I think of soy sauce as a seasoning, and my non-Chinese friends think of it as a condiment.
That probably doesn’t seem like a major revelation to you, but, trust me, it’s huge. I’ve spent years feeling hurt, slighted, and just plain mystified when people I love, respect, and know for a fact are broad and thoughtful in their tastes will, upon being served a portion of Chinese food, proceed to drown it in soy sauce before even taking a bite.
As we say in Cantonese, Aiyah!
This always drove me crazy, because I knew that none of the people who were doing this would ever go to a French restaurant, an Italian restaurant, or even a trashy diner and think of salting a dish before tasting it. So why were they so confident that the Chinese food was underseasoned?
The other night, it finally hit me. I was out for dinner in Chinatown with a dear friend from my culinary school days, an excellent cook I’ve never known to make a seasoning misstep in her own kitchen, and when I saw that even she was automatically pre-soying her food, I realized that this wasn’t about adjusting the seasoning at all.
You see, even though soy sauce has a lot going on flavor-wise beyond its core saltiness, I was raised to think of it as an analog to salt. (I think of fish sauce in the same sort of way, even though I reach for it much less instinctively.) Once a dish is plated, I’ll add soy sauce only if I think it’s undersalted. But for my Western friend, who uses it much less frequently, it’s soy sauce’s other flavors that take precedence over its sodium content. And since she enjoys those flavors and associates them with Chinese food, she adds soy sauce as a matter of course–the same way that someone who really enjoys hot mustard or a particular brand of chili sauce might squirt some on a dish regardless of whether it truly “needs” it.
At heart, this is a cultural taxonomy clash. On my end, soy sauce and table salt reside in the same category; on hers, they’re living separate lives. We don’t use soy sauce the same way because we don’t agree on what it is!
Having said all this, I’d be lying if I said that I’d completely made my peace with the practice. Even when I recognize that soy sauce is being treated as a condiment, it doesn’t resolve the underlying issue, the thing that emboldens diners to be so free with the condiments in the first place: the low status of Chinese cuisine in America. In Western culture, people typically slather things with ketchup and hot sauce in their own homes, or in the most casual of eating venues–which is to say, when they feel free and easy, when they don’t have to impress anyone. It’s when people go to fancy restaurants, where the chef is an auteur, that they feel obligated to take every dish as it comes, never daring to tinker with the maestro’s calibrations. And it hurts my feelings a little that a French chef’s seasoning word is final, while a Chinese chef’s can be overridden.
Which is an awful lot of build-up for a very simple proposition: Taste before you soy. Maybe you’ll like what you taste–or maybe you’ll find that it was even blander than you’d feared, and decide to use twice the soy sauce you had planned. Either way, just give it a tiny taste. That’s really all I ask.
“A Cook For the Whole City” by T. Gabbe and Z. Zadunaiskaya; illustrations by E. Safonovoy.
Published in 1934, A Cook for the Whole City is a Soviet children’s book about a utopian factory-kitchen that churns out 24,000 meals a day. I first came across it in an online exhibition by the McGill University Library, Children’s Books of the Early Soviet Era, and was excited to find the full text (in the original Russian) transcribed here.
It opens with this wonderful illustration of Germany’s mythical Scharaffenland, where we are told the rivers run with milk, the wells draw beer, and cucumbers poke out of the earth already pickled (it’s a suspiciously Russian-flavored German myth, if you ask me):
Schlaraffenland, Cockaigne, Big Rock Candy Mountain: Every culture that has known famine dreams of some version of the Land of Plenty. In the Decameron, Boccaccio describes Bengodi as a magical place where the mountains are made of grated Parmesan; Pieter Bruegel the Elder imagines a rooftop shingled with jam tarts and a pig that obligingly sports a carving knife:
There is, of course, no Schlaraffenland. But here in the New Socialist Order, there is something just as good: the Factory-Kitchen, which manages to turn out 48,000 chicken cutlets a day, and without the aid of magical trees that sprout them. Isn’t that, the book asks, even more marvelous and beautiful?
I did a little digging, and I’m pretty confident the factory-kitchen in the story is a real factory-kitchen that once existed in my beloved St. Petersburg. The book gives its address as Karl Marx Prospect, which initially threw me, but then I remembered that a lot of things got renamed after the fall of the Soviet Union, including Petersburg itself (formerly Leningrad). Today, that avenue is known as Bolshoi Sampsonievsky, and the former factory (now commercial real estate) stands at no. 45.
This is what the Vyborg Factory-Kitchen looked like when it was built in 1929:
Photo via citywalls.ru
It’s not one of the more exciting ones. The genre’s breakout star, built in the shape of a hammer and sickle, is in Samara:
Photo via Samara Today
(You can read more about Samara’s Maslennikov Factory-Kitchen and see its impressive blueprints here. Benedicte of Snegourotchka writes of this Constructivist marvel that the “kitchen itself was located in the hammer, from which three conveyor belts brought the food to the canteen in the sickle.” The symbolism ran deep!)
Much of the book is spent breathlessly describing the mechanical dance that produces 48,000 chicken cutlets per shift, 50 liters of ice cream an hour, and a vat of cranberry kisel every ten minutes, with frequent asides to remind the reader of the old, inefficient, backbreaking ways. No tasting goes on in this factory: Tasting was for the housewife, who would add a pinch of salt here, a splash of vinegar there–a slave to flavor. In the utopian factory-kitchen, the chefs have weighed and calculated everything, “like in a pharmacy.” No-one has to wash dishes, either. Why, washing dishes used to be “the most boring thing”! Instead, there is a Ferris wheel of a dishwasher that lowers plates into a barrel of boiling water and then lifts them out again, gleaming.
For any reader who still needs convincing, a graphical depiction of kitchens past has been provided:
Note the cat rummaging through the trash; the young mother stirring soup with an infant on her hip; the casually discarded axe crying out for a gruesome accident, perhaps involving the toddler on the floor who is absorbed in fallen potato peelings. Interestingly, the scene takes place in a communal kitchen, which means it’s still a very recent, Soviet past that’s being critiqued, and not a tsarist one.
We end with the story of an archetypal grandmother who lives on a fifth-floor walkup. Every day she hobbles cane-first down those five flights of stairs, and hobbles back up again after going to the market. That hunched back of hers was once straight, and that descent once achieved in a single breath. But she’s been at it for 60 years now: At 15, she cooked for her father and brothers; at 30, for her husband and children; at 75, for her grandchildren. Can she read and write? There never was time for that. How’s her sewing? Well, there never was much time for that, either. Can she cook well, at least? After all, she’s been doing it her whole life. Hm, no. She only knows how to make soup, cutlets, and kasha.
Sixty years. 365 days in a year, working ten hours a day. Turns out she’s devoted 219,000 hours of her life to other people’s plates.
Вот зачем мы строим фабрики-кухни. And that is why we build factory-kitchens.
Say what you will about communist ideology, but it’s always been at the forefront of treating women like people, and women’s work as work, full stop. The book even goes so far as to recognize that women’s work is a particularly brutal, thankless form of labor. (As ever, the party line is one thing and culture is another. In my experience, household tasks continue to be divided along very traditional lines in Russian homes. But the party line is something, at least.)
It’s notable that the cook depicted on the cover of the book is female, as are the majority of the cooks that appear in the illustrations. This is not a contradiction. It’s still women doing the cooking, but, aided by big shiny machines, their streamlined labor now sustains a city. In the housewife system, we are told, it would have taken 5000 women to feed 24,000 workers; the factory-kitchen can do it with 400. The other 4600 women can now work outside the home, better themselves, teach their children, and join their husbands and brothers in building the socialist state. Meanwhile, the factory-kitchen will take care of the tedious stuff: the cooking and the cleaning-up.
If this all sounds a little too solicitous of women’s welfare, it probably is. The book doesn’t talk about the part where the state wanted to disrupt family bonds and strengthen workers’ ties to one another, and how serving identical, centrally-prepared meals in large cafeterias was intended to achieve this. But it never did achieve it. The Vyborg operation kept going until the 1970s, but it never managed to replace that inefficient, retrograde home kitchen–it only supplemented it.
I suspect my generation of Romantic Home Cooks will not care for this book, but I rather liked it. Don’t get me wrong–I’m not even tempted to take my meals communally. It’s just that, given what’s become of the food industry, I’m always moved when I get a glimpse of a more innocent time, back when women looked at machines and conveyor belts and saw emancipation, not diabetes. (I feel the same way reading almost anything by Poppy Cannon.) And even if it is in service of propaganda, I’ll take any vigorous argument for cooking as work, because that’s exactly what it is, and we don’t say it enough.
In the glib universe of internet listicles, an “untranslatable” foreign word is really just a picturesque concept without a one-word English equivalent. It might take a whole English phrase to do the work of one Spanish or Swedish word, but it can be done.
Hey, I’m not immune to the charms of the culaccino (Italian for “mark left on a table by a cold glass”), which recently appeared in a Medium article titled Eleven Untranslatable Words From Other Cultures. Or at least I wasn’t, until I thought about it some more, looked in a dictionary, and confirmed my suspicion that culaccino is a derivation of culo, which us Anglophones know as “ass.” Yep, what you and I assumed was a poetic little thing so like those romantic Italians to throw around in casual conversation just means “wet ass print.” Translate that.
The point is, whether or not we have a tidy little name for it, a ring of condensation is not an alien concept to people who don’t speak Italian. But I think there really are untranslatable words–words, at least, that require several paragraphs of contextual explaining and not a mere sentence. The one that springs immediately to mind is the Cantonese food word, 爽, pronounced “song”. (I can’t read Chinese, but I managed to find that character through some tricky googling. I hope it’s the right one! If it isn’t, I imagine my mother will email me about it soon enough.)
I most often use song to refer to the texture of a properly cooked noodle. Not just any noodle, but the Cantonese lye-water noodle, which is the traditional noodle in wonton noodle soup. The texture this word describes is related but not identical to al dente, and the reason it could never be identical is that there is no noodle in the Italian tradition with this exact springiness. The noodle is soaked in a solution of alkaline salts to produce its unique bouncy texture, and Hong Kong noodle shops live or die on the song-ness of their noodles.
(By the way, I can tell just by looking at the above photo, which I grabbed from Wikipedia Commons, that the noodles are not song. They are too loose; a properly-cooked noodle will have more curl and tension to it, and tends to pile up on itself instead of slithering down into the soup. This is what song looks like.)
Song can be applied to other bouncy, chewy foods, like squid or jellyfish, but where “chewy” often has a negative connotation in English, song is invariably a good thing. Then there are the figurative uses of song: you might use it to describe a refreshing cucumber salad that has nothing al dente about it, but feels easy-breezy on the palate, and this is comparable to the way we use ”crisp”: we have crisp salads and crisp wines, you see, and they both mean quite different things. And then there is an even more figurative usage of song, referring to a person who is frank, straightforward, low-drama, and generally cool as a cucumber.
Well, these figurative meanings are kind of a distraction: We have seen that “crisp” and “cucumber” can be used in multiple ways in English, too. The thing that truly makes song untranslatable into English is not its broad range of applications, but that it refers to a quality that the Cantonese prize in their food and most Anglophone cultures do not. Think about it: The Western culinary tradition is constantly trying to ward off chewiness, which is why meat is served bloody and seafood translucent, before the fibers have had a chance to seize up. The simplest way to translate song as it’s used in the noodle-squid continuum is probably something like “having the ideal chewiness”–but to know the parameters of that ideal, and, for that matter, to agree that it is the ideal, one has to be quite steeped in Cantonese culture.
And that’s what “untranslatable” means to me. It’s not enough for a word to be very, very precise; it has to be embedded in a whole big value system that an outsider doesn’t share or understand.