Saturday, September 21, 2019

How to write about unfamiliar cuisine : Let's write about food

Writing about unfamiliar cuisine : Let’s write about food

In December of 2017, I started a series of posts on food writing for Indian food writers with the hashtag #indianfoodwriting.

I am bringing the theme of food writing back on my blog with this post on writing about unfamiliar cuisine, with insider tips from some of India’s favourite food bloggers.

The Indian food sceneriao in the last couple of years has undergone a slight paradigm shift. We have started exploring a lot of indigenious Indian cuisines, regional cuisines are making a bang with their pop-ups. The other fact is that we are exploring exotic international cuisine, and it is no more clubbed into the broad categories of Continenetal and Chinese, but now we have Italian recipes based on region like Tuscany and Campania, and exotic cuisine like Israeli or Argentinian cuisine.

As food bloggers, we are some of the first to try these cuisines, when a restaurant decides to showcase a new cuisine. A lot of recipe food bloggers are exploring foreign recipes on their blogs. Many food and travel bloggers introduce new and unique dishes to their readers from their travels. So, what are the points to remember when trying unfamiliar cuisine for the first time, and how to write about unfamiliar cuisine?

I asked a few of my foodie friends and this is what we came up with.
Scroll down to the end for easy pointers, for those who don’t like to read too much text. Continue reading for the unabridged version

First, do not tell the chef, or Home chef serving the dish that ‘This is too spicy/sour/sweet.’ Remember, they are the expert in that cuisine, and maybe the dish is supposed to taste that way. You may say ‘ it is too spicy for my taste’, but the first tip I would like to share is –be appreciative of the cuisine, and that way the chef will be more inclined to share more about the cuisine.

Some dishes taste better in their unique combinations, like Thai green curry with Jasmine rice, can you have it with bread/roti/ friedrice? Sure, you can, but when trying an unfamiliar cuisine for the first time, try and have it in the most authentic, old school way it was meant to be had, to get the complete experience of the combination. Disha Khurana from @aperfectfusion shares her process when attending food tastings “ Say you are attendng a Russian food tasting, your key search words on google or Pinterest would be Russian recipes, Russian desserts, and even major produce that grows in Russia too, as most age old recipes are a result of the produce that is available. These help me form a few questions for the chef before hand.”

I remember the first time I went to Rajasthan and tried Dal Batti Churma, I broke pieces of the batti and dipped it in the dal, then ate a bite of the churma. That brings me to the next point that , some dishes have unique ways of enjoying them, like the bati or the ball dough is supposed to be crushed and mixed with the dal. So, don’t feel embarrassed to either ask other diners, or even the wait staff on how to best eat it. From experience, I have seen that the wait staff are hesitant to point out these to a guest. In foreign countries it could be because of the language barrier, and in India too, if you ask the wait staff their standard answer is,“ You can have it anyway you like.” That is not all that helpful is it?

On our trip to Rome, I youtubed the best way to eat pasta, even though India has a lot of Italian restaurants, but is there a particular way to have pasta, twirl it on a fork perhaps, and what is the best way to enjoy Pizzas ? Watching Italians eat Pasta became my favourite travel past time.
So, if you are writing about a particular food, try and find out what is the best combination to have it with, and any unique way to enjoy it.

Food and travel blogger Roxanne Bamboat of @thetinytaster shares “  Research as well as my own experiences play a role in my food writing. If I have been to said country/region before, then I draw a lot from it. Also If I am not sure about something, I make that clear in my writing. I don’t have much faith in Wikipedia, but I trust talking to chefs and other people whose taste I trust.”

When restaurants have tastings for unique food cuisines, many tend to serve it in a thali format, that allows multiple dishes to be savoured, and also the visual appeal of seeing a whole gamut of colours and flavours in one plate, is very instagram friendly and satisfying to the senses. What is nice to remember is that there is generally a sequence to tasting these dishes, just like coursed meals in international cuisine. For example in Bengali cuisine of Durga pujo Bhog,  the tart date and tomato chutney is had after the main course and before the dessert of payesh  , and acts as a palate cleanser. You can have it at the beginning, but the right sequence of eating a meal, helps the food tell its own unique story. And this is something you want to experience first hand to share with your readers later.

If you are travelling to a new place whether within India or outside of India, as food and travel bloggers, visiting the local markets add a fascinating dimension to your food experience in a foreign land. From spices to vegetables, there are many interesting food stories to unravel and share with your readers.

Delving into an unfamiliar ingredient or spice, can help you write about a particular cuisine better. Be it the different fermented foods of Korea, or the different olive oils of Italy.
Purabi Naha, who shares international food recipes on her blog , and also is an avid traveller shares  “ I gather information from google, old newspaper articles, facebook threads, also watch IGTV and youtube recipe videos. Sometimes I go the extra mile to speak to home-cooks whenever I visit a foreign land. Strangers share the recipe secrets with me happily.”

While ordering at a restaurant serving unfamiliar cuisine, here is what I do. Take a quick look around at the most popular dish ordered at the place, in an Italian restaurant it was this red and white dish, which we came to know was the house special Gnocchi. And while gnocchi has never been my favourite Italian dish, I was glad we ordered it that day. The second tip is to do a quick search of Trip advisor/instagram tags of that place, and see what people have previously eaten there. Look for the asterisk of ‘chefs special’ on the menu itself. While I wait for my meal, I always do a quick read on Wikipedia about the dish, like I did when I first ate Bibimbap. Things like how to mix the dish, any particular order of eating it, what are the best condiments to eat it with.

Many foodies prefer to be surprised by the experience. They love to try a cuisine without any previous pre conceived notions. They let their own tastebuds guide them .  Jade from @thatgoangirl shares “I usually don’t write about a new cuisine, or talk to the chef if it’s the first time I’m trying it. I try and make sense of the flavours , and find words to describe them myself. And then I watch videos, or do a little research on the ingredients, so that the next time I try it, I am a little more familiar. I try not to talk to anyone, because I’m an introvert. If I am writing about the second time I am tasting a cuisine, I mention about the first time I tried the cuisine in my article.”

Sometimes you come across a cuisine which is very similar to Indian cuisine, for me that was Mexican cuisine. The first time I had a burrito, I exclaimed this is just like rajma rice, wrapped in a roti! And that’s exactly what I wrote. Enchiladas were like Indian Gujiyas , and my Dominican republic blog post is all about how similar cuisines from half way across the world are to us. Making unfamiliar cuisine more acceptable and familiar for our readers, is part of a food bloggers job, so drawing on similarities between different regional dishes, or even international dishes is a way to entice your readers to try something new.Vernika Awal from shares “ I make sure to study before a meal… what fascinates me is how in India we all use some similar basic spices in all kitchens and come up with different flavours based on the geography.”

The last point is, about bringing your own identity and life experiences into play while writing about foreign cuisine.  How a Native Australian will write about Australian cuisine, will be very different from a first generation immigrant to Australia, and also from a tourist visiting Australia for the first time. Stay authentic to your palate, because many of your readers , follow you for your take on the food, and not necessarily for a Wikipedia narration of your experience. Mudra Keswani from shares “Bhopal being a small city .. it was extremely difficult to learn new things, it’s when I was doing my trainingwith Marriott that I learnt from people in the food industry. Doing the food tastings, and the chefs explaining the dishes to me was valuable experience.I hosted 8-9 chinese food festivals and learnt that the cuisine is huge in itself, for example Cantonese is very different from Sichuan."

Now, a bonus point. When writing about a foreign cuisine, try and pepper your writing with words and phrases from that language. What is the word for spicy in Malyalam? What is the word for cheesy in Italian? Is there a particular word to describe good Kimchi in Korean ? don’t be afraid to use words like ‘chatpata’ , and ‘masaaledar’ in your Indian writing. In Bengali the pungent flavours of Mustard, that seem to rise like heat  and come out as steam from your ears and your nostrils , is called ‘jhaanj’ . and if all else fails, do not forget to show your appreciation to the chef as well as in your writing, by using the word for delicious in the local language, badhiya hai in UP, to wadiya hai in Punjab, chaan aahe in Maharashtra , to bareh asa in Konkani , to ‘mah sit ssoyo’ in Korean .
As promised here are some pointers.
1.       Don’t be judgemental of the cuisine, go with an open mind.
2.       Read up about the basics of the cuisine, the major industries and food ingredients of the cuisine, a simple google search or even looking at pictures on pinterest or instagram will help you to anticipate what the food will look like, and take better pictures, write better.
3.       If visiting a new place, try and visit the local market, or even supermarkets.
4.       Don’t be embarrassed to ask question. To the chef, to your foodie friends who have tried the cuisine before, or even talking to locals .

5.       Read blogs, see youtube videos , after you have tried the cuisine, or visited a place, or before writing your own recipe, to see what has already been said.
6.       How is the food eaten, what is the best food pairings with it, are there any cultural or traditional customs to the meal/food, any interesting trivia about how the dish was first created. Anything to make the cuisine come alive for your readers.

7.       Use simple, familiar words to describe your experience. Many of your readers /watchers may never have tried the cuisine too, so make it a little more familiar for them.
8.       Stay true to your own palate, if it is not something you would have again, or if it is something which is too slimy, gamy, smelly for you, share your experience, because most of your followers want to know your authentic experience, but never diss a cuisine. Remember to be respectful of the place and people serving you.

9.       If you are attending a restaurant tasting, or writing a recipe, but have visited the place before, or have tried the cuisine before, draw on your previous experiences to make your writing more layered.
10.   Use local words. Unfamiliar words paired with unfamiliar cuisine, adds to the exotic feel of your writing. Also being able to say delicious in the local language will earn you brownie points from the people who served you.

Hope you enjoyed this article and found it useful. Do like, share and comment. And feel free to read the other food writing posts under #indianfoodwriting. Lets write about food !