Monthly Archives: May 2016

Restaurant Visits – Post 6

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“The P.F Chang’s phenomenon poses a serious question to Chinese Americans- Who owns culture? Food was related to their ethnic identity in America. For a long time, they worked hard to make their food part of the American restaurant market. The result turned out to be chop suey, egg foo yong, or other Americanized dishes. Real Chinese food had no market in America. Some individual Chinese restaurants, like Cecilia Chiang’s Mandarin Restaurant, were struggling with real Chinese dishes, and they because successful only after mainstream American food critics endorsed them. Chinese American restaurateurs were not in control of their own culture in the American food market. P. F. Chang’s success lies not only in its ability to occupy a part of the sit-down, high-end restaurant market but also in its power to deliver authentic Chinese food and represent Chinese culinary culture as corporate America.

 

Culture is often considered as a soft power of a community or an ethnic group. Culture seems hereditary or primordial. But in reality, culture, especially culinary culture, is a “public domain” in which every participating agent or institution could have access to or even own it. To make authentic Chinese food part of the mainstream American restaurant market requires no ethnic association or intrinsic linkage to the Chinese American community. Food is both a culture and commodity. But when food becomes a commodity, it is no longer an inherited culture. Corporate America could easily appropriate it from the Chinese community.”

 

From all of the readings we did before feasting at Chef Liu’s and Baraonda, these are the themes that really stuck with me. Who does own culture? Is it the people that inherit it? Do the people that accept and adopt it have a say in how it is shaped? What happens when a culture is introduced into a new environment?

 

Although the meals we had were most definitely enjoyable and certainly familial, these were some of the questions I was considering during both my meals.

 

The first lunch we were lucky enough to have was at Chef Liu’s, a quaint restaurant located on Atlanta’s famous Buford Highway. As the readings emphasized, ambience certainly plays an integral role with food, and Chef Liu’s exemplifies this notion. With it’s sparse yet homely style true to traditional Chinese restaurants, and wall of old tube TVs, Chef Liu’s atmosphere left me nostalgic for the Chinese restaurants back in India, most of which I frequented with my friends had a similar set up- they invoked a sense of what was truly important (a notion I believe truly emphasizes Asian food philosophy) – good food and good company.

 

While the seating in the front half of the restaurant consisted of familiar four-seater square tables, the other seating area hosted much larger round tables featuring Lazy Susans. This was not only perfect for our class, but also reinforced the ideas of communal eating and bonding in Chinese culture.

The food at Chef Liu's  had all of my attention, and I didn't even think to document my meal until it was over.

The food at Chef Liu’s had all of my attention, and I didn’t even think to document my meal until it was over.

 

 

The food itself was amazing; starting from the refreshing tea, to the very last chicken dish I had, the meal was filled with a variety of different noodles, flavor combinations and ingredients. One ingredient I found particularly surprising was the potato dish, which was delicious, but made me reconsider what I thought to be a well rounded perception of the many different kinds of Chinese food. The sheer variety of noodles was great to see, and the one commonality between all the dishes was the sense of balance we had learned about; no single flavor was overwhelming or over-powering to the senses. The harmony we read about was really experienced at the table during this meal, and it brought a similar sense to the food’s recipients. Dumplings are a personal favorite and I was glad to have the chance to have them, and also to witness a classmate and friend have them for the first time in her life. It was great to see the restaurant sticking to it’s roots, and did not just rely on highly Americanized items.

 

My professor and classmate told me that this restaurant was one of the more authentic places in the city. What I find interesting is that its customers don’t just comprise of the Chinese or Asian community in Atlanta, but includes college students and families of varying ethnicities. In short, the community and city had adapted, accepted and adopted Chef Liu’s into their lives, thereby internalizing a bit of the culture as well. I truly believe this is the case, for if this were not true, Buford Highway would not be as synonymous with great food (not great Chinese or any other food, but simply great food) as it is today.

 

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In comparison with the meal experienced at Chef Liu’s, the lunch we had at Baraonda really did feel like we were dining in another land and gave so much scope for reflection. Beginning with the décor, Baraonda exuded its Italian roots from floor to ceiling with rich, dark woods, paintings and tapestries and bottles and bottles of wine. The tables were long and rectangular and hence conducive to course-based meals as compared to Asian ways of eating, although we did dig into the pasta as a class and chose to forgo sticking to the courses.

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I was slightly more fortunate in terms of remembering to document our experience, and I think this picture truly captures the action of feast.

The food itself was incredible; what I found striking was my realization that while Chinese cuisine focused on achieving balance, Italian, (and most European cuisines) instead highlighted one or two flavors, textures or aspects of the dish. Most made the very ingredients the star of their dish – the mushroom and seafood pastas exemplified this. While the bruschetta emphasized the freshness of the tomatoes and kept them as close to their true form as possible, the lasagna is nothing without its sauce, which traditionally takes up to three days to prepare. I found this particularly interesting because it made me realize that Italian meals rely more and more on cooking with the progression of each meal. A dessert is not typically composed of raw or near raw ingredients; baking can well be considered a science, while dishes like lasagna would never be served as an appetizer.

 

Finally, the meal would not possibly be considered a success (just like this post would be incomplete) without the actual quality of the pasta. From its cooking time (al dente) to its taste, one could really tell the difference between the food we ate and factory made pasta. What I found particularly interesting was the use of different shapes of noodles in both meals, thicker noodles and pasta with ridges were used for heavier sauces, with delicates types were used for lighter companions. What I found surprising on speaking with my professor was that not all the pasta was made fresh in the restaurant. This revelation once again got me thinking about the “authenticity” of the food I was enjoying and had me wondering about the cooks that had prepared our meals, their ethnicities and training. What I learned though, is that culture need not be strictly inherited by birth, but can be learned and curated with passion for food and cooking.