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.


  1. One doesn't even need to leave the U.S. to experience such things. I have yet to find a decent pepperoni roll outside of WV. Most folks have never even heard of such a thing. It was created as a self-contained lunch for coal miners, and apparently never migrated outside of coal country.

    Likewise with crab cakes. Those can be found in any major city, but the way they're made in the Chesapeake Bay area is unlike how they're made anywhere else.

  2. Most of the "Indian" food you get in the UK isn't authentically Indian anyway -- it's Anglo-Indian. It is to Indian food what the Chicago pizza is to Italian food -- that is, different, but still awesome! I agree though that I've had far tastier Indian or Anglo-Indian food in the UK than in the US.

  3. Food is the thing I miss the most living overseas. I have gotten pretty good about making things we miss for the family, most recently marshmallows. That backfired the kids like the homemade ones better than store bought. In Germany the pizzas were absolutely vile, thank goodness for currywurst. I hated Indian food until I lived overseas and had authentic from my kids school friends, so good! We are heading home to San Antonio for a few weeks this summer and I already have a list of things to eat in Texas. So much BBQ and Mexican food, so little time.

  4. @Shannon: you make your own marshmallows? That's impressive!

    I make a dish I call "Rice-a-Phony" and when I get it right, it's far better than the Rice-A-Roni I could buy back in the states. And even when it does taste the same, I still appreciate it more because I had to make it by hand.

  5. @Shannon: OK, I feel silly. I never knew you had a blog about living in Malawi. Now I know how to make marshmallows :)

  6. About pizza or any other food that's topped with cheese...

    Why the H! does everyone insist on using thee 'traditional' cheeses for that?
    I usually say that the Italians(or Greek, if I'm making Mousaka) used the cheese they did because they had it available, not because it was the best.
    Then I dump loads of Jarlsberg on top of whatever I'm making.
    I also consider it completely OK to use minced meat(of any type, really) instead of mutton when making mousaka. Eggplant? Why? Potatoes works just as well.

    I don't care about brands as long as it's 'coarse'. (I like a bit of texture in my food)

  7. @Anthony-lion: moussaka with potatoes instead of eggplant? I never thought about that, but I love the idea.

    For those who don't know what eggplant is, it's "aubergine".

    And you know, that last comment might sound weird, but I've been getting surprised by how many food terms aren't as universal as I would have thought. When I first moved to the UK, I assumed they didn't have cilantro. Turns out they do, they just call it coriander. Very frustrating!

  8. Cilantro is actually a bit more specific than coriander. Cilantro are coriander leaves. Coriander could be either the leaves, or the (grounded) seeds. The latter is in the Netherlands also known under its Malay name: ketoembar (although it's spelled ketumbar in Malay and Indonesian).

    As for food terms, the hardest problem I have with US and UK recipes (beside the silly volume vs weight based issues) is with cuts of meat. They cut up big mammals differently.

  9. @Abigail: I suppose I could have pointed hat out about Cilantro. For me it's second nature to only think of it as the leaves.

    Are there any sites you can point to which show how the US and European meats are different? I enjoy my food and I'd be curious to know.

  10. I would take the recipe for rice-a-phony recipe. Sounds yummy. I am still struggling with food terms here I figure about the time I know what all the veg are called at the market it will be time to move on to the next country.

    So far the funniest run in I have had with food terms was in Jakarta when I wanted sage to make gnocchi. I looked up the bahasa word for sage and it was SAGE. So I went off to the market and asked for sage. Got a very blank look, after a few minutes of intense frustration I finally pulled out my little book and pointed to the word SAGE and immediately the woman's face lit up "Oh SOGGY" Forgot take into account the differences in pronunciation. SIgh. I swear I spend half my life overseas banging my head against a linguistic wall. It does make life interesting though.

  11. @Shannon: OK, I found the recipe. I'll post it here in a day or so :)

  12. @ovid An obvious place:

  13. @Ovid, no wonder the guy in the Indian supermarket in Denver didn't know what I was talking about when I asked for coriander! That does at least clear that one up...

  14. You remind me of and :-)