I had visitors again at work.
This time it was Martin who is a Project Manager from our office in Toronto. He is here to explore the feasibility of joining our project team which is short of PMs. Although our project teams are scattered around in Atlanta, London, Singapore, New Delhi and Vancouver, we had never had a PM sitting remote from all team members. Frankly, I don’t know how one could manage a project that way despite all the communications technology and all. I had always maintained that no video or web conference facilities in the world will replace face to face meetings.
Anyway, it was two solid days of meetings and planning that the three PMs had. At least we managed to arrive at agreements in many key issues. I must say that the meetings were somewhat contentious because there are a lot of interests that each of us PMs need to protect. At the end of the grueling meetings, we decided to put work behind and go out for dinner. I was determined NOT to talk anymore about work.
I wanted to bring Martin and Gage to an Asian restaurant. Both of them are as white and despite being Canadians do not have a lot of experience eating Asian. While I played safe by bringing my boss to a French restaurant, with these colleagues I could be more adventurous and get away with it. LOL!
I brought the PMs to the Top Gun Hot Pot which is located at the top floor of Crystal Mall. It was perfect because just a short walk from the office.
One thing that I had not quite figured out is why non-Asians generally do not enjoy Asian food. I know I am generalizing here but just humor me for a moment. I do find that non-Asians are suspicious about Chinese and Korean food. However, I find that they are more receptive to Thai and Japanese food. Why is it so?
With Gage and Martin, they are the type of people who will not normally walk into a Chinese restaurant, let alone going to a Hot Pot place. So I asked them about it but did not quite get the answer I understand. They did say that it is the texture of some Asian food that puts them off.
It is their first time going to a Hot Pot restaurant so they were really intrigued with things that I had always taken for granted. For instance, they were quite amazed with the heating surface for the hot pot which could bring the hot pot to boil in seconds.
The ordering was all left to me. To be kind to them, I ordered all the “safe” food (see selection above). I stayed away from ordering things like large intestines, kidneys, liver, tendon, pig’s blood and tripe.
Oh yeah, they did ask me what I ordered but I told them to … leave the selection to me and not to ask what is being served. “Just eat and enjoy”, I told them.
Top Gun’s Hot Pot is $22 on weekdays and $23 on weekends. However, the soup base is extra at around $8. The soup base is not calculated per person but per table.
I ordered the combo soup base with one side of Szechuan Spicy Soup and the other Chicken Broth.
What I like about Top Gun’s Hot Pot is their condiments and sauces. They brought the cart over for us to select.
I love condiments and sauce this way. I did not even care what each of them are as there are a lot that I selected. Surprisingly both Gage and Martin piled it on too like me. I would have thought they would be conservation by selecting a couple of safe ones … like soya sauce and parsley! That was a good start.
The above are the food I ordered. Not too bad right? They are all safe food.
It turned out great. Both Gage and Martin enjoyed it a lot. I am surprised that they actually liked the spicy Szechuan soup. The soup was not too spicy actually, especially when all the meat goes into it. At the end of the meal, Gage told us … “you know, I could sit here the whole night eating this”.
We did quite well too because we hardly talked about work the whole time.
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sounds like you did a great job playing host ben. well done!
He he he. Thanks Jason. I really enjoy playing host and showing people what Vancouver has to offer. It makes me happy to see people enjoying themselves.
I don’t think that hot pot is very well known to Westerners. I don’t know why not — it is very accessible to Western tastes, I think.
I’ve had it twice in the last 6 months. We all had a lot of fun adding the ingredients to the pots and fishing them out with the little baskets. We really liked the meats, but the tripe was not a favorite. I think the chewy/crunchy texture is something we don’t eat much, plus it really didn’t have flavor of its own to contribute. The all-you-can-eat meats were a huge hit with my crowd…
The Hong Kong Bistro in the International District in Seattle was really good. I want to get back there! My HK student friends now have the utensils to make hot pot at home, which they say is the best way to have it. That’s what they fixed for their Moon Festival dinner a week or so ago. There are markets around Seattle like Ranch 99 where you can get the meat sliced for hot pot.
I think that’s the main thing about Westerners and Asian food. We’re not really familiar with the ingredients, how to buy them, or how to use them. So we don’t really know what to appreciate or even order sometimes in a restaurant. We can learn a few words of French or Spanish to manage a menu, but if a menu is written in characters it is impossible to figure out. I do know how to order dim sum basics in Cantonese — and was once told I speak Cantonese beautifully (ha! I only know dim sum names, and “thank you” !)
We also don’t know all the issues between the various people groups, and don’t want to look like rubes by using a Chinese name with Koreans, or a Japanese thing with Filipinos, etc. From talking to students I know there are a lot of regional “turf” issues. My solution is to use a traveling student as a guide, and ask a lot of questions.
I have had a lot of fun getting to know the various cuisines but I am only just barely able to get along without a guide.
I like your perspective on this question. You know, someday when we get down to Seattle, we should meet up over dinner or something. We sure have a lot to learn from you. Ben
Hey that would be fun. It isn’t very far — come down for a quick trip sometime.
I will be going up there during Christmas break. I think. I have a group of kids who want to check “Canada” off their list for the year.
Interesting observation about non-Asians. I on the contrary have had the reverse happen to me. I am very interested in all types of Asian food but find most Asian people very reluctant to show a “whitey” the ropes, so to speak.
Seriously Ann. I would be delighted to show anyone “the ropes” of Asian cuisine. I think it is such an adventure trying out “action” food such as hot pot, Korean BBQ. I would organize chow sessions if there is anyone interested.
I myself love every Asian cuisine I’ve tried (Japanese, Cantonese, Szechuan, Vietnamese, Korean, Shanghai, Punjabi, Pakistani, Lebanese, Syrian, South Indian…) – East and West Asian, that is. However, to answer your questions based on my own experiences and those of friends (and those I’ve tried to convince to try book-tripe!):
First, reasons why people are unnerved:
1. Media scaremongering. There’s the recall freak-outs all the time, plus every bad comedy involving Asia inevitably has the Asian character eating something uncommon or gross to the western palette.
2. Unfamiliarity. Organ meats are classically foods of the poor, and since most Westerners have had the privilege of being relatively wealthy (and developing cheap, processed food early on), those foods are not appealing to the young. On a related note, those of us who are the children of the baby-boomers or the grandchildren or children of those who lived through the Great Depression had to hear, growing up, terror stories about organ meats and a number of other things, so that adds to the issue. Also, alot of Northern European cuisine that came over with our ancestors was very, very bland, so to many the pungent smells of Asian cuisine are as offputting to Westerners (at first) as the smell of cooking pork is to alot of Asians (I seem to recall reading that there’s a word in some Chinese dialects for the smell of boiled pork?)
3. Looking Silly – chopsticks are a bit of a learning curve, and people worry about making a fool of themselves, especially when thinking of…
4. Price – it’s not immediately evident to alot of Westerners that that $20 they see is for a family to share the dish, as Western restaurants (beyond some Amish ones in the Eastern US) are not communal in nature. Most Westerners do not realize that 3 dishes for a family of 4 with rice comes to an economical $10-15 per person most of the time, and possibly much less. Those who do know this will tend to want to go in groups and might not want to look silly per #3.
And now the issues that are not so much the people’s fault:
It can be a bit frightening to have a poorly-translated or badly translated menu, especially for would-be new folks. To their credit, most Asian restaurants do indeed endeavor to provide a translation for at least some of the dishes (see #7), but half the time they seem to be using a dictionary from the 1800s. An example of this would be, let’s say, “Yue Choy with Doufu and Fish Maw In Soup.” Let’s say this is a plausible dish. Some might get “Doufu” is “tofu”, but very few will know “yue choy” (which could easily and correctly be called “mild mustard greens” or “Chinese broccoli”) and even fewer will know what a maw is, and for those that do? Maw gives a very poor idea of what the cut/type of fish actually involved is. Similarly bad are one-off’s like “in sauce” or “in spicy soup with noodle” – what sauce? You have more than one, surely? Which soup base? Enough experiences like this can put someone off, especially if the menu doesn’t try and be descriptive. Worst-case, they’ll order a “safe” western dish, which may very well be poorly cooked and leave a bad taste in their mouths, so to speak – a local Westernized Chinese food place near me has lovely authentic Chinese food available (with names like above!), Westernized Chinese food, and hamburgers – anyone foolish enough to order their hamburgers will never return!
This comes down to two issues: first of all, the cleanliness. Asian restaurants seem to have a much, much lower standard of cleanliness than Western ones. This is even worse if the restaurant seems to be mostly “for” Asians. Hideous bathrooms, cracked china, ingredients improperly stored (visibly!), overflowing garbage, unkempt staff – these things keep people away. Secondly, some hygiene issues are cultural ones: smell and lighting. These last two aren’t something that really need to be ‘fixed’, but they do create a barrier to entry: in the same way the strong smells of some meats (lamb, pork under some circumstances) are offensive to Asians, Western noses may associate some strong Asian smells (particularly fermented products like belacan, bean pastes, Asian pickles) with unsavory things – sewage and putrescence. I personally adore the smells of fermentation, and my friends do as well, but the first time I took some of them out it was cause for hesitation on their parts. Things like broken-down fish tanks with one lonely, sickly grey fish don’t do wonders for confidence.
7. Service & Racism
Besides the lower standard of service in Asian restaurants (the ‘trying to look efficient’ thing, as one famous blogger put it), I can think of forms of behaviour that can come across as more than a little bigoted to Westerners. Non-English menus and special boards are common examples of this. I cannot fault Salade des Fruits downtown for having their signage almost exclusively in French, as French is a national language of Canada. Nor do I fault restaurants serving authentic cuisine geared towards a community for having the name of their restaurant in large script and then in Western script below. That is all understandable. That said, it looks very uninviting when one enters a restaurant and sees that everything on the wall and the chalkboard is in hastily-scrawled Chinese or Korean. Coupled with the low service standard, most are loathe to ask the waitress or waiter to translate, and in general it sends the message that it is not “for” Westerners or indeed people who are not of the Han (??) persuasion. Even worse is when only a few dishes are translated, which can send the message that the untranslated things are not “for” mere ?? or mat sellahs.
The other subtle form of this is commonly encountered in restaurants with spicy cuisine: the person will be asked how spicy the food ought to be (this is nice!), but will never receive it as spicy as requested. This latter one is understandable but can be irritating, especially with repeat customers: one South Indian restaurant I eat at, the father will happily make my curries spicy by Indian standards, but the son is obstinate, and condemns me to curry that is more akin to that of Japan than the Hindustan. This makes those “in the know” (and the adventurous) feel like children and is patronizing.
So why do people fear Japan and Thailand less? There’s a few reasons I can think of.
1. Sushi, second only to westernized Chinese food, has been in the West for a good while now.
2. These two cuisines tend to use fewer pungent ingredients than other Asian cuisines and are thus seen as less threatening by many. I myself use Japanese, Thai and Korean as “stepping stones” before taking people out for real, regional Chinese food.
3. Japanese people have a culture which is superficially similar to ours in many ways while still being exotic. Coupled with generally good language skills, this feels welcoming and is still “something new.”
4. Preconceptions and Stereotypes – The Japanese and Thai both have fairly good stereotypes working for them. I commonly hear the word “gentle” applied to the Thai, for example. Malaysians and Indonesians would benefit as well if people were more “aware” of those countries and cuisines – the Roman alphabet helps reduce the barrier subconsciously for many.
5. Generally, both these groups (Koreans as well) tend to seem to either possess or be more willing to adopt Western standards of cleanliness, and also to avoid the linguistic barrier I mentioned earlier – I have never entered a Thai restaurant with any signage solely in Thai, Ichiro in Richmond, despite catering to a huge number of Japanese has no more than one or two signs in Japanese (2 out of 20 means people will ask for the translation if curious!), and most Korean restaurants tend to sit somewhere in the middle.
Bottom line – less of a learning curve, and these people (and thus their cuisines and cultural spaces!) seem more welcoming to outsiders. Stepping into a space without familiar faces, plastered with handwritten signs in a foreign language, amidst strange new smells and the din of a foreign language can be ‘too much’ for a lot of people, especially without a “guide.”
Hope this sheds some light on it, and that I haven’t offended anyone with my frankness; this is a wholly subjective matter and I realize it may seem a bit odd, in the same way my delicious tripe and brisket soup might repulse someone who has grown up on chicken noodle.
Note from Ben 10-Nov-2009: Please respond to this comment on this post: http://chowtimes.com/2009/11/10/why-do-whites-accept-japanese-and-thai-cuisine-more-than-other-asian-cuisine/
My jaws dropped reading your points — all very valid and interesting. I am elevate your comments to be a post for it deserves to be one!
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People need to be warned about Top Gun. I ate at Top Gun yesterday morning, and by the afternoon, was running a fever and felt nauseous. In my shrimp dumpling, I had found what looked like a toenail clipping. I checked out this restaurant’s health inspection reports and found that they were rated a high hazard at every single routine inspection. They only cleaned up their safety procedures for follow up inspections, but at the next routine inspection, they were a high hazard again.
See the report here:
The March 13 follow up report cited this infraction:
403 Employee lacks good personal hygiene, clean clothing and hair control [s. 21(1)]
I am surprised this restaurant is still in operation, as I am realizing that I was playing Russian roulette with my health every time I went there.