Saturday, January 03, 2009

Looping back to the 18th century by concentrating on your ingredients

This year's food issue from the New Yorker included an article by Fuchsia Dunlop about a restaurateur in Hangzhou, China (a city 150 km SE of Shanghai), that is sourcing local and organic ingredients for the restaurant, as well as keeping a log of all of the food purchases. For the most part, the article didn't do much for me, but two things jumped out at me.

First, in order to prevent being cheated by his suppliers, the restaurateur requires that they document the purchase somehow, perhaps with a photo of the pig, chickens, or farm that supplied the vegetables (the restaurant also performs inspections from time to time). Then, inside the restaurant, they provide a "purchase diary" for customers' inspection that shows details about the evening's ingredients, including the contracts, photos, and other relevant information. I can't recall hearing about any U.S. restaurants that do anything like this.

Second, the idea that fine cooking is mostly about getting the best ingredients is a concept that is often associated with Berkeley's Chez Panisse restaurant and Alice Waters. When Waters started following the philosophy in the 1970s, it was almost revolutionary when compared with prevailing philosophies in the U.S. of 'cheap food at any cost' and convenience over all. But, of course, Waters wasn't doing anything new — concentrating on great ingredients is a very old concept. Dunlop's article provides an 18th-century example from China:

He [restaurateur Dai] had read the work of Yuan Mei, China’s Brillat-Savarin, an eighteenth-century scholar-gentleman who abandoned his career as an imperial bureaucrat to retire to Nanjing, where he designed his own garden and wrote a seminal cookbook, “Food Lists of the Garden of Contentment.” Although, as an educated man, Yuan Mei probably never cooked himself, he was a meticulous gourmet. He recorded his impressions at dinners in grand houses and collected recipes from Buddhist monasteries. He gave his chefs detailed instructions and quizzed them on culinary practice. He had a dislike of flashy cooking, and once wrote of going home hungry after a forty-dish banquet.

...He [Dai] told me that Yuan Mei had insisted that the art of cookery began with the selection of the raw ingredients. “He believed that a chef could take credit for only sixty per cent of the success of a banquet, and that whoever did the shopping should take credit for the rest,” Dai said. “He wrote that just as a stupid person would remain stupid even if taught by Confucius and Mencius, a poor ingredient would be tasteless even if cooked by Yi Ya, the legendary Chinese chef of the Zhou dynasty.”

I don't have much to say right now about China or the article, but wanted to point out that today's focus on great ingredients and local foods is not so unusual — instead it's the late 20th century's obsession with efficiency, processing, and preservation that is the anomalous behavior.

Photo of tea fields in Longjing from tzejen's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.



Random link from the archive: Roasted Tomatillo Salsa
Technorati tags: China : Eat Local : Food

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