Mixing Cultures: Science or Emotion (Part 2)

Continuing on from my previous post about stories and emotions behind the food we eat, here are some more stories from dishes cooked during the holidays. They represent the mixed cultural background that shaped my childhood.

Malaysian style Pad Thai/ Pad See Ew (Char Kway Teow): Most people are familiar with the Thai dish Pad Thai or its close counterpart that uses dark soy sauce, Pad See Ew. This is similar and a signature Malaysian dish that combines Thai, Malay, Indian, Dutch and Chinese cuisines. You have the dark soy sauce, lard (which I did not use), and wok cooking influence from the Chinese. The chili sauce from the South Indians. The ketchup from the Dutch. The wide rice noodles from the Thai (which are dry and what I used) and Cantonese (which are fresh and hard to find in even non-Cantonese Chinese areas like Taiwan). The proteins are Muslim-influenced since seafood and chicken breast are the safest bets for keeping a dish Halal.

My family moved to Taiwan when I was 5 years old, but every year we would head back to Malaysia for Chinese New Year. When the plane landed it would be the family’s mission to seek out Char Kway Teow first thing. It is one of the dishes my mom misses the most from Malaysia. Understandably so given the fattiness from the oil, sweetness of ketchup, saltiness of the dark soy, fragrance of the chinese chives, and the chewy rice noodles.

To me, Char Kway Teow represents the flavor profile of Malaysia. I can smell it a mile away. It brings me back to 90 degree weather, dirty coffee shops that show no separation between al fresco and indoor dining, sundry shops that block out the afternoon sun using their oversized bamboo shades, crazy shopping centers, and the messiest, busiest Chinese restaurants I have ever been in my life.

Smoked Salmon Fried Rice: So many culinary discoveries come from mistakes. There are so many things wrong with this dish that it is probably the best mix-up story in the world of cooking. Regardless, smoked salmon fried rice is comfort food from my childhood and is probably for anyone who grew up in Taiwan. If it’s strange to you, it probably is: my parents do not understand it either having grown up in Malaysia where salmon was not available let alone smoked salmon.

Smoked salmon fried rice combines Western (or an Asian conception of Western food), Japanese, and Chinese influences, which aptly sums up my experience in Taiwan. One day, researchers are going to document the history of this dish and this blog post will be in it. I was there from the beginning.

As Taiwan was in the process of modernizing right when I arrived at 5, many foreign influences came streaming in. Japanese food has always been part of Taiwanese culture but at that time, Japanese-influenced Western food (Yoshoku) started to become popular. We got spaghetti with ketchup napoletano (naporitan), angel hair with mentaiko (the roe of pollock which is absolutely salty and delicious), and of course, omurice (ketchup rice wrapped in an omellete skin). Around 1998 (I was 10) I first ate at Cafe Onion, the trending  Taiwanese-adapted Yoshoku restaurant of the time. They served this smoked salmon fried rice. The saltiness of the cooked smoked salmon offered little bites of flavor along with the umami of the eggs and wok-charred mixed veggies.

Smoked salmon is not native to Japanese cuisine (fresh sashimi salmon is the norm) but is from the Scandinavian tradition. Smoked salmon is also not native to Chinese cuisine. Salmon is seen as a Japanese fish and does not tend to do well when steamed, the preferred method for Chinese fish preparation.

Here’s probably what happened in the kitchen of Cafe Onion: 

Chef 1: Let’s put a fried rice dish with a twist on our menu so our more “Chinese” customers will be happy. Salmon is big in Japan. I think it would be nice to have a salmon fried rice. Could you get me some salmon from the market and we’ll try the recipe out.

Chef 2: I’m back from the market. The salmon from Japan is so expensive. I found this new western thing called smoked salmon and it’s less expensive. It’s also western which fits in with our restaurant brand image.

Chef 1: What is this? I probably shouldn’t taste it until I cook it.

The last comment aptly captures the ignorance of a chef from a Chinese cooking tradition and how it probably sparked the creation of this dish.

What’s wrong with this dish?

1) Scandinavians would cringe at the thought of smoked salmon being cooked through under high heat as required for any fried rice dish.

2) Japanese would cringe at the thought of smoking salmon in the first place. Fish should be fresh!

The Taiwanese invented a bastard of a dish that stemmed from misguided perceptions of the Japanese’s misguided perceptions of Western food. After two levels of cultural misunderstandings, I bring you one of my childhood favorites:

A fried rice flavored lightly with soy, scallions, mixed vegetables, smoked salmon pieces mixed and heated through at the end with a touch of sesame oil.


Scripts– Hardwired to Order Sandwiches in Your Sleep

Welcome. This blog will start off with a series of articles related to one of the most iconic American foods– sandwiches. Although sandwiches have existed since the start of time, they were not officially given the name until 1726 (1). This is one of those semi-true but absolutely juicy tales that abounds in the history of food. Sandwiches were named after John Montague, earl of Sandwich, a hardcore gambler who had to use his right hand to play his cards and his left hand to eat. He would therefore request bread, cheese and meat together in what we now know as a sandwich.

Though fascinating, the post will not touch upon the origins of the sandwich. Instead, I will bring attention to the process of ordering a sandwich at a deli and the important psychological factors involved. I first moved to the United States four years ago from Taiwan. People always ask if I experienced culture shock, and this is the first incident that comes to mind.

Delis were new to me. Being a cosmopolitan city, Taipei had western style bakeries that sold sandwiches but always prepackaged (with some interesting ingredients which I will touch upon in a later post about sandwiches in the East). The prospect of ordering a sandwhich was horrifying to me, because Delis either have no menus showing the ingredients available or they do not address the sandwich creation process itself (take a look at Subway’s menu). Do I order my veggies first? What dressings are available?

Two problems were at hand from a psychological standpoint:

1)      Lack of knowledge in the sequence of the ordering process (you order your bread first, cheese and meats, veggies and then dressing in many cases)

2)      Lack of knowledge in the categories of foods that make up a sandwich (breads, meats, cheeses, veggies, dressing)

I avoided ordering sandwiches for a month and then decided to venture out of my comfort zone to order what the person in front of me ordered for another two months. There is a social anxiety that comes with being unable to fulfill a prescribed role in a situation where others can do so easily. Surprisingly, one of these roles is being the sandwich orderer. Asking “what breads are available?” and “what dressings are available?” are taboo questions at the deli. These questions are usually met with the awkward pause as the person behind the counter contemplates whether it is worth reciting the whole list of ingredients to you for every single category. While this is an anecdote from my personal life, it has been largely documented psychological literature that when people do not successfully prescribe to social norms and, in this case, “scripts”, negative social consequences like stigma and feelings of anxiety can arise.

The act of ordering a sandwich is what psychologists call a “behavioral script.” It is a socially learned sequence of behaviors and actions in a certain setting that becomes automatic to you. As an American going to your local Subway, you order your bread, meat, cheese, veggies and dressing without a second thought. You have learned through your culture to execute this script flawlessly, which involves all this:

Quite overwhelming! You are able to keep this in your head due to a lifetime of repetition and seeing others do the same.

Purchasing and eating certain foods in other cultures have their own scripts. Therefore, I sincerely believe that it is not only important when teaching foreign languages to focus on the linguistic aspects but also to expose students to various scripts that natives take for granted. This will allow foreign speakers to integrate better into new countries. A future post will lay out the script for the next time you are at a Taiwanese potsticker joint!

Picture courtesy of Tasted Menu Boston www.tastedmenu.com

Diagram created by Mark Lock

(1) taken from documentary http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RmnsUeCXAZw

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