1. Acquired taste
Buoyed by social media and social responsibility, chefs are challenging diners to try ever more exotic and unlikely ingredients. Should we be fed on (or fed up of) fish swim bladders and foraged herbs?
By Michael Booth
Is it ever acceptable for a restaurant to serve food with the intention of challenging, provoking or even irritating its guests? It’s contrary to conventional notions of hospitality but the role of restaurants is changing. Some chefs now see themselves as progressive actors in global movements for social or environmental change; their menus prioritise the broadening of minds over the filling of bellies. And social media is further encouraging kitchens to surprise or shock.
I’ve had a few difficult moments of my own recently, mostly in avant garde, trendy or otherwise fancy restaurants. At Happy Paradise in Hong Kong I was served pig’s brains followed by roast pigeon decorated with the unfortunate bird’s charred head. Then there was the swim bladder (an organ that helps fish to stay buoyant) at Noma in Copenhagen and bitter foraged herbs at a pop-up by Rodolfo Guzmán at Ocean in Porches, Portugal. In each case other diners failed to finish – or even start – the dishes. But I would eagerly return to eat the food of all three chefs. Why? Precisely because they gave me something to think about as well as eat.
We can trace this intentionally provocative approach back to El Bulli, the Catalan restaurant that gave the world “molecular gastronomy”. The meal I ate there included various baby creatures, such as eel and octopus, served whole, and many courses featuring hare. One of them, a bowl of wild strawberries in hare consommé, was virtually inedible and, frankly, harrowing. But I look back on it as the meal of my life because there was always a point to chef Ferran Adrià’s invention.
I might well be a jaded, blasé glutton numbed by the enormous privilege of eating for a living but neophilia for its own sake is a dead end. I am open to being lured from my dining comfort zone because, sometimes, that’s where the magic happens. Take brains. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom famously presented monkey brains as a culinary taboo but, since being introduced to fried veal brains at Ribouldingue, a sadly defunct bistro on the Left Bank in Paris, I’ll always choose them from a menu. Whether it’s veal brains or lamb’s or even pig’s, ordering it has become, well, a no-brainer.
That’s why I like to eat in Japan: I know that I’m going to have dishes and ingredients that I wouldn’t ordinarily encounter or, in some cases, ones that I never knew were edible, such as knotweed or chicken sashimi. Eating raw chicken comes with a hefty side dish of cognitive dissonance, as does fish sperm, another taboo food that I’ve grown to love thanks to its inclusion in various kaiseki meals, the precursor of the much-maligned western multicourse extravaganza.
Chinese food, too, often presents textures beyond the comfort zone of westerners: slippery, spongey, snotty, rubbery and chewy stuff such as cartilage and collagen, sea cucumber, chicken’s feet and ground yam. But, as I tell my children, you should try everything once – and that’s where the tasting menu makes a case for itself. Critics say that they are more about the chef’s ego and Michelin ambitions than the diner’s pleasure. It’s often true that there is misplaced machismo, rampant self-indulgence or a kind of onanistic exhibitionism at work – and I suspect that few chefs have ever sat down to eat the 15 or 20 dishes they expect their diners to consume. But in the hands of a brilliant kitchen they can be revelatory, nudging you to try new things and acquire new tastes. The question is: how far should a chef go?
How would you feel if, for instance, insects turned up unannounced in a restaurant dish? I remember introducing a then-unknown Brazilian chef on stage at the first Mad Foodcamp Symposium in Copenhagen in 2011. I suspect that there were a few that day who regretted choosing a front-row seat as Alex Atala of São Paulo’s Dom restaurant presented us with live ants and instructed us to squish them before eating. But insects, we’re told, are likely to be a key component in a sustainable protein diet of the future, so perhaps it’s time that diners were challenged with them, just as they have been with foraged ingredients in the past few years. The ants tasted great, by the way: of ginger and citrus.
Far more offensive to me than a dish that might make me hesitate or squirm is boredom: a menu of clichés as found in provincial gastropubs in the UK, Parisian brasseries and the chain restaurants of celebrity chefs. Brain and sperm, insects, weeds and echinoderms? Bring ’em on – in moderation and to improve the dish. Or as a philosopher once put it: “The best stomach is not that which rejects the most food.”
Worth a nibble?
1. Insects: Half the world can’t be wrong.
2. Fish sperm: Your grandmother called it “milt”.
3. Brains: More delicate than you think.
4. Foraged greens: A bit of a bitter pill but one of the secrets of longevity – and one that’s now increasingly popular.
5. Artificial meat: This is improving exponentially – some of it now bleeds beetroot juice.
6. Fish swim bladders: Debuted on Noma’s winter seafood menu. Expect them to filter down.
About the writer: Booth is monocle’s Copenhagen correspondent and the author of books including The Meaning of Rice.
2. In with the old
Tokyo’s dining scene is known for novelty but the Japanese capital’s classic, age-old, single-dish establishments can teach all restaurants a more enduring lesson. Here’s how.
By Robbie Swinnerton
Tokyo is not a city ruled by tradition. This is glaringly obvious from the moment you arrive. Gleaming gadgetry, spotless streets and the relentless pace of redevelopment testify to an infatuation with the new and shiny.
The same applies to the way that the Japanese capital eats and drinks: it is hungry for innovation as well as sustenance. Fast-food outlets and convenience shops proliferate. So too do fads such as hotcakes (still selling in numbers that do the idiom justice) and Taiwanese bubble tea, a boom that continues unabated. Hot-ticket restaurants receive breathless media coverage, especially those with brand-name chefs serving dishes currently deemed to be in vogue.
But this doesn’t mean that tradition has disappeared. Just as with the old temples and shrines now overshadowed by high-rise complexes and blockbuster retail outlets, there are still many places serving Japanese cuisine as grandparents would remember it, from tempura to tonkatsu. The most popular places have been around so long that they see no need to trumpet their presence or worry about how their dishes look on Instagram. What they share is a focus on serving a single type of food – be it sukiyaki (beef hotpot), yakitori (grilled chicken) or yakiniku (grilled meat) – a dedication to artisanal quality and a deep sense of being rooted in their respective communities.
There’s no better example than Kanda Matsuya. This soba (buckwheat noodle) restaurant has been in business for about 140 years; slide open the door and join the crowd sitting elbow to elbow at low communal tables. You can watch the dough being rolled out by hand and cut to order as no-nonsense waitresses bustle about dispensing saké, snacks and good-natured cheer. The noodles are hearty: the kind of simple, honest fare that has nourished the people of Tokyo for generations. But it’s the atmosphere that makes Matsuya special: there’s a sense that you are participating in a time-tested dance that’s been repeated for centuries.
While noodles have always been the food of the common folk, tempura is considered more sophisticated, especially at operations such as Ten-Ichi. Its main restaurant in Ginza was once a favourite destination for visiting politicians and celebrities; there are photographs of US presidents and French filmstars on the walls. A waitress in a kimono ushers you into a small dining room where your own tempura chef prepares lightly battered morsels of seafood and vegetables, serving them directly from his wok to your plate. Ten-Ichi has branches across Tokyo but here it still offers the old-world charm that has burnished its reputation for the past 50 years.
A generation or two ago, before sushi conquered the world, many visitors to Japan turned up their noses at the prospect of eating raw fish. But those with a taste for the exotic usually dined at Kyubey. Founded in 1936, it has long been one of the top names in Ginza, an area synonymous with high-end dining. This is where the famous gunkan-maki (“battleship” sushi roll) was invented in 1942. Its counters are spread across five floors; some are private chambers – where Japan’s captains of industry entertain guests – but most welcome allcomers, even without reservations. It’s the perfect place to ground yourself in sushi etiquette before delving into more rarefied levels of the dining culture.
Ginza has always had a grittier side to it – and that is definitely the feel at Otako. Here you drop in, order a drink and nibble on oden, Japan’s favourite wintertime comfort food. This hotpot of slow-simmered seafood, meat and vegetables has been Otako’s speciality for almost a century.
Still hungry? You can’t go wrong with tonkatsu, the breaded pork cutlets that are becoming the world’s new favourite comfort food. At Tonki, however, you’ll find few concessions to contemporary sensibilities: the aesthetic is spartan and the menu virtually unchanged since 1939. You have one choice to make: rosu (fatty) or hiré (lean). Both take 20 minutes to cook. Both come with pungent yellow mustard and shredded cabbage, with rice and soup on the side. Beer and saké are available but little else: no side dishes, no dessert, no coffee – and certainly no bubble tea or hotcakes. You order, you wait, you eat – then you leave. Totally old school.
About the writer: Swinnerton has written a weekly column, Tokyo Food File, in The Japan Times for the past 20 years.
3. Turning the page
Cookery books have never been so popular. But what do the samey new titles and fad diets say about how our relationship with food is changing? Our correspondent reports.
By Kimberly Bradley
When I was growing up in a small town in the US, my mother used a favourite cookbook. The cover of her 1961 edition of The Joy of Cooking sported the word “joy” in red in a jaunty font. Inside were thousands of recipes. Not only did it list ingredients and instructions, it also offered anecdotes from author Irma S Rombauer, a widow who compiled family recipes in 1931 to process the loss of her husband.
Mom used it so much that some pages were stained and splattered. But that didn’t matter: the steps were so idiot-proof that I learned to cook simple dishes, such as US Senate bean soup and buttermilk pancakes, before I was a teenager. The Joy of Cooking was in every US kitchen back then and newer editions are still common. It taught generations of Americans how to cook and is a reflection of the country’s culinary trends through the 20th century and beyond. It even inspired luminaries such as US TV chef Julia Child, who was famous in the 1970s, though the recipes in her seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking – another iconic cookbook, originally published in 1961 – are infinitely more complex.
Most nations have at least one iconic cookbook: a ubiquitous tome that teaches young cooks to make and enjoy the fare of the land. In Austria – where I’ve lived for the past four years – I see the catchily named Die Gute Küche: Das Beste aus dem österreichischen Jahrhundertkochbuch (The Good Kitchen: The Best from the Austrian Cookbook of the Century) by Ewald Plachutta and Christoph Wagner in most homes. It’s an instruction manual for specialities such as crispy veal schnitzel and kaiserschmarrn, an eggy, sectioned take on the pancake. Published in 1993, the book is decades younger than The Joy of Cooking but became the authority on Austrian cuisine at one of the last points before such publishing became an international affair.
In France, Georges Auguste Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire was first published in 1903 and “demystified” French haute cuisine, offering subsequent generations a reference manual to national dishes. In Cuba there’s Cocina al Minuto, first published in 1956. And in Russia The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food was the main cookbook during the Soviet period, having grown and been updated from a cookbook published in the 1930s. My second adopted home, Germany, lacks a unified national cookbook but, then again, it wasn’t a unified nation until 1871. Here’s where the country’s regions step in: German kitchens are stocked with cookbooks packed with Bavarian specialities (southern German chef Alfons Schuhbeck’s My Bavarian Cookbook is now available in English) or fish recipes from the North Sea.
Iconic cookbooks are about comfort food, national traditions and the pleasures of cooking for the family. Their appeal lies in their utter lack of pretense. But the recipes are labour-intensive and the methods contained within require a knowledge of techniques – such as whisking egg whites or making beef stock from scratch – that our fast-paced lives are causing us to slowly lose.
Unlike the new ilk of culinary publishing, many of these cookbooks have more words than pictures. They’re certainly a far cry from so many newly published cookbooks or online recipes with Instagram-eager imagery of over-saturated, shot-from-above health food. These newer books are undeniably pretty but are they useful? Often they zero in on one exotic cuisine (Israel, anyone? Thai street food?), a process (fermentation) or a single ingredient (kale, perhaps, or almonds). There’s always that predictable lush close-up.
Other new titles are all about diets, such as the Whole30 programme or “ketogenic” eating (a low-carb, high-fat trick on your body). Then there are the shelves devoted to allergies or lifestyle choices: gluten-free, vegan and organic cookbooks are now commonplace. They are often sold based on the things that the dishes lack rather than what they contain.
Celebrities of all stripes – including, of course, star chefs such as the UK’s Jamie Oliver and Canada’s irreverent Matty Matheson – often offer their expertise and preferences in chatty cookbooks that reflect their personal brand. Some of the above might become classics but they all reflect the idea that contemporary eating is more about specialisation and spectacle and less about the activity of everyday eating – the kind that happens with your family and without your phone’s camera.
In the meantime, my mother still uses her ancient edition of The Joy of Cooking. The last time I was home, I baked a cake using its old-fashioned narrative recipe format. My creation emerged from the oven perfectly spongey and sweet. On that visit I found another cookbook in the family stash, one from the 1940s, bound by hand and compiled by the women in my mother’s hometown. In it was a recipe for blackbird pie.
Beneath an illustration of birds was the first instruction. “Wait by a telephone wire for blackbirds to arrive, then pull the wire hard to break the birds’ necks and knock them to the ground.” Second step: “bone them.” The steps between neck-breaking and bone-removing were unclear. No colour photographs but some serious foraging; it could be the next big thing. Just one question: are wild blackbirds organic?
Cookbooks worth rediscovering
1. ‘The Joy of Cooking’, Irma S Rombauer. Originally published in 1931. The 1960s editions are the most vintage Americana.
2. ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’, Julia Child. Child brought French cooking to the US with this seminal cookbook.
3. ‘The Escoffier Cookbook and Guide to the Fine Art of Cookery’, Georges Auguste Escoffier. The essential 1903 guide to French cooking.
4. ‘Plachutta: Classics of Viennese Cuisine’, Ewald & Mario Plachutta. For those who want to dive in to the world of Austrian carbohydrates.
5. Wire-bound or stapled regional cookbooks by women’s organisations or teachers. Check secondhand shops. Some are priceless collections of culinary heritage.
About the writer: Bradley is monocle’s Vienna correspondent. She covers art and culture throughout Europe and beyond.
4. Sound of silence
The dining table is a place to commune but too often restaurants seem hell-bent on drowning out discourse with a musical din. Oh, and those brick walls and concrete floors aren’t helping.
By Andrew Mueller
A scene from real life. A few years ago a friend and I decided to meet for dinner. We lit upon a newish pizza place in an allegedly fashionable area of London, chose a table and ordered drinks. Barely had we clinked glasses when the restaurant’s stereo was switched on, delivering something by The Human League at a volume that all but moved the cutlery.
I’ve no objection to The Human League. I would not wish anyone reading this piece to take away from it any idea that I dislike The Human League; I own several of their albums. But, right at that moment, what I wanted to do was hear and be heard by my dinner companion, as opposed to being deafeningly reminded of the unarguable merits of Dare. We asked the waiter – who, it turned out, was also the proprietor – if he could perhaps wind it down several (dozen) decibels. He said he would not. We asked why. He said he was “creating an atmosphere”. We observed that we were – at 19.00 on a Friday – his only customers and suggested that this perhaps had something to do with the atmosphere he was creating. After a brief stand-off, we paid for the drinks and went elsewhere.
I could tell any number of variations on this story – and suspect that most people reading this could as well. There’s the hunt for a bar in which you and a friend might be able to conduct a conversation; the forlorn trudge around a strange city in search of a post-arrival drink with a book; perhaps even the research for a venue in which you and a date might be able to find out more about each other than your relative ability to shout “What?” across a table.
I’m aware that I’m not the first to give vent to this vexation – and I certainly hope that I won’t be the last. But I also think that there’s another level to it, beyond the obvious nuisance of the racket.
What gnaws at me, at least, is the fact that compulsory music of this sort is not the default: someone in charge at a given inn has decided that this is necessary and/or desirable, and that their customers are going to hear the music they’ve chosen whether they want to or not. If you had a neighbour who did this, you would need to be a saint not to entertain fantasies of arson. Yet we are expected to put up with it in places we are spending money to be in. If you had found a rare, blessed sanctuary from such commotion, and were enjoying a coffee and a newspaper when another patron started playing music aloud on their phone, you would regard that person as an irksome, antisocial moron – and you’d be correct to. Yet we continue to indulge bars, cafés and restaurants that inflict exactly the same thing upon us.
The stupidity and obnoxiousness of this plague can be illustrated by examining the opposite proposition. Consider a hypothetical street, with rival drinking and dining options a couple of doors apart, more or less equal in terms of price and quality of fare. The difference is that one never installed speakers, while the other subjects its patrons to inescapably loud music. It is easy enough to imagine someone walking into the noisier place, wincing, walking back out and going to the quiet place instead. It is – surely – impossible to countenance the reverse scenario: someone entering the more peaceful establishment and deciding, “Actually I’d much prefer to eat amid the intrusive clamour of music I probably don’t like and certainly didn’t ask to hear.” There are plentiful and plausible suggestions as to why restaurants and bars seem to be getting louder: a vogue for echo-friendly minimalist concrete, stripped wood and bare brick; the idea that customers berated by din will eat faster and drink more.
Thankfully there have been encouraging signs of revolt: there are apps, such as iHearU and SoundPrint (“Like Yelp but for noise”), that encourage users to grade venues by the cacophony they impose upon their customers. There have been lawsuits from waiting staff who claim to have had their hearing damaged. There is the – hopefully influential – example of the recently retired and heroic San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer, who used to take a decibel meter on assignments and include a noise rating in his reviews.
Ultimately, however, this is still something that bars and restaurants are choosing to do – and could therefore choose not to. It would be fascinating to see what would happen to the takings of a given hostelry if they switched their stereo off for a week – and advertised the silence.
About the writer: Mueller is monocle’s contributing editor. No-one has left a bar due to the noise made by his band – yet.
5. Lunchtime tribes
Co-working, canteen culture and the curious demise of the boozy lunch have created an unusual range of eating options. Here’s our senior editor’s spotter’s guide to the lunch crowds.
By Robert Bound
Eating at work is a funny one. It is political, tribal, a display of plumage, power and personal preference. What do you like? With whom do you do it and where? How long do you take? How much do you spend? God, it sounds a lot like sex.
There are lunching clans eternal for whom the communal salad bowl ever overfloweth; there are new friendships and fresh romances forged over the inauspicious panini; and there are bitching sessions conducted over the seemingly innocent spinach quiche. Eating at work, despite (these days) being conducted mostly sans booze is gossipy. Perhaps you have just walked out of a stultifying meeting, been sent on a business trip with someone grim or just been emailed by seven idiots. Lunch is where those experiences are offloaded, unloaded, dealt with. It is sandwich as therapy, sushi as confessional, a healthy salad box of unhealthy obsessions unleashed.
We have written about “going out for lunch” before – but we mustn’t confuse that with this. Eating at work isn’t the same as a working lunch, or a power lunch or going for lunch or being taken out to lunch. Those things are called “entertaining” and often are; this thing is not, for a reason. This thing is refuelling made better – perhaps – by quality and company.
Let’s also set the parameters of eating at work. We’re basically talking about lunch. While breakfast is often consumed on the job and – on long, sad days – supper can be too, lunch is a shared eating experience common to us all, shared indeed with those we’re humbled to call… “colleagues”.
So eating at work. Let us merrily count the ways and describe the tribes.
The salad crew
Your workplace has a kitchen? Great! That means that the world’s largest flatshare will be recreated daily, en masse, bantering and spilling olive oil on each other like an Aldi orgy in service to the construction of gargantuan salads, often featuring avocado and occasionally grilled halloumi. It is the culinary equivalent of the Red Army pillaging a village. Packaging is strewn, knives stuffed into the cadavers of squash, the cleaner runs away weeping into her pinny. It is carnage in the name of spinach.
The solitary sandwich man
Ian has a rota and likes his rota and doesn’t care if you don’t like it. Indeed, if you scoff at his rota he’s having the last laugh, he believes, because he, in fact, is the one “scoffing” his egg and cress on white. “So who’s scoffing now?” he might say. Oh, the rota is this: egg, ham, cheese, beef, fish paste, all wrapped up with an apple and some crisps. Once Ian got mixed up when his wife made him fish paste on a Thursday and so he stayed at home all day on Friday, thinking it Saturday. Mrs Ian succeeded, though, and their first child was conceived in those hot minutes spent out of the office wondering where he was.
“Well, the thing is, it’s just easier than buying a sandwich,” says the chef, as he bakes sea bass in a salt crust for 20 minutes at 200c in the communal oven. Well, yes and no. The problem is that, at home, the chef has a super-powered extractor fan that the office kitchen doesn’t and so, really, everyone’s enjoying that sea bass for the rest of the day. The chef waltzes through the canteen with his daily creations, deaf to requests – thinking them compliments – to refrain from making, for once, something from the sea or something without shallots or garlic. The chef always cooks for one.
The ethnic delegation
When five fine examples of Chengdu’s astounding aptitude for figures came to “fix” the accounts department, everyone welcomed them, keen to learn more. But at lunch the enthusiasm for cultural exchange has waned somewhat. The chilli! Our eyes! The sad-eyed skinned rabbit on the draining board, waiting to be diced! Actually it seems that the accounts have sort of fixed themselves so we’re all good, thanks.
Andy arrives in the rain, seemingly wearing his bike – or it wearing him – as he and it seem to be made of the same material. After a shower, though, he’s revealed as almost fully human, save for the food. Andy’s always in training for a triathlon so breakfasts on pasta and prunes and eats a bowl of nuts for lunch (at precisely 15.34; any earlier or later and he might as well just give up and start smoking). Once there was an office trip to a gin distillery, which ended in a raucous old night. Andy grimly sucked from his Zéfal water bottle and took three buses home.
No-one knows where they go but there’s a little foursome who meet from disparate corners of the corporation and disappear into what might be a hedonistic lunchtime adult playground. Is it just lunch or is it a sex dungeon with canapés? Is it mussels and Muscadet or a chemically enhanced shafting parlour? Attempts to track the group have failed. Some are appalled; many are jealous.
Had your fill? Tips for lunch at work
- Like David Bowie in “Modern Love”, it’s good to know when to go out and when to stay in. Brighten up a rainy Tuesday with a blowout; sun yourself with a salad when you can.
- Beware bringing in your lunch. The idea that you’re saving money is dizzying – and might trick you into spending much more on something you don’t need.
- Beware the fad: don’t go too crazy about that new Korean joint down the road and eat their stuff every day until you hate it. Mix it up.
- Walk, don’t run: taking a wander after your lunch is a good way to natter and digest. Spending 50 minutes at the gym and wolfing down soup is vile.
- Don’t phone your bank, mortgage broker or mother at lunch: everyone else will be too so you’ll never get through. That’s what the 16.00 lull is for.
About the writer: Bound is monocle’s senior editor. He misses boozy lunches and is trying to launch their comeback.