Chinese Food: China vs America

I skype-chatted with Clarissa Wei, a Chinese-American journalist in Los Angeles whose post about stinky tofu in Los Angeles impressed me.

SR What do you think of Chinese restaurants in America compared to Chinese restaurants in China?

CW It depends on where you’re talking about. In broad America, the Chinese food is pretty different from that of China. In places like Los Angeles and pockets of New York… it’s much more alike

SR I’m thinking of the best ones in Los Angeles.

CW It’s definitely cleaner here that’s for sure. In Los Angeles, the food quality is pretty similar. The major difference would be the price and variety. The selections are also pretty similar. The set-up in American Chinese restaurants is obviously different than the ones in China so that influences things a lot

SR I have never been to a Chinese restaurant in America that resembles a high-end Chinese restaurant in Beijing

CW In Los Angeles — there are a couple high-end Canto restaurants. They typically are your seafood + dim sum banquet types. Lunasia is a great example.

SR What do you mean by the set up?

CW Well in China, a lot of the restaurants are literally hole-in-the-walls. There isn’t that much of a standard in terms of being neat and sanitary.

SR There is vastly more range in China, both better and worse

CW In the rural countrysides, it’s out of people’s homes. But in America, everyone has to have at least some degree of sanitation.

SR Chinese restaurants in China are more playful. Like a toilet restaurant, for example. Continue reading “Chinese Food: China vs America”

Assorted Links

  • Open Source Malaria
  • Criticism of Malcolm Gladwell by The KoreanGladwell’s persuasive rebuttal, more from The Korean, more from Gladwell. I thought the work under discussion (“ethnic theory of plane crashes”) was the best part of Outliers. Gladwell summarizes it: “That chapter in Outliers is about a series of extraordinary steps taken by Korean Air, in which an institution on the brink of collapse and disgrace turned themselves into one of the best airlines in the world. They did so by bravely confronting the fact that a legacy of their cultural heritage was frustrating open communication in the cockpit. That is not a slight on Korean culture, or any other high-power distance culture for that matter.”
  • More praise for the new TV show Naked and Afraid on the Discovery Channel. It really is riveting.
  • Ziploc omelette. Poor man’s sous vide.

Thanks to Nicole Harkin.

Sous Vide Secrets

A few weeks ago, based on the good experiences of friends, I bought a sous vide cooker. As promised, food cooked sous vide (sponsored link) (at very low temperatures, such as 135 degrees F., for long periods of time, such as 48 hours) was excellent, clearly better than other cooking methods. For example, I made short ribs. They came out a perfect texture (slightly chewy), very moist and full of flavor. I also made eggs. At the right temperature, they turned a wonderful custard-like texture.

Sous vide isn’t new. Professional chefs have been using it for many years. The equipment has been too expensive (such as $1000). What’s new is lower prices. A friend paid about $350 for a sous vide cooker and vacuum sealer.

My brief experience suggests two conclusions I haven’t read anywhere else: Continue reading “Sous Vide Secrets”

Seoul Restaurant Story

I was in Seoul for a few days. I wanted to go to a really good Korean restaurant. I did a lot of research. Finally I returned to where I started — an article about “the ten best restaurants in Seoul” — and carefully picked one of them: Yong Su San.

I phoned the restaurant, got directions. It was almost dinnertime. To my surprise, it was only a mile away so I decided to walk. I didn’t have a map but I could aim for the nearest subway station. I walked toward that subway station for a while, then asked someone for directions. She said another branch of that restaurant was closer to where I was. It was as if after extensive research I had decided that the best meal in New York was at McDonald’s.

The restaurant was extremely good. For only $60 I had a fascinating and delicious meal. At the end they give you a choice of “main food”. I chose bibimbap. Bibimbap is all cheap ingredients (rice, vegetables, sometimes egg, hot sauce, sometimes a small amount of meat or fish) and strikes me as the best possible way of combining those ingredients. This is an eternal question — given a small amount of money, what’s the best you can do? It’s surprising that the best answer comes from a small country (Korea).

The Pizza Paradox: Home Cooking and Personal Science

Last week I had pizza at the home of my friends Bridget and Carl. It tasted divine. The crust was puffy, chewy and the right amount. The thin-crust bottom was slightly crunchy.  The tomato sauce had depth. The toppings (two kinds of mushrooms, Jerusalem artichokes, zucchini, onions, goat cheese) were tasty, creamy and a little crunchy. It was pretty and three-dimensional. It was easily the best pizza I’d ever had, the best home cooking I’d ever had, and much better than the lamb I’d had at Chez Panisse the night before, although the lamb was excellent. The pizza hadn’t been hard to make nor were the ingredients expensive. Do other people wonder why this is so good? I asked my friends.

At some level I knew why it was so good — why the sauce was so good, for example (see below). The puzzle — let me call it the Pizza Paradox — was that commercial pizza, even at fancy restaurants (such as Chez Panisse), is so much worse. Continue reading “The Pizza Paradox: Home Cooking and Personal Science”

Assorted Links

Thanks to Alex Chernavsky.

Assorted Links

If You Ever Visit Seoul, You Might Want To Skip Bean Table Restaurant

A restaurant near Seoul named Bean Table got a surprisingly bad review:

Then came a massive chicken salad dish, given the number of people we had we over ordered. The patrons we brought were split 50/50 on enjoyment for the chicken. We had so much leftovers and were wasting so much food, I asked the waiter to wrap the leftovers. . . . Asking the waiter to wrap this chicken came with a resounding “no”, so again to the kitchen to talk to a manager. Actually ended up talking to a chef, a young man who speaks good English, who also declined our request. We had a six year old and a three year old with us and that was the only food they were eating minus the pungent sauce.

Our driver then proceeded to get angry and went to talk to the chef, Sungmo Lee, and surprisingly Mr. Lee and our driver had a conversation that the whole restaurant could hear despite repeated requests by our driver to discuss outside. As that incident occurred being concerned for my family who flew on average 7,000 miles and were picked up for a total driving commute of two hours to come eat at this restaurant I went to calm both parties down. Things progressed from worse to horrible. I identified myself as a food critic, and Mr. Lee proceeded to take that as a threat and stated, “You don’t know who I am.” . . . . My father, a man in his 70′s, tried to speak reason to him only to be found that we were asked to leave.

At the end of the day, police were called, we weren’t allowed to pay the bill till police arrived even after we stated we wished to leave and skip the remaining courses. Police came and scolded Mr. Lee, telling him that if a customer pays for food then containers should be allowed for the customers to take food home. Keep in mind we are talking about cooked chicken, not fish, or tartar, etc. (Mr. Lee’s argument was that there were no take out containers in the restaurant and remained adamant about the no take out policy when we asked the driver to buy some containers). After the police came they asked us to leave while they dealt with Mr. Lee only to find an employee chasing out bus to pay the bill. No discounts, full price and another time suck of 20-30 minutes and the rest of the meal was safely kept in their fridge due to their “no takeout” policy. . . .

Before all of this nonsense came down my whole Korean family all thought that the restaurant was over rated and there was no single outstanding dish.

Until the Internet, stuff like this was never reported.


Flavour, a New Scientific Journal

A new online open-access journal called Flavour has just started publication. The first issue has three articles and an editorial.

The journal

encourages contributions not only from the academic community but also from the growing number of chefs and other food professionals who are introducing science into their kitchens. . . . often in collaboration with academic research groups.

The first set of articles has an example of a collaboration between chefs and professional scientists — how to get a strong umami flavor from Nordic seaweed. Then you add the flavor to ice cream. Which reminds me of dessert at a friend’s house where he poured expensive balsamic vinegar on vanilla ice cream.

Thanks to Melissa McEwen.

Tokyo Restaurant Recommendations — and Why They Might Be A Bad Idea

An earlier post asked for Tokyo recommendations. A kind reader (Andrew Clarke) provided the following recommendations of off-beat restaurants:

One place I always recommend is Andy’s Shinhinomoto, in Yurakucho: I have never seen a travel show that has covered the place, but it’s a best kept secret within the ex-pat community. Its menu is a standard Japanese Izakaya (pub) menu with some of the freshest sashimi (and fish in general) in Tokyo, and the strangest thing – it’s ran by a long-term British ex-pat, who is so renowned for his ability to pick good ingredients that he selects and delivers fish for several local sushi shops. Upstairs seating is best for atmosphere, but the food is the same downstairs. They have an English menu, and I’d also recommend the fish head and tempura. It’s also not super expensive, somehow I never manage to spend more than 7000Y  with alcohol. Continue reading “Tokyo Restaurant Recommendations — and Why They Might Be A Bad Idea”

Unofficial Beer Tasting Winner: Uncommon Brewers

Last night I went to a beer tasting in San Francisco. I didn’t taste all the beers but of the 15-odd I did taste the best were by Uncommon Brewers — especially their Siamese Twin (“the floral notes of lemongrass and sharper bite of kaffir lime blend with the deep malt”) and Baltic Porter (“whole licorice root and star anise”).

Five or six years ago I went to a sake-tasting event in San Francisco called “The Joy of Sake”. About 140 sakes. In a few hours I became such a sake connoisseur that the sake I could afford  — and used to buy regularly — I now despised. The only sake I now liked was so expensive ($80/bottle) that I never bought another bottle of sake.


Downward Spiral of Whole Foods House Brand

whole foods balsamic vinegar

My friend Carl Willat sent me this photo with the comment “noticeably worse” — meaning that the new version (on the right) is noticeably worse than the old version (on the left). 365 is the Whole Foods house brand. Years ago,the label of 365 balsamic vinegar said “aged 5 years”. Then one day it didn’t. The younger vinegar (aged 1 year?) tasted noticeably worse. In a side-by-side comparison, it was obvious.

Side-by-side comparisons, I discovered thanks to Carl, are powerful — and I could use that power to improve my life. A long time ago at his apartment I tasted five versions of limoncello (Italian lemon liqueur) side by side. Of course the differences became clearer–that’s obvious. The surprise was that all of a sudden I cared about the differences. Before that tasting, I had had plenty of limoncello. But only at the side-by-side tasting did I develop a liking for the good stuff (more complex flavor) and a dislike for the cheaper stuff (simpler flavor). I stopped buying cheap limoncello and started buying expensive limoncello. I got a lot of pleasure out of it. I still do this. A few weeks ago I bought some rum to flavor my yogurt. I started with the cheapest brand. A week later, to compare, I got a more expensive brand. Side-by-side tasting showed it was clearly better. Now I sort of relish it — the side-by-side comparison made rum drinking more enjoyable. Soon I will get an even more expensive rum, to see how it stacks up.

I’m pretty sure such side-by-side comparisons are how connoisseurs are made. The evolutionary reason for this effect, I believe, is that connoisseurs will pay more than other people for well-made stuff, thus helping skilled artisans — during the Stone Age, the main source of innovation — make a living.

In Carl’s picture the new vinegar looks much cheaper than the old vinegar. The previous change (from aged 5 years to not aged 5 years) wasn’t accompanied by a cheaper-looking label. Maybe Whole Food headquarters had received complaints from manufacturers of other balsamic vinegars: Your house brand is too good. And they replied: Okay, we’ll cheapen it.

A Unified Theory of Japanese Food

I used to like Japanese food because it was less fattening than other foods — I lost weight eating sushi. Now I like it because the Japanese eat so much fermented food: miso, pickles, yogurt, Yakult, umeboshi (pickled plums), natto, vinegar drinks, and alcoholic beverages. A Tokyo food court might have 20 types of pickles, 15 types of miso, and 10 types of umeboshi.

Abundance of fermented food isn’t the only way Japanese food is unusual. I see Japanese food as an outlier on three dimensions:

  • Use of fish. More fish-centered than any other major cuisine.
  • Beauty. More beautiful than any other cuisine.
  • Fermented food. More fermented food than any other cuisine.

As I’ve said, lightning doesn’t strike twice in one place for different reasons. If two rare events could have a common explanation, they probably do. I’ve discussed before why a fish-centered cuisine could lead to better visual design: Because cooks can’t use complex flavorings to show how much they care (it would make all fish taste the same), they take pains with appearance to convey this.

What about fermented foods? Here’s an idea: In the development of Japanese cooking, lack of complex flavoring of main dishes increased desire that other parts of the meal provide complexity, which is what fermented foods do so well. For example, Japanese meals often include pickles. We want a certain amount of complexity in our food, in other words. Most cuisines provide complexity via complex spice mixtures (mole sauce, harissa, curry powder); Japanese cuisine provides it with fermented foods. (I love Japanese curry, but it isn’t common.)

This explanation predicts that desire for complexity is like thirst: It grows over time and can be satisfied. Prediction 1: Eating one complex food will make a second one will taste less pleasant, just as drinking one bottle of water will make a second bottle of water taste less pleasant. Prediction 2: Over time, the pleasure provided by complexity grows. The same complex-flavored food will taste better at Time 2 than Time 1 if you haven’t eaten anything with a complex flavor between the two times.

Pork Belly News

I am a big fan of pork belly. Whenever I see it on a menu I order it. The mayor of Chongqing (population 32 million) recently made headlines with a speech whose main point was


Which means: Better living standards is not just eating hong shao rou wearing beautiful clothes. Hong shao rou is pork belly braised in a red sauce. Maybe my favorite Chinese dish. Supposedly Chairman Mao’s favorite dish. I’m glad he said “not just” rather than “not”.

Restaurant With No Menu

Today I had lunch at a Beijing restaurant with no menu. You choose dishes in discussion with your waiter. The restaurant’s theme is kung fu. Somehow having no menu is kung-fu-like. A sword hung on the wall and there were other martial-arts decorations. As we left, the wait staff said an ancient Chinese good-bye loudly in unison. It meant “the mountain and river will still be here [a metaphor for enduring friendship], let’s make a concrete date to meet again.” Only one of our two dishes was really good but I’ll go back.

Assorted Links

  • Vision therapy
  • Omega-3 and brain health. “Participants were 280 community volunteers between 35 and 54 y of age, free of major neuropsychiatric disorders, and not taking fish oil supplements. . . Five major dimensions of cognitive functioning were assessed . . . Among the 3 key (n-3) [poly-unsaturated fatty acids], only DHA [was] associated with major aspects of cognitive performance.”
  • The rise and fall of Beijing restaurants

Thanks to Steve Hansen, Tim Lundeen, and Eric Meltzer.

The Post-It Restaurant

Two of my students took me here, which one list said is the best fish restaurant in Beijing. (Based on our meal, that’s plausible.) Its specialty is grilled fish “Wushan style”. Wushan is a mountain, not a province (like Sichuan or Hunan), so the restaurant may have invented the term. The menu is short. There are a bunch of cold dishes and the grilled fish, which comes in seven different flavors (hot & spicy, chinese sauerkraut, etc.). Unlike any other Beijing restaurant I’ve been to, you need a reservation. (Call a week ahead.) The restaurant, which wasn’t large, was packed. The walls were covered with Post-It notes. One said: “I wish I find my dream girl and me and my friend Bob have a safe life.” Another said: “Very spicy, very tasty, makes me feel very good.” A third said: “We had to wait a long time, so we ate a lot.” I wrote one saying what one of my students suggested: “We didn’t have to wait a long time but we ate a lot anyway.”

The Limits of Expert Trial and Error

Of course I loved this comment on a recent post of mine about how to flavor stuff:

I made a vegetable soup today spiced by small amounts of vegetable stock, hoi sin sauce, angostura bitters, lea & perrins worcestershire sauce, Kikkomann soy sauce, maggi wrze, marmite, maille mustard. I can honestly say it was the best tasting soup I, or any of my guests, can remember having been served.

I routinely make soups that taste clearly better than any of the thousands of soups I had before I figured out the secret. There is no failure (I’ve done it 20-odd times), no worry about over- or under-cooking. Something else odd: There seems to be a ceiling effect. The texture could be better, the appearance could be much better, the creaminess could be better, sometimes the temperature could be better, the sourness could be better, but I can’t imagine it could be more delicious.
Why wasn’t this figured out earlier? I’ve looked at hundreds of cookbooks and thousands of recipes. I haven’t seen one that combines three or more sources of great complexity, as I do and the commenter did. There may be more trial and error surrounding cooking than anything else in human life. Billions of meals, day after day.

I think it goes back to my old comment (derived from Jane Jacobs) that farmers didn’t invent tractors. Some people claimed they did but I think we can all agree farmers didn’t invent the engine on which tractors are based. You can’t get to tractors from trial and error around pre-tractor farming methods. Even though farmers are expert at farming. I think that’s what happened here. I am not a food professional or even a skilled cook. My expertise is in psychology (especially psychology and food). Wondering why we like umami, sour, and complex flavors led me to a theory (the umami hypothesis) that led me to a new idea about how to cook.

And this goes back to what many people, including Atul Gawande, fail to understand about how to improve our healthcare system. The supposed experts, with their vast credentials, can’t fix it — just as farmers couldn’t invent tractors. Impossible. The experts (doctors, medical school professors, drug companies, alternative healers) have a serious case of gatekeeper syndrome. The really big improvements will come from outsiders. Outsiders who benefit from change. To fix our healthcare system, empower them.