Don’t order Asian food in any restaurant unless it’s cooked by an Asian person of that specific background.
I decided on this policy after having too many bad meals that were the result of non-Asians thinking they could pull off Asian cuisine. You know those sorts of cafes and bistros whose menus contain primarily pasta and steak and other European things, but also try their hand at Thai green curry. Take a tip from me – the pasta and steak will be passable or better, the curry will almost certainly not. It’s sad to say, but some of these venues which dip their toe into Asian cooking cannot even cook rice properly.
Now, what I’ve said possibly sounds a bit racist, and yeah, it probably is. Sure, as a general rule, people are best suited to cooking the food that they have grown up with and with which they are most familiar. Yet, logically we should also expect that someone can immerse themselves in a different cuisine and learn to make it to the same level as someone born into that culinary tradition. I myself am a pretty decent cook, and a typical week’s meals being churned out in my home kitchen might well include Indian, Italian, Greek, Russian, Lebanese and Indonesian dishes.
But in practice, when white chefs try to do Asian food, there is often something missing. The balance of flavours is slightly out; it’s a bit like someone’s idea of what Asian food is, rather than actually being Asian food. The punchier aspects of Asian cuisine – garlic, chilli, fish sauce, shrimp paste, lime and so on – are muted, while the sugary elements are often too strong.
This is changing, of course, and there are an increasing number of white Australian chefs who have embraced Asian cuisine. Indeed, the world’s first Thai restaurant to win a Michelin star was not in Bangkok but in London; Nahm, run by Australian chef David Thompson. Since then, Copenhagen’s Kiin Kiin, with a kitchen run by someone with the very un-Thai name of Henrik Yde-Andersen, also won a Michelin star.
But how much does the acclaim that greets these white exponents of Asian food truly reflect their mastery of that cuisine? Could it be more a reflection of the Western food establishment failing to really “get” Asian food? This is not to say that someone like David Thompson doesn’t know his stuff, and his restaurant and recent book are by all accounts very good. But I’m sure it will rankle with many Thais to hear Thompson’s stated aim to bring back authenticity to Thai cuisine and halt the decay that he says afflicts it. Is he like Sam Worthington’s character in the movie Avatar, who went “native” with the Na’vi people and ended up becoming the “chosen one” who would save the exotic but naïve and unsophisticated Na’vi from their terrible fate.
And it’s hard to shake the impression that the Western World, or at least some elements of it, can only truly laud Asian food when it is done by a white interpreter. Perhaps it recalls the way that Elvis and the Rolling Stones garner so much more adoration than the black R&B artists they imitated. Joss Stone and Amy Winehouse sold millions of records for being young white women who sounded like old black women… except that actual old black women like Sharon Jones never get to shift anything like the same amount of units.
In part, I’m sure it reflects the Western culinary establishment’s fixation with fine-dining aesthetics; it is perhaps a world that chefs trained in a Western tradition are better equipped to traverse. By contrast, Asian foodies often have their own preoccupation with powerful flavours and “authenticity”, and as such will rise early to travel across town to eat one particular dish at a hawker stall next to an open drain, because it satisfies them in a way that no amount of oversized white plates and matching wine lists can.
It is only natural that white Australian food writers and consumers appreciate Asian food through a Westernised lens. But if an appreciation is going to be any more than skin deep, consideration must be given to how Asians appreciate their own food. This is not to say that there is one Asian aesthetic, or that Asians only appreciate food in one way. But can a restaurant run by a white chef specialising in Thai cuisine be considered the world’s greatest Thai restaurant if Thai people don’t particularly care to eat there?
Because some of Melbourne’s best known Asian restaurants (Thai ones in particular) are headed by non-Thai chefs – Martin Boetz at Long Grain, and Teage Ezard at Gingerboy , while Jacques Reymond has long garnered acclaim for his fusion of French and East Asian techniques at his eponymous establishment. And all power to them, but when Asian food is popularised on the star power of white chefs, something doesn’t quite sit right. A good chef is still a good chef; I’d probably rather have Asian food cooked by a good non-Asian chef than a bad Asian chef. But I’m sure there are a host of very good Asian chefs who are not getting the praise they might deserve.