Mission: To respond thoughtfully and responsibly to my experiences of drinking and dining at restaurants with regard to the quality, service, preparation, presentation and overall experience received thereat. The standpoint is one who respects the crafts of the chef and sommelier and who seeks to understand their choices in the kitchen and cellar and grow in knowledge. In this, I will seek to be fair, reasoned, direct and constructive and aim to keep my ego in check on our mutual journeys through the worlds of food and wine.
Monday, July 29, 2013
POSTSCRIPT TO IWFS NOBLE MANSION DINNER - East vs West
Had a thought provoking conversation about the IWFS Noble Mansion dinner with the Doc who argued passionately that what we had been served was essentially not representative of a real Chinese Banquet dinner. His point was that in my insisting that the food should follow the weights of the wines, the entire balance and content of the dinner had failed miserably.
What we had was a standard East / West paradox. In the West we take it as read that lighter body wines get consumed before heavier ones and a menu will be adjusted accordingly. In contrast, a proper Chinese style banquet would oscillate between light and heavy textures with delicate tastes and seasonings which would allow for the palate to rest between the more challenging dishes.
At Noble Mansion our wines were Australian bubbles, Aligote, White Burgundy, Red Burgundy and Red Bordeaux which was determined to be the best serving order. In the Noble Mansion menu (and in retrospect the Noble House menu of last year) we had adjusted the suggested menus to fit this type of sequence. Consequently, this impacted the textural contrasts and harmony of progression across that sequence. The Doc had observed that for the Noble Mansion dinner we had effectively had four Chinese style starter dishes followed by beancurd and duck (NB in this, the duck was originally before the beancurd but was switched by me to effectively prevent the beancurd becoming seen as a main course). There was little textural or taste difference across the first four which impacted the last two, and switching the duck to the end killed off the rice. So in selecting and forcing the dishes to fit the wines we had destroyed the sequence of the whole which, as a result, had become far less than the sum of its parts.
The Doc is clearly correct - it was not a traditional Chinese banquet and from that perspective it did fail. And whilst I think that my point was that it was never really intended to be, his position raised some interesting questions and got me wondering about the cultural presuppositions and insistences we in the West tend to place on other types of food cultures and how we can unwittingly impose our demands and expectations on them. For elaboration, let's call it the Purist position versus the Radical.
In the IWFS KL we are predominantly Western educated and I think this instills within us the cultural mores and values associated with such. Additionally, this can include the tendency to insist on and demand that we make the world adapt to cultural expectations inherent therein; eg having food and wines served sequentially according to their weight. Anything other than this simply makes no sense. And by attempting to pair wines with food styles not native to the Base Culture, we become Radical in our actions - we pay little heed to traditions in a Target culture in our search for the next stage in this evolutionary journey of pairing wines with food.
But serving food non sequentially in this Western sense does matter when you get to the East. The need to rest the system by contrasting textures and styles, and heat and cold is taken very seriously. There needs to be Yin and Yang and harmony across everything (which in many respects also parallels matching a Yin wine with a Yang food!). Within this, traditional Eastern banquets never had an issue of looking to match wines of varying texture and taste with individual dishes. There were little in the way of fruit wines of differing styles being produced. Tea or alcohol based rice wine or spirit like soju or sake made from abundant fermentable produce became the single liquid to aid digestion and presumably cheer health. It was also probably a lot healthier than any unboiled water from the river.
There is a clear parallel here to the concept we see in Wine producing nations where wine styles and grapes fit the food and cuisine of the area. These types of traditions have long been in place and have rational explanations for their existence. This seeking to maintain a connection between area and cuisine and the attendant cultural and social aspects and traditions associated therewith is basically the Purist position, and protecting the recipes and traditions in preparation and serving becomes culturally important and necessary. Again this is not too distant from some things we still occasionally see in the west - formal dinners requiring a tuxedo and port still being passed to the left, for example.
And now in this big connected globe we can have Sauvignon Blanc with Sashimi and Soju with spaghetti if we desire. And the explosion in ready availability of wine varietals and blends mean that the potential for pairing combinations has gone ballistic. Honoured demarcations continue to crumble and the Radicals are clearly in the ascendant. The downside is that by the Radical insisting on wine being the dominant determinant, the Purist concept of the Eastern cuisine can become adulterated to such an extent that it gets destroyed. The Radical ends up with something that they are happy to say is "Chinese Cuisine" but which is, from the Purist standpoint, far from it. And it gets done with little to no regard for any cultural sensitivities that may surround maintaining the purity of the cuisine. The inherent tendency that dominant cultures have to make the world fit their desired view of it and match how they would have it be traditionally impacts those less dominant cultures in a negative manner. And the Radical tends to do so with the assumption that there is a divine right to go and try the new pairing, which must be like a red rag to a Purist bull. The desire to find the next perfect pairing trumps everything. Which the now raging Purist would seek to resist absolutely. Couple this with the general Radical tendency to lump all Chinese cuisines together and the raging can get thermal. There is great pride taken in the various cuisines of China - Cantonese, Shunde, Sze Chuan - so that when both National and Regional pride take a Radical whack then the reaction can be heightened.
Another aspect to this is that there is a tendency to be selective about the cuisines that the Radical seeks to pair the wines with. In the IWFS KL, for example, we have made wines fit with Chinese and Indian and Korean cuisine styles and changed the suggested order of dishes to fit the sequence demanded by the wines. With the Korean dinner, we also introduced some Korean liqueurs to pair with the dishes. In contrast, we don't do it when we have Japanese cuisine (except for Bubbles as aperitif) and here has been to my knowledge no attempt to pair grape based alcohol liquids with the food - we just have increasing quality sakes served across the sequence. So why should we seek to force fit the other cuisines to the wines when they has never matched in the first place when we don't do it for all cuisines? Is the wasabi and sake pairing so dominant that no one would dare to challenge it? Is it that other cuisines are more texturally suitable to be possible partners with our hallowed grape juice? Or is it that Japanese cuisine just can't pair easily with grape wines?
Perhaps the upshot of all this is that the Wines of the West should not be made to fit the Cuisine of the East. There are a swathe of liquids available to consume with such cuisine that have existed for centuries and perhaps such pairings should best be honoured and leave Western wines to pair with Western foods. Well….. maybe. The Purist in me certainly has time for such a position whereby we get to taste textures and styles that have sustained nations for Millennia. Conversely, the Radical in me would like to remain open and kaizen to see whether the existing can be improved upon, or at least tried out to look to understand why a pairing or a sequence does or does not work. And we Radicals are assuming an expectation that each dish coming to a table indeed demands the serving of a wine when perhaps the better option might be something non alcoholic or indeed non existent. Given that the traditional sequence of an Oriental banquet is designed to give the palate and system a rest between the more demanding courses, then maybe there's a parallel we can draw with regard to wine and give the palate a cleansing and relaxing break with some good Pu Erh tea. Or not.