Food Monotony, Cantonese Chimichurri
I have just returned from a very belated honeymoon in Costa Rica.
This is the first thing we ate once we got off the plane, suitcase still in tow:
Yes, that’s Korean barbecue in Midtown (sorry about the crappy phone-photo), from which the savvy New Yorker might deduce that we flew into Newark and rode the New Jersey Transit back into Penn Station. It was pretty late in the night by the time we started eating, and we were one of only three tables in the sprawling (by Manhattan standards), two-story restaurant. I admire these Korean establishments for their commitment to round-the-clock service, and I do wonder who those drunkards are who stumble in, ravenous, at 4am and make all this steadfastness worthwhile.
I’m nowhere near as bad as my mother, who has been fond of announcing, on our once-frequent overseas travels, that she doesn’t feel truly “full” unless she has eaten rice. (Contrast this with the enduring trope, among Westerners, that no Chinese meal can leave you sated for more than an hour, and one can only conclude that human beings are uniformly irrational, as well as vaguely, if only subconsciously, xenophobic. Sorry, Mum!) But I will admit that nine days without Asian food of any kind was a good long time for me, and that, as much as I enjoyed the eats in Costa Rica, I was quite happy to have returned home when I did.
I realized on this trip that there is no food so delicious that I can eat it four days in a row without it tasting like cardboard. It doesn’t matter what it is or how expertly it is prepared: familiarity, in my case, doesn’t breed contempt so much as a sort of sensory vacuum. Food just stops tasting.
For the record, I am an equal-opportunity insensate: nine days of Asian food alone is as bad as nine days without it. What I begin to yearn for is not any specific flavor, but “otherness” itself.
This progressive (but easily reversible) deadening of the senses has got to be some kind of evolutionary adaptation. It ensures the broadest possible intake of nutrients, and, in so doing, protects me from the horrors of diseases like pellagra and beriberi. Well, that’s very considerate of my organism, but nobody ever grew a goiter in a week. Does this instinct of mine really have to be so acute?
One of the finest bites I had in Costa Rica, I had, of all places, at the airport. The Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport in Liberia is in most ways a logistical nightmare, but the facility’s lone, counter-service restaurant actually has an efficient little grill station where meat is cooked to order. From this humble eatery, I ordered a steak skewer and a heart-of-palm salad.
They like Brahman cattle in Central and South America, skinny little hunchbacks that are grass-fed as a matter of course and so free-range that they can be a bit of a traffic hazard:
These animals produce beef that’s exceptionally flavorful but also exceptionally lean and chewy. (The restaurant at our hotel wrapped their filets in bacon before grilling them, and still we gnawed at the medallions.) So I was glad for the thimbleful of chimichurri that came with my skewer, at once condiment and lubricant. But I wasn’t prepared for it to taste so Cantonese.
I wonder if the ginger-scallion sauce traditionally served with Hong Kong-style roast meats is well-known in the U.S. (Here’s a recipe and photo–do you recognize it?) At the Cantonese places I go to in New York’s Chinatown, it’s almost always available, but I usually have to ask for it. I’m pretty sure you can’t buy it in stores: the bright green of the scallions wouldn’t survive bottling, and the minced ginger would be a breeding ground for botulism unless some acidic element were added to guard against it. But this condiment should never taste acidic. (They add acid to jarred minced garlic and ginger, and look how that turns out! It ruins everything.) It’s bold and zesty and, above all, screamingly salty.
I like to think of cuisines as languages or idioms; what are beignets and paczki if not culinary cognates? Even cuisines that seem very different on the surface are fundamentally linked, if you follow Chomsky’s thinking, by a sort of universal grammar. So when I am served Argentine chimichurri but taste Cantonese ginger-scallion oil, it’s a bit like unearthing a new pair of previously unnoticed cognates, a sort of etymological coup. In truth, both sauces probably arose separately and only accidentally resemble one another–much as the Japanese word for “occur” happens to be okuru. (Credit for this lovely example of a false cognate goes to Wikipedia.) But it still gives me some sentimental, new-agey pause to consider, if only for a moment, that we may all be one palate.