When the dish you want is not on the menu...

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2007/11/18 20:31 -05:00, original URI: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/michkap/archive/2007/11/18/6384213.aspx

One of the strangest things I had to get used to when I first started traveling internationally was the real differences between the food served in other countries and the same-named-dishes back in the states.

I was mostly struck by the fact that the US dish was often reminiscent of its nominal source.

And also noteworthy was the fact that if I enjoyed one I probably enjoyed the other (though I will admit that my penchant for ordering five-star dishes is one I would never really attempt in Laos or India or Thailand or Taiwan or China!).

But there was another factor, and that was the fact that the connection often did not go the other direction -- and the dishes aboard outnumbered the dishes one could ever find here -- including many key dishes that I really remember enjoying....

It reminded me of something I was back reading off my sister-out-law's blog from a few months ago and she had a fascinating point that captured what I am rambling on about here (I avoided providing the link to spare her unwanted traffic from the kind of people who tend to read here!):

Some of my favorite dishes from China are unavailable in the States. It is true that Chinese dining options in this country have dramatically improved from the days where all you could find were bland Cantonese-American brown sauce dishes. Within ten minutes of my house are restaurants from Taiwan, Shandong, and Nanjing (although the Nanjing restaurant is ironically called the Qingdao Garden). Still, some of China’s most ubiquitous dishes are absent from American menus.

The lack of some dishes is understandable. Take lamb kabobs (
羊肉串儿), for example. While lamb kabobs are available at virtually every street corner in Beijing, they are a Muslim food that isn’t found in Han Chinese restaurants. Few Chinese Muslims make it to America, and those who do rarely open restaurants. However, other dishes, like tiger salad of cucumber and pepper (老虎菜), steamed bread (馒头), or candied fruit kabobs (糖葫芦) are shamefully neglected by restaurants in America, leaving the people who crave them only one option: cooking them at home...

...In retrospect, we were a bit naïve to think that we would be able to find the foreign spices listed in the recipes. The grocery store clerk gave me a blank stare when I asked for barbeque powder (
烧烤粉) and spicy sedan chair powder (辣轿粉). After a lengthy discussion in Chinese, he directed us to the Western barbeque spice section, and then mocked us when we were unable to find what we wanted....

I too was unsurprised that the Chinese interpretation of a traditional Muslim dish wouldn't be served here, usually.

After all, we have our own American interpretation of lamb kabobs here, one that you don't tend to find in other countries.

In a sense those dishes our each country's right to have immigrants attempt and occasionally butcherinterpret a native dish using the spices of the destination country.

But what about the many dishes that are so consistently not seen outside of country, even when widely seen inside of it?

I wish I knew more about history, cuisine, and language within these countries so that I could really try to research this question and understand the trends that drive it.

Until then, there are many times that the only way to get the dish we want (if we lack the skill to make it ourselves) is to hop on a plane for many hours and get the food where it is plentiful....


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# Cheong on 18 Nov 2007 11:39 PM:

It should be noted that even in Chinese, the taste of same dishes in different provinces tends to be quite different. In Guangdong the dishes tends to be more salty than the original receipt, and spicy food in Sichuan tends to be more spicy than it should be.

# Jeroen Ruigrok van der Werven on 19 Nov 2007 7:29 AM:

In the Netherlands our 'peanut Chinese', as they were called back in the days they first arrived here and sold peanuts, typically came from Hong Kong. So it is not surprisingly most Chinese restaurants are actually Cantonese style.

Now it gets even more confusing when you keep into account our colony Surinam, with its immigration Chinese, Indians and Indonesians, whom then made the trek to the Netherlands.

Talk about totally different tasting dishes even if the principle idea might be similar.

# Adam Hill on 19 Nov 2007 6:30 PM:

There is a great mini-series about Chinese food migrating to differnt cultures -


You will not be disappointed.

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