Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Living in Exile - A Foodie's Heaven or Hell?

Last night, several of my colleagues and I were gathered in a pub overlooking a partially frozen canal, drinking Heineken and snacking on bitterballen when one of them, an American, said "I don't care if Italian pizza is better, I miss Chicago-style."

F*ck yeah.

File:Giordano's Deep Dish Pizza.jpg
Yummy is a matter of culture
Photo by ninjapoodles
I've had Italian pizza in both Milan and Pisa and I agree, the artery-clogging, cheese-laden, fat dripping fat-fests that we call Chicago style pizza are awesome and better. For me. Of course, having grown up with the typical high-fat American diet means I'm used to this, but many "purists" would be horrified by this.

Here's my short message to purists: stuff it.

I love great coffee. I used to run espresso stands for a living and I can tell you in exquisite detail what it takes to make that perfect espresso and when I make coffee at home, I filter because the French press (a.k.a. the "сafetière") doesn't properly filter the oils. I use filtered water, good beans, and truly enjoy a nice cup in the morning. A good Sumatran mandheling is particularly delightful.

I also keep instant coffee on hand, to the horror of some of my coffee-loving friends back home. When I first moved to the UK, I was served a cup of instant coffee and I bravely kept a straight face but I was pleasantly surprised. It tasted different, but it wasn't bad at all. It was only my coffee snobbishness which kept me from discovering this before.

Mustard at Apple Pan
Better than purists will admit
Photo by Marshall Astor
Mustard is the same way. I love Dijon, I can't stand Colemans, but French's mustard is damned tasty. Honestly, it's tasty. I hear a lot of foodies sneer at it, but much of our tastes are from the food we grew up with, not from whether or not things are intrinsically delicious. I still have trouble with most French cheeses as frankly, they smell wrong. My wife grew up with them, of course, and she loves them. You can't get them in the US as they're generally made with unpasteurized cheese and thanks to the loving attentions of Monsanto, there's no way in hell I'd want unpasteurized dairy products from the US.

I also miss fried chicken. Sure, you can buy it over here, but good fried chicken is very hard to find in the US; you're not going to find it in Europe unless you make it yourself. That means that you pan fry it, not deep fry it, you have to marinate the chicken properly (I recommend buttermilk), and basically it takes a long time to make a delicious dish that my wife nonetheless hates because fried foods simply aren't very common in France and what little you can get over here is, as mentioned, typically awful.

There are surprises, though. There's a decent Mexican restaurant tucked away in a small town in Germany, but you'd never know it because the food is lousy. However, the chef is Mexican and my father, a Texan who's lived in Europe for forty years, sometimes calls up the restaurant — a day in advance, mind you — and orders dinner. The chef is happy to see him because he can make Mexican food "properly" and not serve up the crap you foist off on the tourists. In fact, a friend tells me of two Mexican restaurants which opened in Leeds, one run by a Mexican family and serving authentic food and another which didn't go out of business.

I used to think I enjoyed French food. Now that I have a French wife, I've discovered that I love French food. It is not, however, anything like the "French" cuisine I had back in the states. It's rich, complex, often annoyingly healthy and should be tried by everyone. You might be surprised. When I was living in the US, I hated Indian food. I had friends in both Portland and San Francisco try to take me to "good" Indian restaurants. Barf on a plate as far as I was concerned. The UK changed my mind. I'm pretty damned sure they invaded all of those countries to gain better access to good food and with Indian food, they've scored a winner. But why is it so different from what I had in the US? Probably because it's authentic, but that doesn't mean that the US can't do international food. Portland had much better Japanese and Thai restaurants than the UK. I'm convinced that you can't get a decent pad see ew in London. I make a decent one, but I had to look up authentic Thai recipes to make sure I was doing it right. Portland restaurants generally did fine. Every London restaurant I went to screwed it up. And don't get me started about the sushi restaurant which offered a "sumo" roll: rice stuffed with lettuce.

Sometime this summer, I'm going to have to have a barbeque, make my own sauce and invite a bunch of friends over. If I'm really energetic, I'll make enchiladas, too. Sure, you generally don't serve those at a barbeque, but damn it, people should know that much of the food from my home country isn't the abominations they've been led to believe (case in point: there's no such thing as a "chicken" fajita). There's a lot of fantastic food over here, but I appreciate a lot of US and Tex-Mex cooking more than ever.

So to all foodies everywhere: there's some great food out there, but put aside your prejudices. Or if, like me, you can't, at least admit that your taste in food is cultural, not innate. There's just no way you're going to convince me that lutefisk is anything more than a Norwegian practical joke.
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