The Paradox of “Ethnic” Food



indian food buffetOne could argue that the food revolution in the U.S and our increasing interest in taste was made possible by the emergence of ethnic* cuisines brought here by immigrants. While mid-20th Century Americans were subsisting on a bland diet of TV dinners and Twinkies brought to us by the industrial food system, immigrant enclaves were busy figuring out how to preserve the tastes of home using American ingredients. Exposure to these exotic flavors, made available through small, mom and pop eateries, increasingly motivated Americans to be more adventurous in their eating habits paving the way for the explosion of innovation that is now routine in U.S. cooking.

But the driving force behind the acceptance of ethnic cuisines is that the food was cheap and fast. Immigrant populations, especially 1st generation, tend to be less well-off than more established populations and have to hustle to make ends meet. They could not afford high prices or leisurely meals. As a result, ethnic foods—taco stands, Indian lunch buffets, Thai lunch specials, Bento boxes, and a United Nations of food trucks–have become a fixture in the fast food and casual dining sectors providing Americans with a multitude of interesting, exotic up-to-a- point, inexpensive dining options.

But as chef and mathematician Hari Pulipaka points out in this lamentation regarding the plight of Indian food, this path to success for ethnic cuisines has come at a cost:

In a nutshell, the more we expect ethnic food to be inexpensive, the more frequently it is executed in a formulaic and tempered way using sub-standard ingredients. This is a case of driving down the quality of supply to meet an obvious demand. There is certainly a time and place for a less than refined or inspired execution, but just because it isn’t French or Japanese cuisine, to name two examples that have been successfully marketed to be deserving of upscale prices, it doesn’t mean that the other cuisines of the world are lesser in stature when it comes to technique or intrinsic quality.

Pulipaka points out that the Indian diaspora is both highly educated and wealthy compared to other immigrant populations, and the cuisine of India is as refined and varied as more celebrated cuisines. But with a few exceptions this population has not supported a movement to represent this quality in restaurants.The more popular a cuisine gets, the less it becomes representative of its real potential. Indian food is surely more interesting than “hot, spicy, and curried”.

He closes with a gentle upbraid:

The Indian diaspora in this country bear a certain responsibility to spread the deserving demand. After all, the facts point towards a group who can certainly afford it and are educated enough to understand that the stereotypes will remain as long as we perpetuate them ourselves.

But I don’t think this issue is unique to Indian food. As he notes, Japanese food is the only so called “ethnic” food (if we exclude French and Italian) that has been routinely able to charge higher prices and achieve a level of refinement that approximates the highest achievements of which the cuisine is capable. Stereotypes are hard to break even when you have the resources.


*For what it’s worth, I don’t like the term “ethnic” because I’m never sure what is to be included in the concept. Is French food “ethnic”. It’s been part of mainstream high culture for decades; so has Italian food more recently. Generally it seems to mean “food you didn’t eat growing up”. But the term is in widespread use; it would appear we are stuck with it.

Just What the World Needs



bitter beer faceAs I wander about the country, I’ve been in several bars recently where 2/3rds of the beer list is made up of IPAs. I know this is the hipster brew and all, but really this IPA craze has gone too far. As the poet Wordsworth wrote “But hushed be every thought that springs From out the bitterness of things”.  Bitter thoughts from bitter tastes—I think that’s true. I’ve never had a pleasant thought while sipping an IPA.

But I have always been able to count on the roasted malty goodness of Guinness to rescue me from IPA hell. Everybody sells Guinness.

Unfortunately, the latest news from the beer world is that Guinness will now make an IPA. This is like the Red Sox joining the Yankees or the Dalai Lama as Donald Trump’s VP.

Just what the world needs—another IPA.

Ranchero Cellars Carignan Mendocino/Paso Robles 2012



ranchero cellarsWinemaker Amy Butler has a passion—for Carignan, the ignominious grape widely planted in the South of France because its high yield enables an ocean of cheap wine for export. It’s a strange passion to have, but often people with strange passions create beauty out of curiosities.

And indeed, she has tamed this rough, tannic, sometimes bitter grape like a ranchero breaks a horse while leaving a wild spirit behind to jolt the complacent.

Rich blackberry ensconced in lovely tarragon and clove-scented cedar  layered on top of fresh loam, a riveting nose of great intensity and depth.  The medium weight palate continues the dark fruit/wood theme exploding on the midpalate with generous acidity and finishing with medium grain, edgy, persistent tannins that support licorice notes as it fades. Structured and focused,yet still rustic despite the careful winemaking, this is quite young and still unruly but will integrate nicely with time in the bottle.

This is the richest Carignan I have tasted. A blend of Mendocino and Paso Robles fruit that undergoes whole-cluster fermentation and is aged in  30% new American oak, and 70% neutral French oak.

Only 154 cases made so get it soon.

Sophisticated but with a down-home grind like Templeton Thompson When I Get that Pony Rode

Score: 91

Price: $32

Alc: 14.2%

Industry Sample from Uncorked Ventures,  a wine club devoted to small wineries.

Mind Games



mind gamesI can’t tell you how many times I’ve tasted a wine and detected a hint of sweetness, only to find out from the winemaker that it was vinified dry with almost no residual sugar.

New research from France explains why:

‘What we have uncovered is that it is the species of oak that makes the greatest difference to taste. The research uncovered that oak contain naturally-occurring compounds that impart sweetness (the QTTs), and others that impart bitterness (there are several, but one of the key molecules is Glu-BA). Peduncular was richer in bitter compounds and sessile in sweet.’

Sessile oak has always been privileged for ageing wine. It contains many of the aromatic molecules such as vanillin and whisky-lactone that imparts the patisserie and coconut smells typical of oak-aged wine, but the discovery of the QTT molecules deepens our understanding of why. Taste is intensified by molecules of aroma, so a sweet taste will ‘taste’ sweeter if it is imprinted with the smell of vanilla. In this way, sessile oak wins on both counts.

If I understand this correctly, we perceive sweetness in wine that has been exposed to vanillin or whiskey lactone because we associate vanilla and coconut with sweet foods. But if we associate vanilla and coconut with sweetness because they are usually consumed with sweet foods, doesn’t a similar phenomenon occur with fruit? Ripe fruits are naturally sweet and so we are likely to taste sweetness in a fruity wine even if it is bone dry.

The mind plays tricks.

Willamette Valley’s Vintage Tale: a Lesson about Wine Quality



willametteOne sign that a winery is dedicated to quality is their willingness to hold back the release of a vintage until it’s ready.

Last fall we visited the Willamette Valley for a week—our first visit to this increasingly important wine region noted for its Pinot Noir. As I reported in this blog post, we were disappointed in the wines. Many wineries were pouring their 2011 vintage of Pinot Noir—a notoriously cold and rainy year in which the grapes struggled to ripen. The wines, even from producers with established reputations, were generally thin and very tart, missing sufficient fruit to balance the acidity. Only occasionally were the mineral and herbal flavors prominent enough to make the wines interesting. We were told that despite the lack of fruit, these wines would age well but I was skeptical that there was enough extract in these wines to provide aging potential.

Of course, there is integrity in submitting to the vagaries of nature. In many wine regions, winemakers when faced with a bad vintage of Pinot Noir would simply import some Syrah to provide more body and flavor. But Oregon has strict labeling laws that require a wine labeled “Pinot Noir” must contain 90% Pinot Noir. Adding less than 10% Syrah won’t do much to improve thin and tart. Oregon winemakers have to grin and bear it when they have a bad vintage. They also have to put up with wine magazine vintage reviews that pan an entire vintage. Wine Spectator gave the 2011 vintage an 85!

But this story has a happy ending. When we returned to the Willamette Valley this summer for a five week visit, the 2011’s had undergone an extraordinary metamorphosis. 9 more months in the bottle had transformed these austere wines into elegant, focused beauties full of complex earth and spice notes, still lean but now vigorously evolving through a series of sinuous textural contrasts and prominently displaying the satiny mouth feel pinot lovers love.

The moral of the story is that bottle age really matters in the development of a wine, and wineries that really want to show their wines in the best light should always be pouring some back vintages. As soon as the big, ripe, quick-selling 2012’s came out, many wineries pulled back their 2011 vintage to give it more time, and will be pouring them in their tasting rooms or doling them out to their wine clubs for many years.

In fact, one thing that makes the Willamette Valley unique as a wine region is that winery tasting flights routinely show multiple vintages. Too many wineries in other regions (yes, I’m looking at you California)  just pour their latest vintage and try to move as many bottles as possible. That’s good for the bottom line but not as effective at establishing a reputation for quality. The uncertainties of weather make each vintage an original expression. No two vintages are alike and each evolves in its own unique way. (This is especially true of Pinot Noir and in regions with weather that varies from year to year.) Of course, that means that wineries will have to hold onto a quantity of age-worthy wine in order to show it in the future. There are costs to that but costs that are well spent.

When I walk into a winery to taste the first thing I look at is whether they are showing back vintages. It is one sign that they are as serious about quality as they are about sales.

So who were the winners in the 2011 Pinot Noir sweepstakes? The following stood out (in no particular order), keeping in mind that many wineries were no longer pouring the 11”s.

Belle Vida by Jacques Tardy

Adelsheim Zenith Vineyards

Sokol Blosser Dundee Hills

Evening Land Seven Springs La Source

Cristom Sommers Reserve

Twelve, both their Estate and Reserve bottlings

Vista Hills, both their Treehouse and Piedmont cuvées

Beckham Estate

Budget Wine: Explorador Carmenere Central Valley Chile 2011



explorador carmenereJust  a really fun wine from Concha Y Toro, the very  large South American producer that makes everything from bottom shelf sippers to the age-worthy Don Melchor Cab.

Some funky earth and characteristic, Carmenere wild herbs compliment the dark berries on the nose, which also shows vanilla from prominent oak. There is obvious wood on the medium-bodied palate as well with firm, grippy tannins, finishing with a compelling mineral seam. The hint of sweetness up front doesn’t detract from the structure and the inherent rustic overtones of Carmenere which set this apart from other supermarket wines.

An interesting wine for the price.

Tamed but with an irrepressible wild streak, like Pink “Raise Your Glass”

Score: 87

Price: $8

Alc 13.5%

Adam Puchta “Situation Red” Chambourcin Hermann, Missouri NV



adam puchta situation redHere is another grape unfamiliar to Westcoasters but common in Missouri and points East. Like the Norton I reviewed last week, I tasted several wines made from the Chambourcin grape during a brief stay in Missouri, and this was my favorite, although once again I lack the experience with this grape to make comprehensive comparisons. While the Norton was bold and powerful, the Chambourcin is softer and more approachable.

Simple red and black raspberry are dominant, with hints of soy, herbs, and a slight muskiness on the nose that is quite pleasant because it remains in the background.

it’s very creamy and fruit forward on the palate, rich, round, and medium bodied, with ample acidity and a short, tart, iron-laced finish that shows almost no tannin. Soft, approachable, and lush but mouthwatering, it lacks finesse but is quite satisfying if you seek something uncomplicated and juicy.

Styles of Chambourcin are all over the map. This one is dry, but I’ve had off-dry, sweet, rosé, and Nouveau-style as well. it is a remarkably versatile grape. Chambourcin is a French-American hybrid bred originally in the 1950’s and is plentiful in France’s Loire Valley as well as in Southeastern U.S. Its main characteristics are big berry fruit, high acidity, low alcohol, and very soft tannins. The high fruit, medium body, and soft tannins make it similar to Pinot Noir for food pairings. So duck, roast chicken, or lamb would pair well.

Fans of vinifera (the species of grape from which the familiar European wines are made) will find Norton and Chambourcin to be vaguely familiar but different enough to be intriguing. If you’re stuck in a vinifera rut, order some of these wines—they are worthy of more attention than they typically receive.

A French-American wine needs some French-American music. Here’s the Savoy Family Band with a good timey Cajun stomp.

Score: n/a

Price: $16

Alc: 12.2%

Budget Wine: Josh Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon California 2013

josh cellars cabOperating out of one of my favorite little towns, Hopland near Mendocino, winemaker Joseph Carr puts together approachable value wines sourced from all over California.

This Cab is a solid effort although on the upper bound of a budged wine. Muted dark fruits with prominent layers of cinnamon and vanilla, definitely a spice driven flavor profile. On the palate it’s supple and elegant, light on its feet with medium body and good acidity. The finish is medium length with soft, sandy tannins. It lacks the depth and intensity of a premium wine but does its job for this price. An excellent go-to wine if you prefer softer styles.

A blend of 93% Cabernet with some Merlot and Petite Verdot, it sees 12 months of new French oak.

It will complement the bluesy, slow burn of Alabama Shakes’ Gimme All Your Love

Score: 87

Price: An average of $14 but often available for $11

Alc: 13.5%

Chefs and Econ 101


low wagesI’ve come across many stories recently about restaurants having trouble finding qualified chefs and cooks to staff their kitchens given the increasing demand for quality restaurant food. Here is  one from Portland, Maine:

Like most chefs, whenever executive chef Troy Mains interviews someone for a line cook position at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, he gets them in the kitchen and watches them work: Are their knives sharp? Are they clean? Can they communicate and take orders?

“It takes me an hour to look at them,” Mains said. “And then I say, in the most polite terms, ‘I don’t think it’s wise that we continue our relationship.’ Or I might say ‘Please, please, you’re hired. Oh, please, I’m begging you. Please work for me. Please.’”

Why the groveling? Because Mains and other chefs say a national shortage of qualified cooks is happening here in Maine, too, and leaving them chronically understaffed. Most say they started noticing a problem a year or two ago, and some say the current shortage is the worst they’ve seen.

My EGullet feed has been full of such reports as well.

Then I came across this report yesterday asserting that the wages of cooks have declined more than any other profession:

According to new reports, the onion-chopping preppers and burger-patty grillers of America are suffering most from declining real wages. Real wages refers to pay that’s adjusted for inflation, and by this measurement, the take-home payments of cooks have fallen by 8.9 percent since 2009. It’s the steepest decline among all the large occupations in the lowest-paid segment of the workforce. By comparison, janitors’ real wages have shrunk by 6.6 percent, and housecleaners’ by 6.1 percent.

Does anyone see a connection?


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