On sneaky racism and “other culinary horrors”

I started writing this post in June, but never finished it. I thought the moment had passed, but a conversation with my dear fellow food nerd Tammi about her PhD thesis brought the original article to mind, and when I read it again I was still pissed off. I’ve edited it a bit here and there.

The article is “Saucing the best”, written by Necia Wilden in The Weekend Australian Magazine on May 30-31.

For those scoffophiles who’ve had their head under a giant jamon for the last couple of several months, Wilden and John Lethlean have taken over the food and wine chairs at The Weekend Australian Magazine. I’ve stopped getting the Weekend Australian regularly – I almost never buy a dead tree newspaper anymore – but have checked out a few of the issues since the Food & Wine relaunch.

There’s potential for a beefed-up F&W section in a weekend broadsheet daily to really sing – but it will take more than I”ve seen so far. There was quite a bit of fanfare around the first edition, including a cover shot of Wilden and Lethlean, but it’s hard to work out who the section is trying to appeal to. The part I liked best was the double page focus on a particular ingredient, but I’m yet to see it repeated in the section. (Updated – still haven’t seen it again, but I’ve pretty much given up on it. I wonder if the new Simon Thomsen/Matt Preston section “taste” in the News Ltd tabloids on Tuesdays will be any better?)

The article rankled, but the reason why took some time to percolate through (updated: however the depth of the rankle proved long-lasting, as it turns out) It begins by saying that Ms Wilden’s Asian cooking has passable technique and execution but suffers because she can’t access the top drawer ingredients she uses to cook more familiar ie, European, food. Fr’instance, for Italian, she buys “the best”:

“costly extra virgin olive oil, Ortiz anchovies, imported durum-wheat pasta .. you name it, if it achieves a great result I buy it”.

She doesn’t mention how she learned to cook Italian food or where she buys her Italian delights, but it’s certainly a bit more glam than the Asian grocery, which is mysterious, confusing, and probably poisonous:

“I’m faced with row after row, jar after jar of anonymous muck loaded with sugar, preservaties, artificial colours, MSG and other culinary horrors. It’s odd how so many people seem to turn a blind eye to the truth about the staples of the Asian larder.”

Isn’t that creepy!

“I don’t know why food writers and chefs who should know better tell us to use hoisin sauce in our Asian cooking. Have you checked the ingreedients list on a bottle of standard hoisin lately? Or a bottle of so-called oyster sauce, for that matter?”

Well, inquiring minds and all, let’s see what’s in the fridge. A bottle of Tung Chun Hoi Sin sauce from Hong Kong, which lists these ingredients:

hoi-sin

What’s the scariest sounding bit, maybe that “E129″ there? It’s a red food colouring, Allura Red AC, the “E” indicating it’s approved in the EC. According to Wikipedia, it’s banned in a number of European countries, and approved for use in food, drink and medicines in the US.

Here’s the ingredients list on the Lee Kum Kee Premium Oyster Sauce:

oyster

Not knowning that this brand was the one recommended by Tony Tan “if you must buy oyster sauce”, I picked this brand for the excellence of the label:

img_31451

If you chose to completely avoid artificial additives, colourants, etc, you won’t want to eat this stuff. If MSG has a nasty effect on you, as it does on some people, ditto. I certainly don’t have any a box of MSG in the cupboard, but personally I have no difficulty with small infrequent amounts of it. Barbara Fisher of Tigers and Strawberries has a post about it here.

Eventually Wilden gets to the nitty-gritty:

“Let’s cut to the chase. In a country where I can buy jamon made from pigs fed on acorns, real buffalo mozzarella, parmigiano-reggiano, carnaroli rice and single-origin coffee, why and I still only dreaming about their premium Asian equivalents?”

“It’s a minefield even for Asians … (says Tony Tan, man of impeccable credentials in respect of both food and personal Asian-ness)… This is a relief to hear, because so far in our tour the usually simple act of identifying the right product has involved so many bizarre clues and riddles I’m starting to feel like Tom Hanks in a Chinese remake of The Da Vinci Code.”

(Updated – as the months have passed the usefulness of twitter has become more obvious for those who lack (or have temporarily misplaced?) “an Asian friend” – there are a huge number of food bloggers and tweeters, particularly in Sydney, who either have Asian heritage or are extremely knowlegeable about Asian food. Twitter operates so often as a gift economy, and I have found people I’ve developed online relationships with really helpful with the round-eye questions – lookin’ at @stickyfingers and @thatjessho here in particular.)

I don’t have a problem with food snobbery, but while here it’s dressed up as a cry for excellence it’s standing on the shoulders of white bourgie entitlement. It sets up European food traditions as normal, and Asian food traditions as deviant. What if it’s more than a case of you say vanilla, and I say pandan?

She does provide some pointers, of course -

“It is possible to find good quality in Asian supermarkets here, You just have to know where – and how – to look.”

That’s putting the cart before the horse. To my mind, what you need to do is buy and taste. When I started learning more about Asian food, I never finished a bottle of soy sauce, fish sauce, any bloody thing without having another ready to go in the cupboard. Not out of some freaky survivalist mentalitity, but out of a desire to educate my palate and learn. If the soy sauce was nearly finished, I opened the new, different bottle. I poured some into little glass saucers and tasted, sniffed, looked. I asked Owy to do the same, and we talked about what we sensed and thought.

The article suggests that you buy fish sauce with “Nhi” on the label, which “means first-pressed and is a designation of high quality. Aha! The extra virgin olive oil of fish sauces.”

Did you know there’s three other methods for working out the good fish sauces? (1) choose a bottle wrapped in plastic. If you peer through the plastic, you’ll see the magic “Nhi” on the label. (2) Choose a bottle that costs more than $3. (3) Ask the shop attendant.

It’s this last one that’s the sticking point, innit? Christ knows I’ve bumbled my way around enough different tiny bloody grocery shops of one flavour or another to know. In general, if you’re keen and polite and have a specific question, people will help you where they can. But they might not know the name of that handsome shiny dark green leaf in English, having never had need to call it by its English name before. It’s nothing to get cut about, or feel your sense of entitlement under threat – in general it’s just a fact of life dealing with a small low profit margin business run by people who work really hard.

(Updated – of course that whole discussion of fish sauce is now moot, a white guy having decided to bring us the best fish sauce available to humanity. Haven’t tried it yet, as I haven’t seen it in any of the places I shop.)

Part of the problem Wilden sees is that we don’t have a “one-stop, upmarket Eastern shop, no Simon Johnson of Asian ingredients“. It’s part of her problem, anyway, because she might live close enough to where it might be profitable to locate that shop. Unless there’s some kind of “trickle down” culinary effect she anticipates, the rest of us are left shopping at whatever little Asian grocery we can find near us. Much better to teach people to taste, to eat, to read and to trust their palates than to tell them to hold fast for announcements from on high.

The article makes me shitty enough to write a response to it a many months later because it’s something I really care about. I want people to love, and understand and cook Asian food at home. I want them to know the excitement of coming home with a bag full of stuff that they don’t understand yet, and coming to understand it. I don’t want people like Wilden to take all the risk, iniative and excitement out of learning about ingredients from an Asian grocery store. It’s not like you’re paying the prices that get asked for acorn-fed jamon, after all.

While it’s a low-cost high-return activity it’s important not to be stingy, as I mentioned in an earlier article about demystifying Asian ingredients – for example, buy the relatively expensive paler dried shiitakes with lovely cracks across the top of the cups instead of the dark, tight brown ones. They cost about four times as much by volume, which is still, frankly, bugger all for what you’re getting.

I spend hugely on food, a lot of it organic, artisan-made, etc, etc – so if I’ve got a problem with this stuff I’m guessing Wilden’s on pretty shaky ground. I think she wants to be, actually, as the article ends:

“And will I get accusations of elitism from some? Of course.”

I don’t have a problem with culinary elitism, but the average journalism and exclusivist underpinnings of the whole article are a killer.

I suppose you can’t criticise an article for not acheiveing something it didn’t set out to do. But what it did set out to do is provide guidance to entitlement-minded foodies who need to be told what to think. There’s as much trickery and marketing guff in Asian food items as there is anywhere else. Look at things carefully – as Tony Tan points out in the article, one golden pagoda Shao Xing wine is great, two golden pagodas is crap. You should investigate and draw your own conclusions.

38 comments ↓

#1 drnaomi on 21.01.10 at 3:36 pm

Great post Zoe (and alerted to it by @dogpossum on twitter, so thx). You’ve taught me a lot about Asian food Zoe, mainly because you said just go and try. And I figured out the white crazy-top shiitake thing by myself – boy was I happy about that one.

A conversation I would like to see – first wave Greek and Italian migrants discussing food phobias of Anglo-Australians with Asian migrants. I should imagine knowing looks being passed about how Sydneysiders in teh 1950s rejected mussels and octopus and how you had to go to a pharmacy to buy olive oil. None of this crap about ‘only the best’ virgin for those food pioneers – it’s only been in my life time that Australians have learned to value fresh herbs.

Ain’t it great that food is a moveable feast and the more courageous of us are not forced to stay in the flavourless shadows?

#2 our man in Canberra on 21.01.10 at 4:43 pm

Ta, Zoe.

At the time, Wilden’s article nagged at me like a small piece of alfoil pressed to a molar. Couldn’t put my finger on what was bugging me until, “food snobbery… dressed up as a cry for excellence… standing on the shoulders of white bourgie entitlement.”

Cat belled, boxed and taken to the ‘farm’.

#3 Ed on 21.01.10 at 5:17 pm

Yeah, great post. You’re right about the snobbery and that’s the problem with most food writing. Simon Johnson and the likes are so expensive. They are a bloody rip of that we sadly have to live with so I certainly don’t want a Simon Johnson of Asian ingredients.
And I actually like poking around in Asian stalls and in Asian shops with all that exciting produce, stuff and implements.
The David Thompson sauce is good, very clean, but is expensive although I’ll also say I’ve never had any problems with any other brands I’ve bought (not that I can remember which at this point)

#4 Zoe on 21.01.10 at 6:24 pm

Dr Naomi, it took me a very long time to work out what the hell to do with fermented bean curd, and there are mystery packets in the cupboard all the time. Finding it out is part of the fun, isn’t it?

And I’m glad it wasn’t just festering away in me, Our Man ;)

How expensive is the Megachef sauce, Ed? I mean I do have the $14 Shao Xing ;)

#5 kate on 21.01.10 at 6:38 pm

How sad, and lazy, to be bothered enough by the (minimal) challenges of the Asian supermarket to write a whole article. Personally I love that I can buy a whole lotta different flavours and experiment. Because I no longer live near an Asian supermarket we tend to do this in big periodic shopping trips. You know what? A years worth of Asian jars and sauces and spices probably costs me less than $50. So I go nuts and take a risk, I buy mystery packets, I buy stuff I don’t know what to do with, and we test it at home.

I don’t want to pay a premium for Simon Johnson or someone to repackage that gear in a bottle with English writing. I love the Chinese Cocking Wine too much (ok, sometimes you buy, you taste test and buy the one that tasted best, but sometimes you just buy the one with the rudest mistranslation).

#6 anthony on 21.01.10 at 7:13 pm

As they say in South America, every Simon Johnson has his Necia Wilden.

#7 Tammi on 21.01.10 at 8:22 pm

Great post, Zoe. And you’re right, that article has irritated the crap out of me as well. I agree with your claim that she’s spoiling the adventure, the learning we all go through when we’re actually interested in the process of cooking, not just the ‘elite’ (or as Ed would say, wankerish) knowledge of what’s ‘best’.

Sure, we all want quality ingredients – for flavour, for ethical reasons in terms of the food workers who grew or otherwise produced the goods & the animals from which they came, and for reasons of environmental sustainability. And I imagine that many Asian ingredients will increasingly be available that adhere to these bourgie, righteous requirements – which is great, IMO. Though demanding them because they’re attached to some white dude’s name or come in sleek packaging to match your stylish KitchenAid is not great, I reckon. It’s just about accruing cultural capital – distinguishing yourself from the masses with your excellent ‘taste’.

And finally, you’ve certainly nailed the core issue with Wilden’s article:

It sets up European food traditions as normal, and Asian food traditions as deviant.

What a ridiculously ahistorical description she offers with her claim that going through the Asian grocer is like a “Chinese remake of the Da Vinci Code,” as though learning any new foodway is not a treasure hunt, full of pitfalls and discoveries! But the real low for me came when she complained about not being able to distinguish which soy sauce is organic because it’s written in Japanese.

Sorry, Necia, we’ll ensure in future to get all that translated for you. We’ll make sure and get ‘them’ to translate all the Greek, Turkish, Italian, Spanish… you get the picture… on all the other interesting and delicious foodstuffs available in Australia while we’re at it. And won’t the world be so interesting when everyone here is just like us and there’s no need to work through the challenges of translation, be they linguistic or cultural?

#8 Zoe on 21.01.10 at 8:35 pm

“We’ll make sure and get ‘them’ to translate “

I made my friend K8y read the article this afternoon (she didn’t get very far without spluttering). She used to work in Ashfield in Sydney, which has many Chinese-owned businesses. She said there had been Council regulations to make English signage compulsory where there were Chinese signs displayed.

Couldn’t really believe it, but here’s a 2006 article by Deborah Singerman in Eureka Street and a very recent one by Brett Nielson of UWS in the journal Portal (a pdf). Off to read them now!

#9 Ross Karavis on 21.01.10 at 9:59 pm

A great article.

I always find it interesting to see the positioning that goes on with food.

As someone of Greek background, I always find it interesting how cuisines – other than the traditional canon – French, Italian and (more recently) Spanish – are always deemed as inferior cuisines.

To watch a Greek mother make their own filo pastry by hand is a wonder to observe. It requires skill and technique.

I did not read the original article but I am appalled by the racist assumptions it makes.

It is as if there are no other grand culinary traditions – Persian, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Egyptian, which require technique and refined understandings of taste and texture.

It reminds me of the discussions I have had with Anglo-Australians re the folk traditions of ‘cald’ communities when it comes to the arts. Ballet and contemporary dance are deemed to be paragons on ‘excellence’ but classical Indian dance or Macedonian folk dances or flamenco are deemed to be ‘folkloric.’

I understand that it is easy to find the markers of excellence in the classical food traditions of Europe but not for Chinese or Vietnamese or Persian or Indian food traditions.

We have enough enough discourse to understand what constitutes a great ‘olive oil’ or a great ‘Bordeaux’ or a grand English cheddar.

But have we had the discourse to establish the markers of what constitutes a great pho or a great basmati rice or a great couscous or a great ghee?

How do we know that we are eating a good felafel or a baklava when we are eating out on Sydney Road?

Will leave it at that for now. I think we need to make sure we construct the alternative discourse to the middle class snobbery of Necia Wilden and make sure we construct an alternative universe in which we construct the counter-discourse.

We need to share our knowledge and experience and reach out beyond our assumptions.

#10 Matt C on 22.01.10 at 8:57 am

A great post about a terrible article.

I’ve only been into a Simon Johnson shop once, and I wanted to retch.

#11 Laura on 22.01.10 at 11:07 am

You’re absolutely right of course about the white bourgie entitlement on grotesque display in that article (and you generously said you din’t mind a bit of food snobbery, but I really thought the food snobbery going on there was crudely correlated with prices and brands, and that got up my nose). I do think however that it might be prudent to limit consumption of food produced in China and Hong Kong, especially seafoods and extra especially shellfish. My friend (who owns the visitor cats) is back from two years living in HK and was just the other day talking about the endemic food contamination because of pollution and issues with food processing. The melamine in milk scandal was apparently just the tip of the iceberg. Local fish and shellfish is all contaminated with bacteria and heavy metals. There are announcements on the loudspeakers in supermarkets to soak your vegetables for three hours before cooking, etc. I think if you were eating a lot of oyster sauce it’d be safer to make your own with oysters you knew about. This is a different issue to what you’ve pointed out, naturally.

#12 Zoe on 22.01.10 at 11:20 am

There are many things that article didn’t do, Laura ;) In general I try to buy local food, but we eat probably 2-3 tablespoons of oyster sauce a month between four of us. At that level, it doesn’t concern me, which is not to say I wouldn’t be happy to look at an alternative.

for the dimensions of the problem, check out these photographs by Lu Guang (卢广) which won a prize in “humanistic photography” last year.

#13 Kirsty on 22.01.10 at 3:39 pm

Part of the fun of going to various Asian and Middle Eastern grocers is that you discover how much you can save by avoiding the Simon Johnson’s of this world. Often the difference *for exactly the same product* is quite substantial. I had this experience with rose water and orange flower water when moving between The Essential Ingredient (when it had a Brisbane branch) and an Indian grocer. Pulses were another ingredient where I observed considerable disparity.

Still, I think there is a place for the kind of ‘translation’ of ingredients that cultural mediators like David Thomson effect.

#14 emica on 23.01.10 at 8:42 am

Shit my wanker alert just went off the freakin’ dial!

I do not want to go to Simon Johnson to have some kind of over-packaged, over-priced mediated gastronomic “experience” for people who can’t handle the real thing. That kind of thing is more about food as a status symbol rather than about eating and sharing the love. It’s all way too self conscious.

However, I’m not really convinced about the racism criticism. The cuisines she refers to glowingly, and which now have elite ingredients attached to them, have only been considered worthy of such ingredient trainspotterism very recently. Spanish, Italian, Greek were all subservient to French, the only ‘true’ cuisine. And English was considered a joke less still a cuisine. Given that these vaunted Euro cuisines were, until recently, considered the “other” to French’s “norm”, I’m not buying the racist line. IMO her article is embarrassing and gauche, but not racist.

I’m also going to be a bit controversial and say I find this kind of ingredient trainspotterism rather tedious. Seriously, can you really tell the difference between, say, normal olive oil and olive oil hand pressed at midnight on a full moon by virgins, once you’ve browned the onions?! If you’re only making tuna mornay, what’s the point of using Ortiz??

I would have classed myself a food elitist & happily a snob. Perhaps I’m more of a pleb than I thought. I just don’t think it’s about cost- it’s about adventure.

Great post Zoe, very thought provoking.

#15 Zoe on 23.01.10 at 11:12 am

I think that that “ingredient trainspotterism” (great term, btw) can cut both ways – sometimes uber-quality is irrelevant, eg all the sensible Italians who warn against using your best EVOO to fry an egg – but a good middle-level product will be significantly better than the cheapest (oils again a good example).

The articles I linked to up there in comment #8 both mention the desire to train Chinese shopkeepers in Ashfield in the sort of commercial niceities that Euro-descended shoppers value, such as greetings and smiles and freely offered advice. I see a racist tone in the demand for hand-holding and refusal to engage with the Asian ingredient shopping experience on its own terms.

#16 dogpossum on 23.01.10 at 12:40 pm

I wrote a comment but it got lost. Probably a good thing – it wasn’t too coherent. I don’t think this one is much better, I’m afraid. Sorry it’s so long. Again.

Here is what I think I wrote about:
1. I think, here, class is perhaps a bit of a bigger issue than, or at least working in complicated ways with, race. So the tossers writing that article are aiming to eat like hoity toity types. So they’re looking for hoity toity ingredients. Yes, it’s nice to have very good quality ingredients, but unless you are actually hoity toity, and aiming to eat like a hoity toity, you won’t eat all meals comprising of all expensive/top shelf ingredients. Here, I keep thinking of issues of ‘authenticity’: eating like a well off person? Someone on a basic wage? Someone struggling? Someone living in the city? A farmer? … which is kind of related to…

2. Sure, there are heaps of wicked cool top shelf ingredients from all over a particular country, but certain ingredients tend to be specialities in certain areas. So you might get awesome Cheese Type A from region x, fabulous Sausage B from region y, etc etc. I’m figuring that if you lived in region x or y, you’d eat that region’s speciality quite regularly, for a more reasonable price. And I’m wondering if the rest of your diet might be a bit less amazing. So you wouldn’t get Cheese Type A in region y, but you do get that Sausage B.

3. Foods are seasonal. So Sausage B might rock at one part of the year, but not in another. So mightn’t it make sense that you can’t find it all year round, everywhere? Inaccessibility is part of what makes an ingredient so great – I mean, mangoes are great because they’re at their best only part of the year. So you gorge then, but then don’t eat them the rest of the year. So not being able to have everything you want all the time is kind of a good thing.
Is it just a hoity toity tosser impulse to get shitty that you can’t have EVERYTHING RIGHT NOW?

4. wtf is ‘Asia’? I mean, if this author is crying like a baby because they can’t find That Great Asian Hoity Toity Shop, maybe they need to get a clue: there’s a big difference between Thai, Vietnamese, Indian… cuisine. Let alone within China. So I’m figuring that part of the pleasure of eating within or borrowing from or just getting nommy with a particular cuisine is having to look a little further afield than that one, convenient, super-packaged hoity toity speciality shop. So you do have to check out the Phillipino grocer, the Hmong family’s stand at the market, the Vietnamese grocer.

5. There ARE speciality shops selling ‘Asian’ food gear. It’s just that they’re not carefully whiteified, hoity-toitified shops where everything is overpriced and carefully labelled in english.

6. I think that searching for particular speciality products distracts from the importance of fresh produce. I’m thinking about particular Indian or Thai culinary traditions where eating fresh greens is really super important. I mean, having just the right soy sauce is nice, but having perfectly fresh greens cooked just right is far more important. And of course, this leads to the idea that if you’re a truly badass foody, you have a garden of your own where you grow badass veggies.

… I keep having visions of Jamie Oliver in his telly veggie patch crapping on about kids’ lunches, or Stephanie Alexander getting so crazy about veggie patches in schools…

And I have to add a word for the Ashfield grocers:
I go up to the main drag in Ashfield every day to buy my groceries. I deal with at least half a dozen sales people regularly. I have dealt with dozens and dozens. And every day I get smiles and friendly greetings and then ‘have a nice day!’s. When I go to the fish shop, I don’t speak any Chinese languages and the ladies behind the counter don’t speak a heap of English. It’s crowded in there and it smells bad on a hot day. But the ladies are happy to tell you what to do with a whole, giant fish. And the nannas standing near by are often keen to disagree and offer contrary advice. In Cantonese. Most people in there are also pretty cool with answering questions. If you’re nice and not a pain in the arse. You just have to be brave and to take it slowly, taking risks on fish you might end up hating. It’s also worth reading up on fishes before you go in. I think that if you weren’t used to the shop, it’d be scary and intimidating. My Squeeze only buys their pre-packed salmon because he’s shy. But even he’s getting braver and asking for help with things.
I also go to a good butcher where one lady speaks good English but the surly teenager doesn’t (well, do any surly teenagers?) and the older man doesn’t. But we muddle through and they’re very good about taking heads off chickens for me, cutting me deals when I’m short of cash, etc. At the BBQ place there’s less English, but they know me and it’s one of my favourite places to go.
You can still make jokes even if you don’t share the same language, and people usually like helping other people. Especially naive white girls like me who want to buy the wrong type of chicken (‘no, no, you want this – very sweet, very tender’) and silly frecklers like my Squeeze wanting to buy crappy tinned tomatoes instead of fresh (‘no! this is better!’)

I tend to shop at the cheapy greengrocer which is jampacked and super busy. I’m often the only skip in there. I’ve noticed that while it’s always busy and often super crowded, people in there know how to behave in a busy, crowded shop. When we (very rarely) get a confused yuppy from summer hill, they don’t seem to know how to shop in a crowd where you have to kind of push your way through politely. There’s one thing I’ve learnt shopping in Coburg, Brunswick and now Ashfield: nannas don’t say excuse me.
I’ve also learnt:
- If you want to get anywheres, you can’t stand back with weirdly formal British queuing manners.
- You also have to be cool and relaxed, especially when it’s fucking hot (as these joints aren’t air conditioned): don’t get angry.
- Don’t be rude. Rude = loud and sweary, _too_ pushy or aggressive, too demanding.
- Get out of the way of tiny nannas with giant shopping trolleys.
- Don’t use a huge supermarket type trolley, use a basket.
- Touch everything. Dismiss anything that’s not fresh. Ask the young fellas putting out stock to find you something better from out the back. Haggle.
- Buy groceries everyday; only eat gai larn or choy you’ve bought that day, eat your fresh herbs immediately. Sure, this is time-hungry stuff, but it makes you eat your fresh veggies STRAIGHT AWAY and you’re better for it.
- In season stuff is cheap – buy a lot of it and eat it quickly.

A certain degree of bravado and posturing is appreciated. But too much is rude. I mean, when I go to my favourite dumpling joint if I’m offered the dodgy table at the back I say ‘no thanks’ and then I ask for a better one. If they reply with ‘it’s reserved’ I go to walk out. Queen of Bluff. And they then offer me the better table. But you can’t be too pushy. And it helps to tip.

I find shopping in Ashfield very different to shopping in Brunswick or over in Haberfield, where shop keepers are much more inyourface European style friendly. I like that inyourface stuff, but it doesn’t feel polite to stare/make super-eye-contact and get all up in someone’s grill that way in a Chinese restaurant or grocer. I’ve also noticed that I’m physically much bigger than most of the people in the grocer and that the aisles can feel a bit squashy – because I’m Anglo and because I’m fatter than they are. So that can make me feel a bit awkward.

Basically, I figure that I need to learn the skills to get along. I quite like learning new skills; it makes me more awesome. I don’t like shopping in up market hoity toity speciality food shops. I’d rather get amongst it and have a few scary first time experiences and get some skills.

So I just want to end with: Ashfield is full of super-friendly, super-nice shop keepers that I see everyday. I see far less nastiness or shittiness or arsehole-ness there than I do in hoity toity Summer Hill (land of yuppy arseholes).

Zoe, this post was so thought provoking and interesting.

I need to learn some Cantonese, because I mean, what the fuck, I can’t even say thank you in a Chinese language and I sure as shit learnt how to say ‘graci’ and ‘scusi senora’ in Brunswick.

#17 Zoe on 23.01.10 at 12:56 pm

dogpossum your comment was ated by the spam filter, but I have put you on the whitelist (ha!)

I take your point about class and race – the “Asian food experts” namechecked in the section of the article about what you should buy are: Kylie Kwong, Tony Tan, Cheong Liew, Neil Perry, Martin Boetz (of longrain in Sydney) and Ty Bellingham (of Sailor’s Thai in Sydney).

And that coming to understand where you are and how to behave is exactly what I’m talking about. I’m 5’11 and not a small person, so I take up a huge amount of space in a crowded aisle (even more so when I had a giant bourgie three wheeler pram with me). I love that point about being wary of the Nannas – they’re more powerful than they look ;)

If you’re after a good fish book, I’ve been finding Hilary McNevin’s Guide to Fish very useful – it’s Australian and focuses on sustainable eating. She blogs at Food for Thought.

#18 emica on 24.01.10 at 9:57 am

Dogpussum –

I agree with every word. Shopping on my local high street’s been an education and absolutely brilliant. I like the way that what you’re talking about is just what you do on a day to day basis, as I do. It’s not some self conscious special occasion exercise in foodie-ness. It’s just normal shopping.

Since living in this part of north London I’ve learnt that smiles, questions and becoming a known regular, as well as an ability to hold one’s ground in a throng of people with different attitudes to personal space, are all that’s needed to have heaps of fun and adventure while doing the otherwise routine milk/ bread run.

Your point about how you need a bit of bravado really rang true to me. I remember I took a loaf of bread back to the turkish mini-market because it was stale. Of course, it shouldn’t have been stale, but, to me, the benefits of all the cool stuff they sell (pomegranate molasses-yes!) outweigh the risk of old bread. And because I stood my ground and told them off (but not too much!) I now had a relationship with the guys, which is handy when you’re 50p short on the pot of hommous…

#19 FDB on 24.01.10 at 10:30 am

Sounds to me like this woman’s problem is with Simon Johnson.

All I’m really hearing is “why can’t I do all my wanking in the one place, where everything’s shiny and the staff pretend to adore me?”.

By the way Zoe, I’ve found a couple of reliable sources of toban djan (and various barky/rhizomey/peely things) up in Preston, so I shouldn’t be needing your mailorder help again for a while.

I made an awesome snack for blokedy blokes watching cricket – sichuan pork bites. Marinate 2cm cubes of pork belly in toban djan and rice wine for 24 hours or so, then bake them on a tray till crispy round the edges and serve with lettuce leaves for wrapping. The skin stays chewy rather than crackly, and there’s fat all over everything, just as it should be.

On which note, I got href=”http://www.eatmedaily.com/2008/12/avant-lard-fat-by-jennifer-mclagan-cookbook-review/” rel=”external”>this for xmas. I’m working up to a dinner party on the theme.

#20 FDB on 24.01.10 at 10:30 am

Erk.

Link better?

#21 Dr Sister Outlaw on 24.01.10 at 11:11 am

I loved this quote from Dogpossum: ‘I figure that I need to learn the skills to get along. I quite like learning new skills; it makes me more awesome.’

It does. Also liked the note about absence of ‘excuse me’ – the Vietnamese don’t do that either. They just push you where you think you should go.

Zoe, those photos are horrible. Vietnam is not so developed but you do worry a bit eating there. I’ve never seen so many plastic bags in all my life, and the smog is a mix of scooter exhaust, burning plastic (because you can’t get rid of it any other way) and industrial funk, and heaven knows what’s in the dust. England was like that once – how very fortunate we are to live now, and live where we do.

#22 Zoe on 25.01.10 at 2:17 am

FDB, what an orsm present. Been eyeing off that book for a while.

I think I might have to make “learning new skillz makes me more orsm” the new tagline for the blog. That or a tattoo;)

#23 Zoe on 26.01.10 at 6:15 pm

Have come across this article by Fuchsia Dunlop in the Financial Times, on small scale artisanal food production in China. She knows a little more about it than Necia …

#24 Ed on 26.01.10 at 6:27 pm

Fuchsia Dunlp knows more than most Chinese and is a goddess.

#25 Zoe on 26.01.10 at 6:34 pm

Isn’t she? You saw her at the Sydney Food Festival didn’t you, with Yu Bo?

There’s a great piece on her blog about the value eaters place on Chinese food here.

#26 “It’s a minefield even for Asians” – The Last Appetite on 26.01.10 at 7:37 pm

[...] I’m only bringing it up because of the interesting discussion it has spawned over at Progressive Dinner Party. Like Zoe, I read it in the physical newspaper. I paid good money for it in the hope that food [...]

#27 Duncan | Syrup and Tang on 26.01.10 at 10:13 pm

Oh dear, I’ve come to this very late! There are so many aspects of this that need exploring, but I’d better try to keep my comment short:

* I’m not sympathetic to the use of the label “racism” in this scenario. “Utter ignorance” isn’t the same as discriminatory behaviour. (I doubt anyone would roll out the “racism” label for coarse generalisations about eastern Europe or the Middle East or India or perhaps South America or or or.)

* To play devil’s advocate, Necia Wilden has an audience she’s required to write for. I’d argue that it isn’t a middle class audience, as suggested by a commenter above, but a *safe*, *monied*, *status fixated* audience who are only nominally interested in the idea of adventure that some of us enjoy.

* Chucking out the devil’s advocate with the virgin-press sesame oil now, the article was in my opinion a piece of vapid, clichéed crap. But hey, print media foodwriting that informs has long been in short supply in Australia.

Glad you decided to write about it Zoe!

#28 Zoe on 27.01.10 at 8:10 am

Hi Duncan – I think there is a kind of racism in placing the Eurocentric shopping experience at the centre, as “normal”, and setting up shopping in Asian grocery stores as scary, difficult, and odd.

By the way, I say “Asian” grocery stores as the local ones at least are pan-Asian, eg stock and advertise goods from a large number of countries.

As for Wilden’s audience, she’s obviously constrained by the publication her writing appears in, but this article appeared in one of the very early editions of a new food writing regime that had arrived with a lot of fanfare – and it was more of the bloody same. As Phil Lees notes at his post linked at comment #26, and as I said, we haven’t read it since. It is possible they could have had a new audience without alienating the old one.

#29 dogpossum on 27.01.10 at 8:33 am

Zoe, the comments in the Fuchia Dunlop post are very interesting. The bits about ‘ethnic’ food as other than ‘traditional’ or ‘European’ food caught my eye in particular. This sort of talk – assuming that ‘European’, white American, English, white Australia, etc etc – is not ethnic is fascinating, and of course has been dealt with academic discussions about whiteness as ethnicity, and not as some neutral ‘norm.’ I think class is important in discussions about whiteness as well.

…these issues seem extra relevant, post-Australia Day.

Oh, I have to add: I see a dad who shops in Ashfield with his three daughters after school quite regularly. The littlest daughter is in the pram, while the older two are sent to get fruit. The oldest one is kind of slap-dash, but the middle one takes aaaaages to select the perfect apricots, plums or nectarines. They’re a finely oiled family machine which manages the crowding quite well. I think the gender stuff is important, too. I know that it’s significant that I have time to shop every day, that I’m a woman with a male partner who brings home the bucks that allow me the luxury/torture of being at home all day. Part of me begins to think that my obsession with grocery shopping and food has something to do with my desperately trying to find something interesting in domestic labour…

#30 Duncan | Syrup and Tang on 27.01.10 at 9:52 am

Hi Zoe. I think it’s hard to argue that a person’s own cultural perspective or reference points are *inherently* a form of racism. The audience of Wilden’s piece are predominantly Eurocentric. Their reference points are predominantly Eurocentric. A lack of familiarity with other places/cultures/whatever is pretty normal and I think you’d find the majority of European-heritage Australians would find “Asian” grocery shops “scary, difficult, and odd”. That is not racism. It’s anxiety about unfamiliar things, sometimes expressed with irritating ignorance as in the article mentioned. Naturally, that ignorance and cliché can encourage racist beliefs amongst people inclined to have prejudiced or discriminatory attitudes.

Separately, I don’t know why anyone would have expected the Australian to be groundbreaking — Lethlean and Wilden were acquired for name recognition and commercial advantage, in the same way Matt Preston was recently. Preston is the only one with diverse writing skills there. The food media space in print is not going to earn money from catering to anything but the core audience. (And Fairfax had already destroyed its strength in food before it lost the above names, so there’s no reason to expect anything better anywhere I guess.)

#31 Pat on 27.01.10 at 10:55 am

For those who are interested in learning more about Asian ingredients, I can recommend The Essential Guide to Buying and Using Authentic Asian Ingredients by Carol Selva Rajah, 2002 pub New Holland, ISBN 9781864367454, and Discovering Asian Ingredients for New Zealand Cooks, by Jennifer Yee, 2001, Random House, ISBN 9781869414610. You might have to search about for them as I suspect they are out of print.

Culinary snobbery reminds me of one of the mothers who turned up to watch a college cricket match some years ago, dangling a miniature schnauzer off a lead. People duly commented on the little dog. “They are very fashionable, of course,” she told us. There it was – not a family pet but a fashion accessory.

#32 Zoe on 27.01.10 at 11:01 am

It’s not inherently racist to hold a particular cultural perspective or reference point, but it is racist to assume that the perspective is of general application. Unless they’ve quietly renamed the paper The White Australian?

I agree about the potential for whitey confusion, which is why I ran a session for my women’s group called “Demystifying the Asian Grocery Store”, which I mentioned in this post. A relevant section:

“I think one reason why some people are cautious about buying things from an Asian grocery store is that so much stuff is packaged, and if you don’t know what it is, or what the thing you want looks like, it gets confusing. So we ripped open all the plastic and set about rehydrating, sniffing, poking and tasting.”

That, as opposed to a chefly word from on high, is how to learn about ingredients. And you can do it by yourself, I did.

And I can’t accept that the “food media space in print is not going to earn money from catering to anything but the core audience“, when Australians spend $60 million a year on food and cookery titles, according to the research of Professor Donna Lee Brien.

#33 Zoe on 27.01.10 at 11:10 am

Quite, Pat, and thanks for your recommendations.

I also rely heavily on Rosemary Brissenden’s South East Asian Cookery, Charmaine Solomon’s Encyclopaedia of Asian Food, Deh-ta Hsiung’s The Chinese Kitchen and Emi Kazuko’s Japanese Food and Cooking. There’s more at my (incomplete but getting there) library thing under the tag “Asia” (and yes, there are more specific country tags and tags “Europe”, “America”, etc ;)

#34 Speedy on 28.01.10 at 1:17 pm

hey Zoe, really interesting article and discussion – thanks for writing it. I didn’t read the initial article when it was first published but reading it now, I think it would have niggled at me too.

I agree with everything you say, although I don’t have a problem with Ashfield council asking shop owners to have shop names in both languages, unless it was done in a heavy-handed way? I remember reading about it in our local papers some years ago. friends have always come and gone from the area so it’s a haunt, but not a “know it like the back of your hand” haunt any more.

#35 Eurasian Sensation on 02.02.10 at 3:25 pm

You’ve really nailed it with this article.
The snobbery held by most food writers towards non-European food has always rankled with me. Wilden seems to imply that what Asian people choose to use and eat is just not good enough for her sophisticated ass. Yet when some enterprising upmarket operator serves it on a big white plate, removes most of the oomph from its flavour (thus making it taste more like Western food) and charges 3 x what it costs in Springvale or Footscray, they are lauded as a genius. Her article smacks of all kinds of Western arrogance and being afraid to really get at the substance of Asian food.

But then again, my idea of food heaven is eating char kway teow off a banana leaf in front of an open drain by a Penang roadside, cooked by some 70-year-old auntie. And whatever ingredients that auntie was using surely didn’t come from Simon Johnson’s.

#36 FDB on 02.02.10 at 3:36 pm

ES: “whatever ingredients that auntie was using surely didn’t come from Simon Johnson’s”

Yes!

That’s what I was getting at earlier – and I reckon the reason SJ’s and similar don’t stock the creme de la creme of asian ingredients is that they’re available at a frickin’ pittance from Asian grocers.

It’s not worth their while to fill their shelves with stuff that (even with double their usual markup from wholesale) would only make them a small profit. Better to get de puy lentils for $5 a kilo, put them in tiny little containers and flog them for ten bucks.

#37 Pip on 17.02.10 at 11:06 am

You have inspired me to go and explore my local Asian supermarket! Great post – really enjoyed reading this! :)

#38 Dan on 20.03.11 at 10:29 pm

Great article, really appreciated the points you made.

My local Asian grocers in Wollongong are fantastic. At the two places i shop, the owners are extremely friendly and helpful. When i ask them what their favourite brand of fish sauce or soy sauce is, they always point me in the direction of an amazing product i wouldn’t have picked myself. The prices are 1000 times cheaper than at Woolworths and the range of interesting stock and the possibility of exploration is great. The vision of a sanitized, white-ified, ‘premium’ version of an asian grocer sounds like hell, especially considering all the amazing dishes served in classy restaurants are made using the same ingredients found at your local asian grocer already.

ps. Like some of the other commenters, I too like buying mystery products and taking them home and googling them to see what i can make, and have made some very happy discoveries this way :)

Leave a Comment


Warning: include(screenshot.php): failed to open stream: No such file or directory in /home/crazybravezoe/progressivedinnerparty.net/wp-content/themes/copyblogger/footer.php on line 6

Warning: include(): Failed opening 'screenshot.php' for inclusion (include_path='.:/usr/local/lib/php:/usr/local/php5/lib/pear') in /home/crazybravezoe/progressivedinnerparty.net/wp-content/themes/copyblogger/footer.php on line 6