Another Food Blog, Because Me Like Food — Taste Good!

Our teenage daughter and I have this thing we do where we start quizzing each other about food. There is no rhyme or reason to it, other than a shared passion for edible matter, and a chance to talk about food instead of, say, the weather, or what she’s studying in history. She might ask, what are your three favorite vegetables? I might ask, if you could only have one fruit, what would it be? This can go on for 20 or 30 minutes – random food questions, each more specific than the one before.

What’s the best type of chicken (deep fried, barbecued, pan fried, stir fried, roasted, kofta, soup, etc.)?

Would you give up hot sauce to ensure you could aways have potatoes?

What are your five favorite foods that begin with the letter “B?”

These things, we discuss – without irony.

This is what happens when you think about food more than you think about nearly everything else in the world. I am one of those people – and so is she. She is 14 and already a foodie. She can give detailed descriptions of meals she just ate, how the flavors melded with one another, what kinds of herbs and spices were involved, how different taste sensations contributed to the overall experience.

When I was 14 I just plowed right in, capturing small villages of food in a single attack, taking no prisoners. She’s a passionate eater as well, though with the teen luxury of never putting on unwanted weight (damn her!), and with an ever-discerning palate rooted more in a science-based fascination with the flavors than the kind of food snobbery you see in too many self-proclaimed gourmands.

When she is done analyzing one meal she immediately starts thinking about the next one. Before I say good night to her she will often grill me (no pun intended!) on the upcoming meals I have planned as the family cook. I usually plan three or four nights ahead. She thinks maybe I should plan further out.

Our youngest daughter has a discerning palate when it comes to dessert, ice cream, berries, and burgers (oh, and pizza). Go beyond those things, and chances are she’s not that interested (though she does have a thing for steamed and salted edamame). Mom/wife is equally discerning about dessert and sushi, but she has also confessed that if you could take a pill instead of having to eat meals, she might opt for that just to cut down on the time and bother.

But our oldest daughter, like her Dad, has food on the brain. A near obsession. Mealtime is sacred. Meals are the center of any day worth living. Food is not just a matter of sustenance, but a reason for being.

(The fact that too much of the global population lacks even basic food needs, let alone the luxury of choosing what you want to eat, is a shame and a tragedy that the world really needs to get its arms around. It’s a solvable problem that requires preventing waste and developing innovative ideas on how to grow and distribute crops, as I wrote about here and here and here.)

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We’ve been blessed to be exposed to a wide variety of cuisines here in London. On any given week we might dive into food from the UK, France, Italy, Spain, Austria, Greece, Lebanon, Morocco, Japan, Korea, China, Vietnam, Singapore, Germany, the USA, Argentina, India, and Mexico (though truth be told – not enough Mexican).

Traveling around Europe, we always try to make a point of sampling local cuisines. This has expanded the palette and introduced us to foods we might not otherwise have ever tried.

Who knew Danish food could be so inventive and delicious? Who knew that Austria has not one, but two, amazing national dishes: goulash and sausages. I’d had tagines before, but until I ate them in Morocco, I never knew just how awesome they could be. Same with the roasted and pulled pork in Spain. Same with Portuguese ham. Same with rustic Belgian and French stews that involve little more than white beans, root vegetables, and love. Same with corned beef in London (which they call “salt beef,” but never mind).

And then there are the surprises. Very good Mexican meals at restaurants in Edinburgh and Prague. Amazing spaghetti in Lisbon. Killer sushi in Vienna. A great Reuben sandwich in London, along with top-notch Chinese, Korean, and Japanese.

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Sometimes my daughter and I ask each other which cuisine we would choose if we could only have one for the rest of our lives. This is more difficult than you might imagine, because you have to take the long view of eating the same cuisine every day until the hourglass runs out of sand.

Our first instinct is to choose our native cuisine – Italian for Italians, Indian for Indians, Thai for those from Thailand, Peruvian for Peruvians, Ethiopian for Ethiopians, so on and so forth.

For me, that would mean American. This can be problematic because in the United States, you have a potpourri of different cuisines that are not necessarily native to the country. Two of my favorite dishes growing up were spaghetti and lasagna – both of which originated in Italy. Another was Filipino Saifun, which we were lucky enough to be exposed to because our paternal grandfather was Filipino.

If you visit an “American” restaurant in Europe, chances are the focus will be on burgers, hot dogs, barbecue, steak, ribs, and fried chicken (but oddly, no meat loaf). Now, I dig all these foods. But could I eat them every day for the rest of my life? Even if my brain says yes, my heart and other important organs might give me the old tsk tsk tsk.

“Real” American food – the kind that more or less originated there – depends on where you live. I’m from the South, which has gifted the world with all kinds of amazing food, largely because of the influence of slaves who brought their food sensibilities over from Africa, but also because of the influence of English, Scottish, French, and Spanish settlers.

Depending on where in the South you grew up, you might have dined on fried chicken, shrimp, greens, grits, bacon, blackeyed peas, country style steak, fried fish, fried green tomatoes, fried okra, chicken fried steak (lots of fried stuff) – but also Louisiana gumbo and jambalaya, South Carolina lowcountry seafood, Tex-Mex, Florida conch fritters, Virginia ham, Carolina and Memphis barbecue – oh for God sakes, I’m hungry already.

In the Midwest you probably had a lot of meat and potatoes. In New England maybe you had a lot of lobster and boiled dinners. Maryland is renowned for its crab, Kansas City and Chicago for their ribs, California for farm-to-table organic dishes (although LA is home to amazing burgers and tacos). Hawaii has delicious fresh seafood and pulled pork plates. In nearly every big American city you can find at least one Jewish deli that will slay you with its sandwiches and soups. I could go on and on.

Would I choose American as the rest-of-my-life cuisine? Hard to say. Probably. Maybe. But then I could never eat Mexican, Lebanese, Japanese, Italian, Vietnamese or Chinese again, and the prospect of that horrifies me.

If you were to ask which cuisine I crave most often, it’s Mexican. There is something about the flavor profile that hits me deep down in the gullet. I simply get obsessed with it, and because London has few really good Mexican restaurants, I’m left to cook it myself, which is never an adequate substitute for the real thing. But could I eat it every day for the rest of my life? I don’t know.

That’s also the case with Lebanese food, which I also often crave – hummus and pita, kofta, falafel, tabbouleh, shawarma. But I’m not sure I could eat it every single day.

There are times when Indian food is the only thing I want. There are times when canned pineapple is the only thing I want.  

When I’m not feeling particularly hungry, I almost always go with either Japanese or Vietnamese, because they somehow can be both light and delicious at the same time. You leave feeling both satisfied and healthy. The thing is, when I’m famished, I want something else.

Italian is always good, even if it’s just a plate of pasta with a light sauce, maybe fresh basil and tomatoes tossed in, a refreshing salad, and a loaf of warm bread.

But….

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Let’s talk about Chinese cuisine. Is there anything really better than Chinese cuisine? And this is coming from someone who really doesn’t know much about authentic Chinese cuisine, even though I’ve been eating “Chinese” food most of my life.

I grew up on American Chinese cuisine, which is something most people in China probably never eat. A lot of the dishes I grew up on were developed by native Chinese already living in the U.S., who wanted to cater to the American palate.

In America, you find Chow Mein, Orange Chicken, Sesame Chicken, General Tso’s chicken, various others. From what I understand, you will find exactly none of these dishes in China, regardless of whether it’s Szechuan, Cantonese, Hunan, or one of the other regional cuisines there.

A Chinese-American friend once told me there are two menus in American Chinese restaurants – one for Americans, and the other for Chinese. This is probably true of Mexican food as well. The menus for the Chinese are in Mandarin, Cantonese or Hunanese. The ones for Mexicans are in Spanish. For everyone else, it’s in English. Even so…

Man, how good is Chinese food? It’s delicious! It’s diverse! It can be healthy or not – you can choose to eat brown rice and steamed veggies, or you can choose to scarf down a big pile of flavorful meat and fried rice. You can go light on the spice or heavy on it. You can make it hot enough to burn your mouth for days or have it as benign as a glass of water.

There are noodle dishes and rice dishes and veggie dishes and seafood, chicken, pork, beef, and tofu dishes, and some of the most wonderful soups in the world. You can have a hint of curry or a hint of basil or heavy on the ginger and garlic. There are numerous regional dishes, so you never get bored.

When I don’t know what I want to eat, I almost always want Chinese.

So which cuisine would I choose if I could only have one for the rest of my life? Maybe my belly says Chinese and my mind says American. So let’s go with Chinese.

No, American.

No, make it Mexican.

No, Chinese.

No…..

Damn….

Note: In reference to the questions posed early in the blog: 1) barbecued chicken, or fried, or stir fried — oh, I don’t know; 2) No, I would not give up hot sauce to ensure a lifetime of potatoes. I must have hot sauce, like any good Southerner, and I like rice better than potatoes, anyway; 3) My five favorite foods that begin with “B”: bacon, bratwurst, beans (red); bahn mi; brown rice. No, brownies. No, brown rice. No, brownies. No….

Note 2: The photo is of a childhood family holiday dinner. The adults had their own table in the lush dining room, and were served the finest meats and fairest vegetables in all the land. We wee kids ate in a pantry in the basement, dipping leftover bread into muskrat grease. Oh, the shame!

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