JUST A STORY
The Ramen Marauder and I sat down for dinner the other night for a simple vermicelli noodle salad I made. I chopped the lettuce, poached the noodles, seasoned the ground pork with ground pepper, ginger, and garlic, and cooked it with a short mixture of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and garlic oil - just enough to prevent it from tasting plain, but adding no significant flavor.
I assembled our bowls with lettuce, noodles, and ground pork. The rest was laid out on the table: chopped cucumbers, chopped carrots, chopped cilantro, chopped mint, lime slices, fish sauce, hoisin, sriracha, sesame oil, cashews. As we both finished dressing our dinner bowls, I realized that this process must seem intimidating to anyone who isn't familiar with Vietnamese food.
How many people really know what they like? I mean, really understand what they like, from sweet to salty to sour to funk? Asian food requires a sense of self that not everyone has. It can be taught, sure, but it's not something many restaurants take the time to teach, right?
Most western cuisines cook complete dishes and serve the food as it should be eaten. Any self-proclaimed food expert will tell you that you won't find salt and pepper on tables at nice restaurants because the chef has already seasoned the dish, and you're expected to eat it accordingly.
But what about Asian restaurants?
To start, so many westerners don't have the taste bud vocabulary to comprehend everything that Asian food offers. The most adventurous ingredient I've found in European cookbooks is anchovies in order to add a hint of salt and a suggestion of umami. This may be why we see chicken at Asian restaurants fried to a point beyond recognition, then slathered in a sauce that has no business being the focal point of a dinner entree. Or why Chinese cuisine looks so different from country to country, incorporating the local palette into the recipes. Maybe it's why Thai restaurants seem to lack variation, offering the same yellow, red, and green curries with your choice of protein.
These cuisines are not simple. It would appear that restaurants assume the consumer is simple - but can you blame them? It seems that those who can't (or won't) enjoy Asian food don't have the culinary confidence to appreciate it, and restaurants don't usually have the time to teach consumers how to eat it. Asian cuisine displays a sense of otherness that many people are afraid to approach.
But the real twist here is that Asian food can be yours. It is yours. Asian restaurants create the foundation of your meal, but you are in charge. You are given the tools to make your meal great - maybe you just need to learn how to use them.
Is this something you want me to write more about? Do you have any requests or suggestions? Let me know in the comments!