About a month ago I introduce two of my very white colleagues at work the experience of eating Chinese Hot Pot at the Top Gun Hot Pot in Burnaby. In that post, I wrote about my curiosity why despite them being Canadians living in a cities (Vancouver and Toronto) with a lot of visible Asians, that they still have very little experience in enjoying authentic Asian food.
Below is a comment that a reader of Chowtimes wrote in response to my question. Dyn’s comments has to be the mother of all comments for length (Thanks Dyn!). I thought it deserved to be elevated to a post on it’s own and perhaps some of you could also chip in with your two cents on this. Here is Dyn’s comments in its entirety:
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.
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…
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.
Anyone had any thoughts on what Dyn said?