Eating One’s Way Through Four Countries
I recently had a unique, if busy, cultural experience—visiting four different countries in just over a month. First, a family holiday of about three weeks to Singapore, including brief but memorable transit stops in Tokyo, and thirdly, a six-day side trip from Singapore to India’s southwestern state of Kerala. Shortly after we returned to Vancouver, I also took a three-day trip to Seattle with an old friend from my high school days.
Although our visit to Kerala’s coastal cities of Trivandrum, Kollam and Kochi (Cochin) was the only totally new experience, it was quite stimulating to encounter so many different peoples and their cultures one after another in a short time. Because my paternal grandmother was Finnish, I’ve always been hung up on differences between cultures. Readers of this bi-cultural magazine, I hope, might understand. What is the best way to share with you my recent, first-hand observations and renewed impressions, I wondered, and came up with . . . food. How food is prepared, served and enjoyed speaks volumes about national cultures (not to mention economies). After all, as the old cliché goes, “we are what we eat.” Can we also say “we are how we eat?” Incidentally, our “home turf”, Vancouver, fares pretty well in my comparison, but more on that later.
Our encounter with Tokyo was limited to two-hour transit stops at Narita Airport each way, but I could still feel in the background the pulse of the huge megalopolis where I was born and raised. Both times, the four of us inevitably got caught up in the wide varieties of local and Western sweets, liquor, magazines and books, electronic goods and luxury accessories of all sorts cramming the duty free shops, and in the various eateries offering western, Chinese and Japanese fare with all the latest innovations in combinations and variety. The quick meals we could not resist grabbing at one of the simple, quick-service eateries were, as anticipated, excellent. The omu-raisu my daughter had was nothing like the ketchup-flavored rice covered with thin omelette that I remember from childhood. Some of the yoke in her thick omelette over the rice had been deliberately left half gooey and eggy, and the whole thing was covered in a rich meat sauce. I savoured a negitoro-don—toro and finely chopped spring onions over sushi rice. Delicately seasoned and definitely a “taste of home.”
My overriding “fresh” impression was how polite and efficient the service workers were, from the sales clerks, to waitresses, cashiers and short-order cook. Diligence on the job, the traditional value, was alive and well. But what was different from the old days was the large number of foreigners among these workers. They were just as diligent and fluent in Japanese. They were living evidence of the tremendous attraction this giant economy today has for peoples from all over Asia and beyond.
We were next in Singapore, indulging in the generosity of my kind brother-in-law’s family. If Tokyo is my original home which I first left at age 10 in 1956, Singapore is the place I’ve spent the longest period in one stretch, 16 years from 1981 to 97, right up until I came to Vancouver with my then-Singaporean wife and children. I’ve been back a few times since, yet it struck me all over again how apt the hackneyed description of Singapore as an “eat-till-you-drop” culture felt.
In short, an amazing array of various Chinese, Indian and Malay/Indonesian as well as main European cuisines, available both eat-in (from restaurants to food centre stalls) and take-out…but not quite enough chill-out time to enjoy them at leisure. Singaporeans from salaried workers to students driven by their busy daily schedules tend to rush their meals. On a busy-ness scale of 1-to-10, if Singapore was 9.5, Vancouver might be somewhere around 5.5, due probably to population density, among other things.
On many a morning, my host or his young brother would drive to food stalls before going to work and bring back delicious Indian or Chinese snacks ideal for breakfast. And as we sat outside in the still-cool air?to relish naan dipped in curry or fried noodles, we would discuss where to go for lunch or dinner. It happens on every visit, but during a short stay, there are simply too many choices of delectables, from a bowl of noodles in a stall priced at the equivalent of $3.50 Canadian to reasonably-priced Italian cuisine. As careful as I was not to overeat, I still gained a kilo or two in three weeks.
In Kerala, I again became a glutton, succumbing to the overwhelming generosity of my wife’s relatives who invited us to sumptuous meals in their homes in the three cities located along a 200-km stretch, which the seven of us covered like a whirlwind, staying in hotels and traveling in a hired mini-bus. True to traditional custom, we the guests ate while the host family members would look on smilingly, occasionally bringing more food. They would eat afterwards. So the custom is to leave some food uneaten . . . not that we could have possibly finished the copious amounts of delicious shri?p, fish, chicken, and pork curries and other vegetable dishes served from wide bowls filled to the brim. We could tell that the curries and seasonings in general were quite mild compared to the hot Madras cuisine to the south, because of the amount of coconut milk used. No wonder, as the very word Kerala, derives from the local word kairala, meaning coconut tree, according to one theory. Naturally, I put on more weight.
One thing was for sure, the folks there took their time to carefully prepare their meals of traditional dishes, and also took their time to enjoy them with family members and relatives on many an occasion. If leisurely family appreciation of meals is a priority in lifestyle, our middle-class relatives in Kerala must be having a good life. The stage of development of their “Third World” economy seemed less relevant.
Shortly after we came back to the “First World” of North America, I visited Seattle for the first time in nearly ten years, with an old high-school friend, to attend a class reunion. Old friends from all over the US, Canada, Japan and Germany gathered for a truly memorable few days of reminiscence-filled meals and informal drink-and-gab sessions. But following the recent gastronomic excitement of authentic Japanese, Chinese and Indian delicacies, the taste of items costing around $10 in respectable Oriental restaurants near the downtown Pike Street Convention Centre were inevitably very flat. It’s bad manners to complain about food during happy group get-togethers, but out on the street after one such meal, I couldn’t help whispering to my old friend, a fellow Vancouverite who often travels abroad on business: “Was that supposed to be Chinese cuisine?” He just shook his head and said something like “Incredible, but that’s what you get.”
It was hard to understand why proper Asian restaurants in downtown Seattle could get away with cooking that made Chinese and Japanese dishes we (i.e. including the readers) prepare at home taste like gourmet delicacy. No sushi establishment in Vancouver could possibly survive with these days serving the California maki and tuna maki we had at one fancy “Pan Asian” restaurant, what with so many novel and creative ways of adding value being invented, especially in the fancy maki category.
Over that lunch, another old class-mate, now an experienced corporate lawyer in L.A., talked about how the relentless “pursuit of the dollar” at every turn was degrading the quality of services in her profession. The waitress, who admitted she had started working there just the day before, couldn’t describe items on the menu and pronounced “Kirin beer” as “Kye-rin beer.” Surely being paid a fare wage, she was quite pleasant, but the quality of her service?
In comparing Seattle’s Japanese and other Asian cuisines with those of Vancouver which, among other things, may well have the highest number of sushi eateries per area among North American cities, I must be mindful not to offend readers south of the border with spurious claims. I’m sure there are places offering top quality traditional and innovative sushi in Seattle too, so I am just opining about the overall standard.
So what’s the nice thing about Vancouver? In this city of 3,000 eateries, many of them ethnic, where chefs young and old and enterprising restauranteurs from the West and East compete seriously for customers, we get quality and value for money in every price range. And Canada’s relaxed ethos lets us take enough time to enjoy their offerings. So in conclusion, I’d say Vancouver fares pretty well overall gastronomically compared to other multicultural cities on both sides of the Pacific.