井底之蛙

12/13/2008

A Gweilo’s culinary opinion

Filed under: — gina @ 10:36 am

A somewhat humorous article from Hong Kong cites a recent restaurant review from Michelin Guide and a complaint against it by a prominent Macau chef. The chef challenges the fairness of the review because the reviewers were mostly foreigners and, by nature, foreigners can’t be accurate in their review of Chinese restaurants. The chef argued: “如外國人愛吃臭芝士,香港人未必喜歡;我們的腐乳,外國人不會喜歡!四川 的麻辣,他們更受不了which roughly translates as “while foreigners love stinky cheeses, Hong Kong people do not particularly care for them; as for our fermented tofu, foreigners could not possibly like it! And as for Sichuan’s spices, they can’t handle it!” Their arguments also continued with claims that foreigners care more about environment and service, and that foreigners could not understand the Hong Kong concept of , which values small side street restaurants that may not necessarily have a famous name attached.

I was reading this with another Hong Kong friend, and we both agreed there they do have a point. If Chinese people attempted to review restaurants in France, I believe the French culinary community would make a similar argument. And when I read the part about preserved tofu, I made a face that gave away my disgust, and my friend argued “see! There isn’t a Hong Kong person who doesn’t love that stuff!” Similarly, part of a restaurant review, at least in America, has to consider service, and those of us who have spent a lot of time in China know that service means quick, impersonal, and as 热闹as possible.

In some ways this argument reminds me of the former Japanese argument that they can’t eat American beef because their bodies are fundamentally different from everyone else. Language points to this. While foreigners could not possibly like preserved tofu (不會喜歡) Hong Kong people just plain don’t particularly care for stinky cheeses (未必喜歡). Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but I believe that the latter represents a measured dislike that still maintains the ability to be objective while the former sounds like a child being forced to eat broccoli. This stems from a larger sense of laowai (or in this case gweilo) inability to fully understand and appreciate Chinese culture (just like American beef can’t possibly work well with Japanese bodies). Apparently this stereotype has now made a pass at our tastebuds as well.

11 responses to “A Gweilo’s culinary opinion”

  1. Part of the problem with the Michelin guide is that it’s not aimed at locals: it’s an entirely appropriate description aimed at foreigners.

    This kind of in-group/out-group food stuff goes on everywhere: ask a Texan about chili, or a Seattlean about coffee….

    The standard entertainment in Japan is to ask foreigners whether they’ve tried natto — a strong-smelling, gelatinous fermented soy bean — and to find our reactions to the stuff quite amusing. Like you, though, many Japanese don’t actually like it, either: it’s mostly a western Japanese thing, and even there it’s as much a matter of pride as taste.

  2. slowboat says:

    the chef could be entirely right and still be wrong. that is, foreigners may generally not like fermented tofu or authentically spiced Sichuanese; but the guide’s reviews weren’t written by or for foreigners with general tastes.

    conflating the exceptional individual with the generalized whole is both a common fallacy and a popular rhetorical device; especially in greater China.

  3. If he’s going to raise Sichuan’s spice, perhaps somebody should remind this idiot chef where chilli comes from?

  4. Matt says:

    We saw the exact same reaction in Japan when the first edition of the Tokyo Michelin guide came out last year (?). I remember that even some French restaurateurs refused to participate because they did not feel that a French panel could properly judge Japanese French cuisine.

    Also, no-one in Japan seriously believes that American beef doesn’t go into Japanese bodies. The only people pushing that line are those with a vested interest in keeping US beef out of the country. (That’s not to say that people here aren’t anti-US beef — a lot of them are — but it’s based on far more reasonable fears about the US beef industry’s dubious standards and tendency to export lots that include bits of spine and brain.)

  5. Tom says:

    “If Chinese people attempted to review restaurants in France, I believe the French culinary community would make a similar argument.”

    This is probably true, and it would still be sour grapes then.
    Given that Chou Chong made her name with Western fusion cooking, this is particularly ironic coming from her.

    It’s also worth mentioning that the specific criticisms (e.g. no Chinese reviewers, no street food) aren’t actually borne out by the book as published. But if you’re the owner of a less well-reviewed restaurant, I suppose that doesn’t matter.

  6. Kellen says:

    in china every little village is famous for something. here it’s pickled vegetables. in nanjing it was duck blood. i firmly believe this started as one-upsmanship and has since turned into some other form of local pride. as it was said that few japanese actually like the stuff, i hear the same from chinese about 臭豆腐 which, with some spice, i actually do like.

    i completely agree with chriswaugh_bj on the spice issue. further i’m also often told that milk does in fact make your skin whiter and soy sauce darker if you’re chinese because afterall their bodies are much much different than everyone elses.

  7. J B says:

    What’s he talking about? I LOVE mala and doufu ru!
    I think another thing going on here is an Asian belief in the uniqueness of one’s own country- Japanese/ Chinese/ Korean culture is just too different and deep for foreigners to understand.

  8. gina says:

    To be honest, when I first posted this I didn’t know what the Michelin guide was. It makes sense that it is made especially for foreigners. But the reason I found it interesting is that I read into it (as did my HK friend) the same thing that JB did, this cultural arrogance. But as others have posted, when it comes to culinary specialties, there is often cultural arrogance. But I do think the cultural arrogance stems from this sense of uniqueness in East Asia (like JB says) and this is just one example of it. What points to that more is the quote in the article that foreigners CANNOT understand the Hong Kong (a specifically Cantonese phrase) concept of looking for side street restaurants. Actually, most locals in a region follow that same concept; real New Yorkers like mom and pop coffee, not Starbucks.

    And I do know plenty of foreigners who can handle mala (I’m not one of them) and plenty of Chinese people who can’t. Oh well.

  9. Ailian says:

    I know many Hong Kong people who hate stinky tofu, along with many Mainlanders. (Just as I know many Japanese people who hate nattou.) At least stinky tofu has some character — most dishes in Hong Kong, including those in little street shops — are terribly bland and oily. Too bad the increase of Mainland residents hasn’t brought better food down to Hong Kong.

    That said, I adore Japanese French cuisine, and do wish that we could get it in Hong Kong….

  10. J Chan says:

    As you are asking whether you are reading too much into this, I can say that you probably are because the rough translation you gave is as you say rough. Try the following as a translation:

    “If foreign people like eating their smelly cheeses, the people of Hong Kong perhaps might not enjoy the same. By the same token, foreigners will not like our fermented bean-curd.”

  11. E Tam says:

    Well I disagree with Mr/Mrs/Miss. Chan. I think the author’s translation, while more grumpy, is more accurate. As a Hong Konger, that’s a comment from a grumpy chef, in which I have heard the same opinion many times throughout the past month on radios and newspaper. It’s a grumpy comment, and not as well phrased, or benign as translate.

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