Michelin honours Chinese chef – Part II

A rubbery sea cucumber

A rubbery sea cucumber

I promised to write a little more on this story, and ended up doing a piece for the Financial Times, which you can read here. It was an interesting subject to research – and I had a very robust discussion on the phone with the director of Michelin guides, Jean-Luc Naret. I pushed him quite hard on the subject of rubbery things, which I honestly don’t believe most Europeans can appreciate (it took me years). His argument was that Michelin inspectors, as professionals, are duty-bound to understand the cuisines they assess – including alien aspects such as texture foods. Which conjures up a rather amusing picture of Michelin inspectors munching their way through piles of fish maw, sea cucumber and bird’s nest, trying to grasp the finer points of slitheriness…

4 Responses to “Michelin honours Chinese chef – Part II”

  1. Gordon Ramsay's jellied eel

    There may not be European wine, but there’s nevertheless an analogue — tea! I’m no tea expert, but I find that tea cleanses the palate of cloying flavours after every dish, leaving the taste buds fresh for whatever comes next. To be fair there’s Chinese wine too and other spirits, there’s even an expression for eating foods suited to drink — foods that 送酒 ‘song jiu’ — or roughly, food that goes with drink. With the emphasis on drink. But it is almost certainly less common than tea and has, as far as I know, no equivalent to the connoisseurship that goes with matching food to fine wines.

    The importance of purely textural foods to Chinese cuisine may also be slightly overstated. Yes, they’re there, but they’re often slathered in sauces, which makes taste at least part of the point. It’s true that some of it can be an acquired taste. But the taste for such foods is in a sense ‘acquired’ by us too. Growing up few of us liked the slithery, tasteless stuff. The picky eaters amongst us would find such foods revolting and not eat them. At best we were indifferent to bird’s nest, octopi, abalone, gizzards, innards, and sea cucumber. Some of us couldn’t even see the point of tofu, which is tastelessly bland in its unadorned state. Only age and a maturing palate awoke us to the subtle joys of certain foods (although I’m still not big on gizzards). The textural aspect, initially perplexing, would make palatable sense all of a sudden.

    I would make a comparison to jellied eels (an acquired taste if ever there was one?), but having not had jellied eels I can’t say if the comparison is accurate. It just struck me as a good comparison. :)

    If jellied eels, why not sea cucumber? Gordon Ramsay — a 3 Michelin stars chef — seems to like the maligned jellied eel well enough. This suggests to me that the inspecteurs Michelin do not have an impossible task ahead of them, and that they’ll surely improve as they harmonise their tastes with the ambient food culture.

  2. Jeff C

    Ms. Dunlop, I (long time fan) have been reading your blog and to state the obvious, find your viewpoints extremely refreshing. Concerning this topic on texture foods, I recalled when I was younger coming from the US to Taiwan and eating at my uncle’s restaurant, sea cucumber. I initially thought it was the rubber erasers from my school kit! But your right its the texture thats important. Another aspect which I find disconcerting as do other non Asian diners who dine with our family is our love of fins and tails of fish. My mother swears that those are the best parts, I just think their slimy. My wife who grew up in Taiwan will easily crunch down on the cartilaginous portion of a drumstick and chew it up and swallow it, while I do my utmost to avoid it.
    I don’t know about Michelin reviewers, I certainly think this is definitely acquired if not culturally indoctrinated in the appreciation of these textures.

  3. admin

    Mr (or Ms) Jellied Eel
    Thank you very much for your interesting post. I quite agree that tea connoisseurship (and the connoisseurship of Chinese jiu – alcoholic drinks) are extremely sophisticated, and that certain foods are eaten with jiu. But is there any equivalent to the practice of matching specific drinks with specific courses of a meal? If there is, I haven’t come across it, except in a westernised context. My Chinese food world colleagues are extremely interested in the subject of western wine culture – and especially in the way wine writers try to express the character of a wine using metaphor and simile, rather than the straight language of taste and smell.

    On texture foods, I appreciate your point that, even in China, people have to acquire a taste for them. I am intrigued by the fact that avant-garde chefs such as Ferran Adria and Heston Blumental are becoming interested in texture as a key aspect of gastronomy – you have only to look at Adria’s spherified olives or Heston’s ‘nitro-poached green tea and lime mousse’ to understand that ‘mouthfeel’ is very much part of their game. Will they lead Europeans and Americans into a greater adventurousness with regard to food textures, and perhaps even – gasp – an enjoyment of rubbery things? I think they will.

    But in the meantime, I really can’t think of many western equivalents of slithery Chinese foods like fish maw and sea cucumber. Jellied eels are really just eels in jelly – and jelly in itself is not a problem. What is more challenging for westerners is the combination of yielding gelatinousness AND rubbery resistance.

    Actually a New York food-writer and I tried over lunch the other day to think of parallels to these textures in European gastronomy, and we were pretty much stumped. Squid… that’s the most rubbery thing I can think of, so perhaps that qualifies. Passion fruit is slimy – but my companion that day pointed out that it’s not often used in its raw state in western restaurants. Okra (memorably described once by my father as ‘green beans with snot inside’) are slimy – but not exactly western.

    If anyone reading this blog can think of other examples of rubbbery, slithery, slimy or squelchy delicacies in western cuisines, please post!!

    Jeff C, I agree on the subject of fins and tails – in fact, there’s a discussion of this Chinese love of foods with a ‘high grapple factor’ in my shark’s fin book.

    Someone I interviewed for an article about shark’s fin once said he thought the younger generation of Chinese were losing the taste for offal and rubbery things – just as the younger generation of Brits tend to prefer fillets of meat to kidneys, liver and brains. Having said that, I don’t think it’s only the older generation of Sichuanese that devour rubbery goose intestines with such gusto…

    So which way are we headed? Will the Chinese stop eating chicken’s feet and fish maw, and western gourmets, influenced by the wild-side cooking of celebrity chefs, start eating them instead?

  4. squeakyfrommage

    Okra may not be Western European, but they’re definitely western. Okra figure prominently in several American cuisines, Southern, Creole and Cajun.

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