Sunday, July 25, 2010

From Soba To Sultans

It's hot again... It was hot in Japan too, but something about that was different. Maybe it's because for the moment I seem to have returned to the backpacker trail where hostels are over stuffed and under ventilated. I find myself longing for the immaculate guesthouses of Osaka and Kyoto where the staff is polite and helpful and everyone's shoes are left at the door. Walking the streets here also reminds me of time spent in South East Asia, except here it's smarmy men instead petite women shouting after me in hopes that I'll buy a carpet. Unless that rug will fly me home, I've got no room in my bag. The sales pitch doesn't hold the same charm as the T-shirt and iced tea sales-ladies of Cambodia offered. These guys resort to all forms of trickery to get you inside their store and show a persistence that would cause even the hawkers of Hanoi to blush a little. I'm in Istanbul, where east and west truly meet. This ancient city literally has and Asian and European side, divided by a narrow strip of water called the Bosphorus. Around each and every corner you'll find yourself tripping over remains of the various empires that have dominated this cultural crossroads over the centuries. In spite of the annoying carpet dealers whose persistence is matched only by the humidity, I find Istanbul to be nothing short of amazing, and a perfect bridge from Asia to Europe for my travels.

The similarities to Asia that I'm finding here in Turkey thus far are numerous, as are the differences. It's incredible to note the various paths that different cultures take as the evolve and devolve over time. While the manifestations of development can be wildly different, sometimes it becomes clear that we're all just playing out different versions of the same basic tune. I became interested in picking out some of the common themes while visiting the Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, and of course food is something I zeroed in on right away. I've been living on street food while I travel for many different reasons. It's cheap, to say the least and keeps me on budget. I also find it to be a much better connection to the culture of where I am visiting than eating over priced food that has been gussied up for benefit of western palates. Street food has become a comfort to me while I move from place to place, because while the dishes may change the experience stays the same. Every country has it's own version of the grubby street vendor where everyone is welcome. Just a push cart and a few stools to sit on. These guys (or gals) don't discriminate. They want your business and rarely if ever will you find the equivalent of the snooty server or pretentious chef. Most often there is only one or two items to choose from which are being prepared right in front of you. This lowers the language barrier enough to use some simple words and gestures to get an order across. Street food is simple and honest. Most importantly I've come to realize is that it represents the popular flavors of where it's at, and for the sake of culinary exploration that is what I am most concerned with. Indeed, most of the dishes that represent cultures abroad and certainly in America have their origins on the street or as "fast foods." I think these ideas travel well specifically for the reason they become popular at home to begin with. They are simple, satisfying and reference that culture's most predominant flavors and cooking techniques. I realize that by sticking to the streets, I'm missing out on all sorts of culinary delights from place to place, but in the end I fell as though I'll understand the food from where I've been a little better for it.

Checking out the home grown versions of grub that has become popular in America over the years has gotten me to thinking about the idea of authenticity. Ten years ago when I began cooking professionally, it was somewhat popular to mix ideas and influences, creating new flavors and techniques. More recently there has been a push by many chefs and food enthusiasts alike to hone in on more authentic versions of traditional cuisine. I happen to admire the quest for authenticity, but like all great motivations it has been taken much too literally by some and interpreted with such a narrow scope as to actually deny the reality of how food and flavors develop. During my last few years cooking and eating in Portland before I decided to do a little traveling I witnessed endless discussions (and some arguments) of who made a more authentic version of whatever. I was no doubt involved in many as well. Quality, it seems nowadays is judged not by how something taste or if it is satisfying, but rather if the dish in questions was prepared exactly the way it is supposed to be based on the rules set by someone (anyone) who claims to be an authority on that particular dish or style. How are these rules set and why do those of us who may not be an authority on he subject follow them blindly? Why should we miss out on possibly great interpretations of regional cuisine because it doesn't fit some arbitrary set of rules?

I may have thought differently about this before traveling, knowing only what I did from reading or passed on by word of mouth from other folks who had traveled abroad and experienced food and cooking technique in its native element. But, as I devote myself to experiencing each culture's culinary exports in native element I can say that there are no unbreakable rules when recreating food. I don't mean to say you can serve an apple but call it an orange, however there does exist a certain amount of latitude to interpret something without being demonized by the so called experts. I can say this with certainty since I have actually eaten numerous different versions of the same types of food in every country I have visited. In Vietnam every bowl of Pho I ordered was prepared differently, yet still called Pho. In Istanbul where I am right now, the different permutations of Kebap are endless. Japan offered the best possible example of this idea. I've heard more than one Japanese food-o-phile in the U.S. explain what exactly miso soup - a cornerstone of Japanese cuisine - is and how it SHOULD be made, yet in the various Japanese homes I stayed miso soup was prepared so many different ways with a variety of ingredients. I challenge any self proclaimed Japanese food expert to say that miso soup made by a Japanese person, in a Japanese home....IN JAPAN, is not authentic. Doesn't it fit the very definition of authenticity, to be created within it's own cultural element? If I were to remake one of the many miso variations I ate, would it not still be authentic? Many who are passionate about authenticity are not relating it to an idea that applies broadly to a particular dish, but rather to one specific version they had. That's setting a pretty high standard.

Hopefully my opinion on the matter doesn't come off as some sort of rant. We all enjoy food differently and I certainly don't want to kill the buzz of those among us who wish to search out authenticity at it's root. I don't see it as a search with any conclusion, though. Every dish evolves over time and even the native folks try new things and offer up wild variations. Who's to say that any famous food we hold dear hasn't changed over time and that the version being called "authentic" isn't just another stop along the way. Furthermore, if we all agreed to stop messing with stuff and just do it the way we're supposed to, wouldn't the result be uniform and boring? I'll admit that creativity unchecked can sometimes be ridiculous, but it does serve to keep what we eat fresh and exciting. Even though the word makes me cringe a little, I'll still take fusion over fascism any meal of the day and twice for lunch on Sunday.

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