Microexploration: World (Food) Travel In Your Kitchen

The very idea of traveling somewhere just for the food – a rising category not long ago – seems rather decadent right now.

At the same time, though, we should remember and (micro)explore the connections that food represents!

“Strange” Food

The exotic among foods has received a blow as people were led to (to a large extent, wrongly) associate Chinese cooking and (wet) markets with wildlife trade, bats, and “dirty” eating.

“Strange foods” of the kinds that we would have celebrated an Anthony Bourdain eating are, once again, something people vehemently oppose. And it doesn’t even have to be anything that is unusual.

Rural restaurant kitchen in Hunan

Chinese cuisine uses some of the broadest ranges of vegetables, which it would be well worth getting to know.

Instead, even though “[t]he same [inundation of quarantine-related new orders] is happening to seed companies like Baker Creek, … ‘we’ve seen a decrease in sales from Chinese varieties.’says its founder.

You don’t have to go for Chinese ingredients and cuisine, though (much as I can – and do – recommend it). You can choose any kind of cuisine, any region – and there would be quite a bit to discover.

(Non-)Journeys of Discovery

Of course, it is not the same as traveling to a place, seeing the sights, hearing the sounds, smelling the air, and then sitting down to a meal some place new.

It might, however, make you all the more aware of all that goes into it when you are not confronted with something new in a new place – and oftentimes, only superficially – but “only” through the microexploration of the food.

That said, let’s go through such a microexploration journey through food.

Knowledge

The first journey of #microexploration discovery – or the later – comes, as I’ve argued before, with reading.

You can most certainly discover new ideas that appeal to you in audiovisual ways as well, especially when it comes to food.

Netflix’s various cooking journeys are all the greater a journey in one’s mind’s eye now that actual journeys will have to wait.

(And admit it, a lot of it is enticing only because the presentation is great. With all the cost and hassle involved, an actual trip is often less appealing.)

Books are still the best way of experiencing something more deeply, having a chance to learn about it oneself, without actually having the experience.

Admittedly, in a case like sausages at the finish of the Stelvio Marathon, it might take more to find particular links to the place – but they do exist!

If it is something enticing in the food world, if it is a cookbook, the instructions for how to at least get an impression of the food is right there. If not, a recipe is probably not all that hard to find!

Maybe you’re now thinking that you’ll never be as good as any chef you see or read about. It will be more of a hassle if you try to prepare something yourself, and it won’t turn out as good. And oh, you first have to get the ingredients, get yourself up.

There’s great learning in that, too.

We have been gaining all too much an attitude where we either think we can do something because we have watched a video of how it’s done – or we don’t even want to try it because we aren’t as good as those we see doing it perfectly.

Living is learning, though. And learning… learning is a process which starts from ignorance. From not knowing what to use, let alone how to use it well. It progresses with practice.

And we don’t need to become perfect chefs in order to be happy with our cooking because it created something edible, let alone to discover more by cooking.

Also not the most enjoyable of experiences, taking apart a whole chicken. But definitely a learning experience…

Ingredients

The first chance for discovery lies with the ingredients. Obvious right?

But consider all you could be doing and learning from that:

  • Grow food plants yourself.
  • Head to an “ethnic” supermarket and see what it has to offer.
  • Check out what ingredients are suggested in cooking instructions.

Often enough, there are big surprises there.

I have a background in biology, yet didn’t even think to check how many different kinds of brassicas (relatives of cabbage) or alliums (onions and garlic and leeks and all that) there are before I went to China and discovered them on markets there – and then also in seed supply stores.

Similarly, I found many more plants to actually be food plants – and as scary as animal parts can seem, I also became aware of rather more cuts of meat (and yes, sometimes species, too) than I would have ever thought of eating.

Vegetables definitely have their beauty!

Preparation

It’s a deliberate choice of words to have talked of “cooking instructions” rather than recipes above. The preparation can also teach us a lot.

Yes, you may just learn that you’d rather just order in and spare yourself the hassle. But hey, that would be a learning experience, too – and one that would hopefully come with a greater appreciation for the work that cooks (and homekeepers) are doing!

Reading “recipes” in Chinese, for example, was quite interesting. Not only when they used anything exotic, but even more when they used common ingredients – but did so in different ways.

The ingredients are often very familiar. Often enough, the preparations aren’t too special, either. And yet, everything tends to be somewhat different, anyways.

A mise-en-place of ingredients for Hunan-style bacon

China (my background, hence what I use as example – though the same applies to other places) has a lot of different ways of even just cutting up ingredients and frying them up.

China also has a very interesting way of giving instructions for cooking:

They tend not to be very precise with amounts and measurements. The assumption is that you have an idea of how much of what you will need and want, and see if or how you need to adjust.

It can be a bit disconcerting when you are starting out, when you may want to look to Westerner-written recipes with precise instructions. It also makes a lot of sense, though, as cooking is not a chemistry experiment in which exact measures are truly necessary; cooking is a creative act, too!

Not China, but Japan. Okonomiyaki in Osaka – which is an interesting case of mainly familiar ingredients, combined in pretty unfamiliar (but tasty!) ways

Enjoyment

As long as you didn’t completely oversalt or overspice the food you prepared, chances are it will be edible at least. Just a bit of an improvement (or more hunger…), and it might well end up a joy.

And there is a necessity for learning, anyways.

You don’t end up magically liking everything. Even the foods you grew up with may not all always have been favorites – and chances are that, as you grew up and as you grow older, your tastes change.

Many people learn to appreciate stronger tastes, especially bitter ones, later in life. Taste buds lose some of their sensitivity, and there are more bitter substances in daily life – think coffee and beer. Between that and some health consciousness – and perhaps, better preparation skills and higher health consciousness (and plant breeding), Brussel’s sprouts may “suddenly” end up appealing rather than appaling.

Looking further across the world, many things may be like that.

(Noodle) Restaurant in Chengdu

Chinese food is a particularly good case for the importance of mouth feel, of textures, which are not often discussed or brought to awareness in other cuisines – even as they always matter.

Crunch, chewiness, creaminess, airiness, crisp, bite, crackle,… all matter.

And that beside sweet, salty, sour, bitter – and pungent, numbing, cool, prickling…

1 Comment

  1. Dr. James E. Skibo

    As I travelled the world I always looked at the local food this way: The natives are alive and healthy, so whatever it is they are eating is probably OK. In parts of Thailand, I had the great pleasure to experience a vast array of flavors, textures, and mouth feel. Same for Indian foods.

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