Asian Dining Rules – Steven A. Shaw
I have been eating in Asian restaurants all my life and writing about them for a long time, and yet this amazing book taught me so much – like it is okay to pick up sushi with your fingers and eat it. Thank you for that Steven although I have to admit that I am not shy about asking for the kiddie chopsticks! This well-written and engaging book is full of stories, real-life advice and fun anecdotes about eating at many different types of Asian restaurants. What I really like about Steven’s writing is that he is very straight-shooter and very practical in his tips and advice. I think this book is really a lovely gift for the holidays for all lovers of Asian food and good writing.
I have known Steven for many years now, we met through his baby eGullet.org, and have always adored his writing.
Steven was gracious enough to agree to an interview with me for this blog –
1. What inspired you to write this book? It is such a different concept, a different approach.. what made you go in this direction?
My earlier book, TURNING THE TABLES, was about how to get the most out of restaurants in general. In it I included a small section — just a few pages — titled "Guerrilla Sushi Tactics." When I went on tour to promote the book and spoke to audiences, I found that a disproportionate number of questions were about that little sushi section of the book. And also people would ask me about all sorts of other ethnic restaurants, especially Asian ones. That, plus the fact that it would be a great excuse to eat a lot of Asian food for a year or so, prompted me to propose ASIAN DINING RULES to my editor.
2. In your mind, what distinguishes a good Chinese restaurant from a mediocre or bad one. (Incidentally, I have yet to find a good one in Northern VA, so if you have recommendations, I am all ears.)
Certainly there are some Chinese restaurants that lie at the extremes of goodness and badness. For example a few years back we pulled into the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant in Gastonia, North Carolina, and the place was so depressing and scary that we never even made it in the door. Likewise, a great New York City Chinatown restaurant like Nice Green Bo is going to be good no matter who goes or what you order. But the overwhelming majority of Chinese restaurants are neither good nor bad. Rather, they have split personalities. As I discuss at length in the book, most every Chinese restaurant is really two restaurants: the one where the tourists just pass through to eat, and the one where the regulars dine. Even some of the most humble-seeming Chinese restaurants are capable of producing great meals if you as the consumer can actualize your desire for great food.
Pretty much everything in ASIAN DINING RULES is either directly or indirectly about how to make that happen.
3. Could you tell us a little about why the MSG scare is not true?
Well, as the great food writer Jeffrey Steingarten said, "Why doesn't everyone in Ch
a have a headache?" It may very well be that a minuscule percentage of people in the population is allergic to MSG, however for the overwhelming majority of people who declare themselves MSG-allergic there is no science to support it. The FDA and just about every other respectable scientific body you can name have studied MSG with incredible rigor and when it comes down to blind-challenge studies it's not possible to demonstrate a health problem with MSG.
Combine that with the fact that hundreds of millions of Asians regularly eat the stuff without ill effect, and the fact that glutamate (the natural analog to MSG) is present in such a wide variety of foods (Parmesan cheese, etc.) and it's more likely that the MSG scare is a psychological issue rather than a physical one.
4. Over the course of your research, what is the one thing that you learned that surprised you about Indian restaurants?
That most of them aren't Indian. The standard Indian restaurant in North America is really a Bangladeshi-owned restaurant serving a stylized interpretation — handed down to us via the British Empire — of North Indian Moghul cuisine. A while back the New York Times quoted one source for the proposition that "95 percent of New York's Indian restaurants belong to Bangladeshis." That species of Indian food can be delicious when done right, but it's only a tiny glimpse of India's varied culinary possibilities and to my palate this version of Moghul cuisine tends to be heavy and unsubtle. After working on the book, I now mostly avoid mainstream Indian restaurants and focus my energy on finding places that serve South Indian or other non-standard cuisines.
5. I admit, I am a bit sheepish about asking for the "real menu" at local Chinese places because I am not a big fan of pig ears etc. What can I do to try some more authentic dishes but just not the very unusual ones?
One easy thing to do is focus on fish and seafood. In general, you're not going to find a lot of gross fish dishes. Most likely the fish and seafood on the "real menu" will involve whole steamed fish prepared in various ways, lobsters, soft-shell crabs, etc. While there are some disturbing possibilities for seafood, there's nothing like the range of alarming dishes you can get from land animals. In addition, you can just ask tons of questions. For example I was at a Chinese place in New York a couple of weeks ago and the first thing I noticed when I walked in the room was a fluorescent green paper sign on one of the walls with a list of dishes all in Chinese writing. So I found the manager — the guy in the suit who speaks the best English — and I pointed to every item on the list and said "What's this?" "What's that?" "How about this one?" Some of the items involved frogs and jellyfish and the like. But others like soft-shell crabs were immediately likable — they just weren't being offered on the English menu.
(Monica’s note – So, I took Steven’s advice and went to a local place here called Peking Village. We always get the same white menu. Well, this time, I wandered around and asked a few of the patrons, who were speaking in what I think was some Asian language, what they were eating. And viola, the hostess came along and told us and chatted with us and produced a different yellow menu. We had a great meal with some very authentic fried pork and beef. After we ate, she said she was impressed that we could eat such spicy food and that the next time we should order from yet another menu – a blue one. Clearly, we left an impression! But then, so did their amazing food. Thank you, Steven Shaw.)
6. What is next for you?
I'd like to write a book about what I call the creative revolution in gastronomy. Basically a world tour of the most creative chefs, and a quest for the true meaning of culinary creativity. I'm also, more immediately, going to edit the forthcoming Top 100 Chinese Restaurants USA guidebook to be published
by Chinese Restaurant News. And of course I spend the other 23 hours of every day trying to contain the huge, unwieldy animal that is eGullet.org
Some more reviews of this very entertaining book —