A writer who’s eaten his way from Amsterdam to Zimbabwe considers the pleasures and perils of dining abroad.
When I was eight, my family took a day in the middle of a trip to Scandinavia to visit friends in the countryside outside Copenhagen. We had lunch at a local inn, where the specialty, our host told us, was grilled eel. This was in the early Seventies, when eel was a bit of an occasion even at the aquarium. While my parents explained that they’d just have the herring, I ordered and feasted on the pale river flesh. My hunger for the exotic has remained insatiable ever since.
Perhaps you remember the days when Americans thought chow mein was the extent of Chinese food and spaghetti and meatballs the essence of Italy. That time is mercifully behind us, but even at the most authentic foreign restaurants in our country, dishes taste different from the way they would in their places of origin. This disparity comes from the need to accommodate American tastes, the unavailability of certain ingredients in the United States, farming techniques that affect the flavor of both meat and vegetables, and the strange variances in weather patterns from country to country. Skill is also a consideration: the best French food is and always will be in France. The most ineffable factor is the effect of landscape: fondue eaten in a Swiss chalet set on an Alp is superior to fondue in a suburban mall, even if the contents of the pot are pretty much identical.
To understand foreign cuisine, it’s crucial to visit regional markets. A Dutch friend recently took me to a cheese shop in Amsterdam, where I was struck by the architectonic care with which the foodstuffs had been arranged and by the way the bunches of flowers at either end of the store exquisitely balanced the cheese’s fresh smell. How unlike a Roman cheese shop, where a thousand different ripenesses are piled on top of one another, the odors in chaos, the visual effect as riotous as a horn of plenty.
The Central Market in Moscow, with its Georgian women selling sauces brewed from pickled berries and vinegared herbs, reminds you that the European aspects of Russia are always colored by the Asian ones. The big markets in Havana make you wonder why you’ve never even heard of amazing fruits like the canistel. (It’s orange and glossy, with a texture like cake.) The markets in Zimbabwe and Botswana, on the other hand, tell you that these are not food-oriented cultures. In the villages, there are lines of women, each selling more or less the same thing over and over – nothing but lemons, ground nuts or sweet potatoes. In the cities, dark, unpleasant stores are stacked high with bag after bag of mealie meal, the cornmeal that all southern African tribes boil for about a day and a half to make mush, which they then eat by the handful. It’s like half-dried papier-mâché. And yet in Ethiopia, where there is more poverty and starvation, there’s an entire cuisine – a fantastic one – based on spongy bread and a range of piquant stews.
Food-oriented societies are not necessarily restaurant-oriented. In Russia, there are now some glitzy restaurants for the nouveau riche, but the cooking at these places is seldom more than adequate. Visit a Russian home, though, and you may have the meal of a lifetime. I recently had dinner in a small, ugly apartment in a grim industrial suburb of Moscow. My friend made soup with mushrooms she had gathered in the woods that summer and dried; pork with a rich sauce of prunes and cream, an old Odessa recipe; five preparations of eggplant; spicy and plain boiled beef; a salad of egg and crab; and three desserts. A few days later, I dined with a Georgian friend in a rather lavish apartment, and his private chef made us a spectacular meal in huge ovens that had been dug into the concrete in the basement. “Restaurants,” my host said, “are for people who don’t have anywhere of their own and who have no friends to visit.”
The Chinese sometimes express a similar disdain for restaurants, but with much less conviction; and in Hong Kong, for example, restaurant food can be sensational. If I have tasted 200 different Chinese dishes in New York City, I must have had a thousand in Asia. Some were too exotic, even for me, and some seemed less delicious when I found out what they were (boiled pig’s penis, shredded bamboo rat), yet the flavors seemed to rely on a completely unfamiliar set of aromas, as if new elements on the periodic table had crept into the cooking. On the mainland, I had food at people’s homes that was divine, food at funny little student cafés that was pretty good and food at big fancy restaurants that was virtually inedible, though Shanghai is beginning to cater to the restaurant sensibility.
I like Chinese food in China, but I also love Chinese food at Chinese-American restaurants, and I think there’s something to be said for the successful reinterpretation of foreign tastes to suit Americans. In India, the variety of flavors is almost categorically unrelated to Indian food in the United States or in Europe, and once more I feel that liking the real thing doesn’t compromise my enjoyment of what I eat at home. Still, there is a difference. Kitchens in which everything is cooked in ghee have a smell of their own, and it infiltrates whatever you eat with a slightly sour pungency that seems to flirt through the spices that cover it. I had a preparation of okra at a dinner party in Bombay that was held in a crumbling palace, and though I’m not a big okra fan, I have gone on ordering it ever since, dreaming that someday I’ll rediscover that particular dish, mushy and slimy as okra is but saturated, as if the essence of the vegetable had been concentrated a thousandfold.
The food we call our own gets reinterpreted, often quite grimly, for foreign palates. An elegant American-style coffeehouse in Taipei combines ingredients in ways that seem quite disgusting to a Westerner. I once watched a women eat a salad by delicately lifting each leaf with her chopsticks, then dipping it alternately in ketchup and in maple syrup (which, a Singaporean friend assured me, was less horrifying than the way Americans use soy and hoisin sauces). Many of Istanbul’s “best” restaurants serve European food, but the cuisine is a cut below indifferent, and it’s frustrating to eat at one and know that down the road there are lamb-stuffed eggplants, whole fish baked in salt, and honey cakes thick with cream and speckled with pistachios.
It’s also fascinating to eat the food of one foreign culture at a restaurant in another foreign country. The government-run Chinese restaurant of Soviet Moscow was one of Stalin’s grandest gestures, but if you had eaten dinner there you’d have seen at once that the Russians would never really understand the Chinese, communism or not. The stir-fry was sloshed around with a lot of nasty Russian vegetable oil, and the meat was seasoned as if the Soviets wanted to advertise the depth of their salt mines. On the other hand, the German cuisine in Namibia, a former German colony, has incorporated African game straight into recipes for European wild boar, and it’s better than much of the German food in Germany. The Italian restaurants of Tokyo are wonderful, though the spaghetti tastes more like soba than any pasta produced in Milan.
Giving food can be a great mark of love, and when you eat the food of another culture, the shared sensual experience, the willingness to put in your body what other people put in theirs, can produce a sudden intimacy. When I last visited Kazakhstan, I drove across the steppes with a friend and stayed with seminomadic Kazakhs who lived in yurts. After some time, they invited us to drink fermented mare’s milk and to eat yak stew with them. I would not recommend either one of these to you, and I would certainly not care to have them at home. But the system of assurance in that giving and receiving of food was enormous, and the act of consuming it was curiously poignant: it was as it we were feasting on trust. These experiences change the flavors of what you are eating; they also enrich forever what you think and feel and taste when you eat.