Yesterday's International Herald Tribune included an interesting article about an old-style family-owned butcher shop in Hong Kong's Soho district. This section of Hong Kong Island, clustered around the Mid-Levels escalator, has seen big changes over the last ten years as chic boutiques, restaurants, and bars have sprouted and traditional food purveyors have cleared out. Yet this business, and a few others like it, hang on. It's a great story that gives the teeniest bit of hope to those of us who despair at the slow, creeping homogenization of Asia's cities.
And a friend directed me to this article on eating insects in Thailand that appeared last week in the New York Times. Oh, YAWN. This sort of thing bugs me (pun intended) on so many levels.
If we're talking accuracy, it's rather an exaggeration to describe Isaan cuisine as 'based on bugs'. I mean really, Isaan is famous - justly so - for its grilled chicken (gai yang) and pork neck. Folks there eat grilled beef salad and grilled frogs, and pound pickled paddy crabs into green papaya salad. They enjoy 'dancing shrimp' (small freshwater shrimp doused with lime juice and downed while the the shellfish is still squirming) and season their food with plaraa, a sort of super-fermented, unfiltered (the sauce contains chunks of fish) fish sauce. They also sometimes eat dog. Bugs are eaten, yes (as they are all over Thailand - and Lao and Cambodia, etc.), but not by everyone, and not all the time. They're far from the basis of the cuisine.
(Further to accuracy: northeastern Thailand and Isaan are, culinarily, historically, and geographically speaking, quite distinct regions. I suspect we can hang this on whoever wrote the headline.)
There are so many aspects of Thai cuisine with which Americans are unfamiliar -- most of which haven't been reported on at all, and certainly not reported to death like the whole insects-as-food thing. Note the fleeting reference in the body of the article to the Isaan way with khanom jeen (fermented rice noodles). It certainly piqued my interest, but I suppose it's a topic not hair-raising enough to the average reader to merit further investigation in the pages of the New York Times.
What is it with the American fetishization of Asian food (perhaps I should say 'Western' rather than 'American', but when it comes to newspaper food sections, culinary magazines, and food TV the U.S. is my referent)? Ooooo - Thais eat bugs and forest rats (most don't), Koreans eat dog (many don't), and Japanese eat whale meat (very few do, anymore), how uttterly wacky!! When Anthony Bourdain goes to Vietnam it's all still-beating cobra hearts, snake blood, grilled dog, and other oddities; when he comes to Kuala Lumpur it's penis soup. I suppose it's just a symptom of our broader addiction to sensationalism (whatever ups subscription rates and pumps up TV ratings) - the 'Eeeeew Factor'. Still, much of this type of reportage evinces enough 19th-century fascination with the 'Exotic Oriental' to leave me queasy.
Put it this way - northern Italians love lardo, but I would wager that you'll never see an article on Piemontese cuisine in the New York Times headlined "In Northern Italy, a Cuisine Based on Big Slabs of Fat."