By Jennifer 8. Lee | November 14, 2007
I went to the packed NYU/James Beard Foundation event last night — Found in Translation: An Exploration of How Asian Cuisines Become Part of the American Culinary Landscape. Event was totally full. Wait list galore. People (luckily for me) are absolutely fascinated by food talks. And to its credit, it was a pretty diverse crowd in all respects — age, race, dress. Except, I guess, all foodies.
It came with a tasting event at the end with Indian, Filipino and Chinese food from the various cookbooks (bonus! as I wasn’t even aware when I signed up).
Panelists were Grace Young, author of The Break of the Wok; Amy Besa, owner of Cendrillon, a Filipino restaurant in Soho; and Maya Kaimal, creator of Maya Kaimal Fine Indian Foods. It was moderated by Kathy Gunst of PRI’s “Here and Now.” The intro was done by John Kuo Wei Tchen, the founding director of the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU. (By the way, the slashes in the institute’s name, he said, are intentional, and not just a stylistic thing, since he believes each one of those terms should be analyzed individually). Side point. The A/P/A institute and program was born at NYU as a reaction to the Columbia ethnic studies takeover/hunger strike in 1996. NYU decided to be proactive about it. Columbia students are hunger-striking this week on ethnic studies again because these professors don’t get tenure as they are shuffled through the program.
(wow. totally random aside. flashing cop car outside my window looks like they they are arresting someone).
Re: Indian food and fine dining. Indian dishes tend to be soupy, so they are hard to plate elegantly. Things that don’t look elegant are hard to charge a lot of money for. Indian cuisine in America is dominated by the northern specialties and it is dumbed down.
Immigrants in a way, sometimes preserve traditions better than the original country because the original country evolves. For example, redsmoked pork belly. Grace’s mother made with rock sugar. In Shanghai now they make with white granulated sugar. She asked them about that. They looked askance and said that is a pre-revolutionary way of making it. Amy made a similar point that her Filipino food stayed rather constant in 20 years she was gone, while the Filipino palate changed.
As to why so few Filipino restaurants: Filipinos were used to eating American cuisine as a result of the quasi-colonization, so felt less of a need to open up their own restaurants when they got here.
Right now people aren’t willing to pay a lot for Asian ethnic dining (with the exception of Japanese) in part because they can cook it at home (why pay $18 for adobe chicken?). So fine dining options will come with the second and third generation immigrantish ethnic people (like me), who want the good stuff that reminds them of mom’s cooking, but don’t have the ability to make it themselves.
Luckily, a lot of the Chinese stuff Grace talked about was in line with what I knew already (I hope so) I know that what I have isn’t radically off. As a result of things I heard in the panel, I made two little tweaks to my final galley: One involving chop suey, the other involving Cecilia Chiang, owner of the Mandarin Chinese restaurant, one of the first upscale Chinese dining options in San Francisco.
One funny moment. An NYU student named Kate (who was white) bought a cookbook and asked Grace to sign it using Kate’s Chinese name — Mei Ke. Grace (who was born and raised in San Francisco) looks at her and says, “I don’t read or write Chinese.”
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