Transcript for Food in Translation with Jonathan Gold

 

Jim Fleming:  Think Paris.  After the Eiffel Tower and the Champs Elysee what comes to mind?  The croissant? The baguette?  The bonbon?  Food is certainly the most palatable expression of culture and the most easily shared.  L.A. Times food critic Jonathan Gold has spent his career seeking out the best plates of authentic or reinterpreted culture.  Strainchamps asked him about food in translation.   
 
Anne Strainchamps:  I was thinking Jonathan, for people who love exploring other cultures, one of the most visceral ways to do it of course is to eat.  Even if you can't afford plane fare, many of us who are lucky enough to live in medium or large cities can kind of take a little trip to another country just by hitting the right restaurant, but I think that maybe most of the time the food that we are eating has actually been suddenly translated for North American appetites.  Would you agree? 
 
Jonathan Gold:  Of course it has, at least in most of the country it has.  I know in Madison for example, they have some Laos restaurants that are fine.  They're decent, but Laos is a poor country, it has sort of a cuisine of poverty.  They eat every leaf and every sort of herb, you know tiny scraps of meat because they can't afford more.  It's a specific kind of bitterness and of spiciness and sort of herbaceous quality, because that's what they can eat and that's what they can afford to eat.  So, they have transplanted themselves to Madison in the middle of American abundance into a landscape where people perhaps can't tolerate bitter and spicy basis flavors like that.  Of course, the flavors are going to change.   
 
Strainchamps:  What about you live in L.A., do you find in a city like L.A. there's less of that translation going on? 
 
Gold:  I think there is.  The reason L.A. is different from most cities in the country I think, or maybe any city, is that A, it's very spread out and B, we have enormous immigration.  So, Los Angeles has more Salvadorans than any city but San Salvador.  There are more Koreans living here than there are anywhere outside of Korea.  The neighborhoods are insular enough that I find that a lot of those people in a lot of those restaurants are cooking for themselves rather than cooking for the non-Korean or non-Mexican that might be walking through their doors.  
 
Strainchamps:  How different does that make the food then? 
 
Gold:  It makes a huge difference, I think.  In New York City for example, which also has huge immigration, say you have a Korean restaurant that is in a Korean neighborhood.  They're mostly cooking for Koreans, but still they take the subway everyday like everybody else and they're always rubbing shoulders with people who are Korean.  As a result, they're probably thinking a lot harder about what non-Koreans might like to eat.  Whereas here, they don't.  You know, Mr. Kim goes into a restaurant and he wants to eat exactly what his mother used to make him on Thursday afternoons when he was growing up.  He's able to find that and [xx] are able to go into those restaurants and eat what Mr. Kim is eating.   
 
Strainchamps:  What do you think are the most egregious sorts of mistranslations of ethnic food that you find in North America, I mean food that's kind of been dumped down, essentially?  I think of, I don't know that gloppy marinara sauce you find in Italian American restaurants. 
 
Gold:  Yeah.  I'm not a fan of the Olive Garden, but in a way Americanization of foreign foods is legitimate in its own way.  Cuisine is never stable.  It's never fixed.  It's always changing.  The ideas of what are authentic are always changing.   
 
Strainchamps:  I'm sort of assuming, and this may be kind of a snobbish way, that Americanized food automatically means it’s not as good.  It's not the authentic, real thing.  It's inferior.  It's been dumped down, but sometimes surely, an Americanized version of something actually takes on a life of its own and becomes good. 
 
Gold:  Of course, things are authentic to regions.  One of the things that I write about a lot is Mexican food in southern California.  We've always had a substantial Spanish-American or Mexican-American or Mexican community and there are the sort of foods that people describe as eating on the Ranchos in the 19th century that you can still go into some restaurants here and find you know, the beans cooked in a certain way, the marinated and grilled meats, the chicheronis.  There's a well developed sort of Chicano cuisine.  That is what people grew up on.  Then, there's the second sort of immigration.  They identify with their village in Michoacan, or coming from Guadalajara, or coming from Zacatecas or coming from [sic].  Because there is the sort of quote, unquote authentic or more specifically, more regional food, a lot of people who are sort of in the second stage of Los Angeles [sic], tend to dismiss the older places as you know, authentic.  In fact, it's authentic.  Los Angeles, California cooking, it's just not authentic Zacatecas style cooking.   
 
Strainchamps:  Are there any cases where an ethnic food has been Americanized and then returned to its place of origin and gotten popular there? 
 
Gold:  It happens all the time in Korean cooking, for example.  For example, there's a kind of tofu stew called [sic], which is a kind of [sic], or soupy stew or stew-y soup that has lots of chilis and usually sort of a fish broth with freshly made tofu.  It's served at the table and it's sort of always been a dish here, but became a faddish dish in Los Angeles in the 80s and it went back and became a fad in Seoul.  Even with Italian cooking I think, I was with a chef named Nancy [sic] about 22 years ago in northern Italy.  I went to sort of this horrible folklore restaurant.  Among the many bad desserts we had was something they called [sic].  You could of played hai lai with this.  You could have bounced it.  It was a superball of a dessert, but Nancy is the genius of all pastry chefs.  So, when she got back to California she tinkered with it, she took out most of the gelatin and just figured a way to just like barely, [xx] the cream, so it was just rich and crumbling.  She started serving it on her menu.  It spread across California, then to New York, then it came back to Italy.  It was a really popular dessert there.  Italians of course will tell you, they always have panna cotta, but I can tell you, they didn't have good panna cotta, that was Nancy.   
 
Strainchamps:  That's a great story.  So, then in the 90s there was the fusion cuisine trend.  Remember when the very first, say Asian or Californian Asian restaurants were coming about?  In the meantime, [xx] have kind of gotten a bad rap somehow.  Was there something chefs were getting wrong those efforts, do you think? 
 
Gold:  There are a couple stages of fusion.  The first stage of fusion was Japanese chefs' cooking and French food.  Then, Wolfgang Puck was probably the first chef in the country.  He opened a restaurant called [sic], where he cooked Chinese food the French way.  It's funny.  All of his Chinese chefs quit really quickly, like in the first month because they refused to cook their food in this crazy way, this Austrian chef cooking French food was telling them.  It became really positive.  The food was really tasty.  Soon, the idea of fusion became, you know a lot of cooking chefs were reading cookbooks, they're reading, they see flavor principles, they were doing things like making Tai noodles without actually having a trip to the restaurant that served a really good version of it.  What we're seeing now, I think it's exciting.  I think it's the new big trend in American cuisine which is chefs from occasionally from Latin who are exquisitely trained in French cuisine.  Coming back and cooking their own food, their heritage, the food they grew up eating, but informed by all the technique that they've gotten from working in French restaurants.   
 
Strainchamps:  The message you have been saying is that's where it's kind of all headed.  We're going to have layer upon layer of translation and things will have gotten back and forth from one continent to another.  In the end we're going to end up with this global cuisine mishmash, and it will be hard even to decode the origins. 
 
Gold:  Yeah.  Already there are these incredible triple carob shots that I just absolutely love.  For example, the kind of taco that is the most popular in Los Angeles now something called Au Pasture, which is seasoned and cooked on a spit, but Al Pastor comes from Central Mexico where there was a lot of immigration from the Middle East, especially Lebanon.  Al Pastor of course is their version of shwarma, or this chain of incredibly popular restaurants here that are Vietnamese from Houston cooking Cajun style seafood for a largely Cantonese teenage audience.   
 
Strainchamps:  You know, listening you to talk I realize this is what you are.  You are a food translator in a way yourself.   
 
Gold:  Thank you.  That's what I try to do.  If there's anything like what I describe that I do, it's to get people to be a little less afraid of their neighbors.   
 
Fleming:  Jonathan Gold is a restaurant critic for the L.A. Times, and he's the author of ‘Counter Intelligence, Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles’ Anne Strainchamps talked with him.  You can hear the extended version of this interview and dig through our archives for a banquet of food and fun on our website,  ttbook.org.  From Fleming, it's To the Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRI, Public Radio International.
 

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