve developed online relationships with really helpful with the round-eye questions – lookin’ at @stickyfingers and @thatjessho here in particular.)
I don’t have a problem with food snobbery, but while here it’s dressed up as a cry for excellence it’s standing on the shoulders of white bourgie entitlement. It sets up European food traditions as normal, and Asian food traditions as deviant. What if it’s more than a case of you say vanilla, and I say pandan?
She does provide some pointers, of course –
“It is possible to find good quality in Asian supermarkets here, You just have to know where – and how – to look.”
That’s putting the cart before the horse. To my mind, what you need to do is buy and taste. When I started learning more about Asian food, I never finished a bottle of soy sauce, fish sauce, any bloody thing without having another ready to go in the cupboard. Not out of some freaky survivalist mentalitity, but out of a desire to educate my palate and learn. If the soy sauce was nearly finished, I opened the new, different bottle. I poured some into little glass saucers and tasted, sniffed, looked. I asked Owy to do the same, and we talked about what we sensed and thought.
The article suggests that you buy fish sauce with “Nhi” on the label, which “means first-pressed and is a designation of high quality. Aha! The extra virgin olive oil of fish sauces.”
Did you know there’s three other methods for working out the good fish sauces? (1) choose a bottle wrapped in plastic. If you peer through the plastic, you’ll see the magic “Nhi” on the label. (2) Choose a bottle that costs more than $3. (3) Ask the shop attendant.
It’s this last one that’s the sticking point, innit? Christ knows I’ve bumbled my way around enough different tiny bloody grocery shops of one flavour or another to know. In general, if you’re keen and polite and have a specific question, people will help you where they can. But they might not know the name of that handsome shiny dark green leaf in English, having never had need to call it by its English name before. It’s nothing to get cut about, or feel your sense of entitlement under threat – in general it’s just a fact of life dealing with a small low profit margin business run by people who work really hard.
(Updated – of course that whole discussion of fish sauce is now moot, a white guy having decided to bring us the best fish sauce available to humanity. Haven’t tried it yet, as I haven’t seen it in any of the places I shop.)
Part of the problem Wilden sees is that we don’t have a “one-stop, upmarket Eastern shop, no Simon Johnson of Asian ingredients“. It’s part of her problem, anyway, because she might live close enough to where it might be profitable to locate that shop. Unless there’s some kind of “trickle down” culinary effect she anticipates, the rest of us are left shopping at whatever little Asian grocery we can find near us. Much better to teach people to taste, to eat, to read and to trust their palates than to tell them to hold fast for announcements from on high.
The article makes me shitty enough to write a response to it
a many months later because it’s something I really care about. I want people to love, and understand and cook Asian food at home. I want them to know the excitement of coming home with a bag full of stuff that they don’t understand yet, and coming to understand it. I don’t want people like Wilden to take all the risk, iniative and excitement out of learning about ingredients from an Asian grocery store. It’s not like you’re paying the prices that get asked for acorn-fed jamon, after all.
While it’s a low-cost high-return activity it’s important not to be stingy, as I mentioned in an earlier article about demystifying Asian ingredients – for example, buy the relatively expensive paler dried shiitakes with lovely cracks across the top of the cups instead of the dark, tight brown ones. They cost about four times as much by volume, which is still, frankly, bugger all for what you’re getting.
I spend hugely on food, a lot of it organic, artisan-made, etc, etc – so if I’ve got a problem with this stuff I’m guessing Wilden’s on pretty shaky ground. I think she wants to be, actually, as the article ends:
“And will I get accusations of elitism from some? Of course.”
I don’t have a problem with culinary elitism, but the average journalism and exclusivist underpinnings of the whole article are a killer.
I suppose you can’t criticise an article for not acheiveing something it didn’t set out to do. But what it did set out to do is provide guidance to entitlement-minded foodies who need to be told what to think. There’s as much trickery and marketing guff in Asian food items as there is anywhere else. Look at things carefully – as Tony Tan points out in the article, one golden pagoda Shao Xing wine is great, two golden pagodas is crap. You should investigate and draw your own conclusions.