assorted columns
All text © Christopher Tan. Reproduction without permission is forbidden.
metre d'hotel

Published in Wine & Dine Magazine, 2000

I've noticed recently that there seems to be a sort of dichotomy in contemporary menu writing. (I know this may sound like the prelude to a boring cocktail-party conversation, but bear with me.) Either the dish descriptions are rampantly, exhaustingly prolix (seared and roasted fillet of grain-fed Oklahoma guinea fowl with maple-glazed heirloom askutasquash, sauteed organic yellow wax beans and hand-harvested Shropshire black walnuts, jus de floccipaulhinipilification) or childrens'-book blunt (chicken, peas, mash).

On the one hand florid, on the other, arid. The first approach blinds you with adjectives and lacks mystique (compare, for instance, 'Chicken Marengo'), while the second is depressingly like reading a shopping list, which, let's face it, you're trying to avoid if you're eating out. What happened to intrigue? What happened to glamour, for pete's sake?

Some restaurants hold their own. No menu ever managed to be more perversely individual, encourage more speculation about its food, or explore the boundaries of art and language more than that of a little ramen place I used to go to. Two items in particular I shall remember forever. The first is 'The bean jam the egg bowls'. The intensely Lennonesque flavour of this phrase is propelled by a sense of relentless energy formed by the ambiguity of jam and bowls - are they nouns? Verbs? What is the bean's history with the egg?

I never ordered that, alas, but I did once try the sweepingly lyrical 'Noodles of the soy sauce soup on the many porks'. (it turned out to be shoyu ramen.) Say it out loud and note the cunning elegance of its rhythm, the natural break after 'soup', the way the line flirts with iambic pentameter but never quite gives in. Sadly, the restaurant recently chose grammar over aesthetics and now sports a more prosaic menu, but its old one set me thinking. How to evoke allure, mystery, mood, and thereby incite curiousity and hunger, in just a few words?

After a few hours of mulling over it, my part-time muse dropped the word 'haiku' on my head. So des ne! Think of the haiku form: three short lines, must include one word connected with or alluding to a season, must show appreciation for nature, must be precise and simple, must be an expressive reaction to a moment of revelation. (I'll set aside the traditional Japanese five-seven-five syllable count, as many haiku-writers do because of the choppier rhythms of English.)

Isn't this the perfect rubric for a menu entry? Consider the stunning parallels; ingredients come from nature, they ideally should be used at their seasonal best, a dish exists at its flavour peak for seldom longer than a moment, and of course, every chef would have us experience a revelation, wouldn't they. So instead of, say, noisettes of lamb with a hazelnut and horseradish crust yadda yadda yadda (or just 'lamb'), you might have

The fragrance of herbs/ A gentle coverlet/ For spring lamb

Or:

As your fork rises/ Snowy flakes fall/ Cod, perfectly seared

And to follow:

Reach for the sky/ No, not you/ But your stack of salad

And for dessert:

The sound of crust/ Breaking up/ Over summer berries

This one's based on an actual entry I saw on a Chinese restaurant menu:

Who would have thought it/ All Type Of Pork Chop/ Only £4.50.

But the happy parallels run deeper. The brevity and rigour of haiku composition assigns great responsibility to every word; each is dependent on the others in conveying the overall mood and impact of the haiku. Eh bien, the same holds for the ingredients that make up a recipe, at least in a perfect world. Moreover, implicit in a well-written haiku is a story that extends much further than three lines, of which the haiku's words are a momentary snapshot. Well then: the modern 'dining experience', especially one featuring a multiplex degustation menu, requires that each course be a part of the larger gestalt - larger than the mere food itself - which is a mood, an adventure begun with the placing of the reservation and ending with the bill. You see?

Hmmm ... upon further reflection, perhaps practising the art of verbal distillation would help young chefs and restaurateurs acclimatise to a culinary ethic with cleaner lines, and so steer them away from creating plates as edibly, flabbily wince-worthy as the famously bad verse of William McGonagall ('Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light/ Thou cheerest the Esquimau in the night'), such as the smoked trout with seven entirely superfluous garnishes I ate some months ago.

Now, how about wine lists? Let's see ... There once was a red of Bordeaux/ Whose bouquet had a curranty glow...

all together now

Published in Wine & Dine Magazine, 2000

It is with trembling fingertips and baulking mouse that I approach this month's topic, which at its worst is only slightly less controversial than marrying millionaires on TV. Yes folks, it’s fusion food! Although I’m not taking any new bull by the horns by saying that to apply the term fusion and its meaning (to take a broad consensus view) of the blending of techniques and/or ingredients of two or more cuisines in a single dish, to a subset of modern culinary art, is, of course, extremely silly.

For verily there is nothing new under the sun. All cuisines are 'fusion'; there is no such thing as an ur-cuisine, and never has been as long as man has had the power of foot and horse and paddle and wheel. Thai food and Indian food and Sichuan food never saw chillies before America was discovered; neither did Italian food see tomatoes. Burmese food has Chinese, Indian and Thai cuisines as its clear antecedents. If Columbus hadn’t set sail, the Belgians would have no chocolate to make into truffles.

There is still, however, a distinct difference of character between 'old' fused dishes and 'new' fusion. What don't people like about the latter? The dishes have no context, no culture, they say: they’re based on ingredient combinations chosen more for visual appeal or shock value than for taste; there is too much going on in a single dish; too whimsical, too vulgar, too bizarre. And it’s true that too many modern fusion dishes have a faint jury-rigged air to them: a fritter of this atop a braise of that, next to a compote of something else, stippled with oil infused with the aroma of yet another thing. The supposedly fused flavours burst and fade in brief pas de deux/trois/quatre, an effect that may seem pleasing enough at first taste, but that ultimately hides a lack of real coherency at the core of the dish.

'Old' products of fusion, in contrast, have a more ‘organic’, evolved feel. Flavours are cooked and annealed in the same pot and allowed more than a moment's courting, in order to achieve a true marriage. I am here thinking of dishes like babi assam, the Peranakan classic of pork cooked with Chinese salted soybeans, American chillies, fermented prawn paste like that found all over Asia, and tamarind, which came from Africa via India. Comparing such a dish with modern fusion is like putting an Old Master next to half a cow in a perspex block.

And yet, both were created by impulses that are sound and indeed necessary for any art, the urge to embrace the new and unusual, to combine, to experiment, to achieve new syntheses. The only difference between them is age, and so my judgement is unfairly critical; we’ve just gotten used to the older one, that’s all. But no. Their difference in age allows a further important difference, namely hindsight. As American journalist Fran Lebowitz once said, “People have been cooking and eating for thousands of years, so if you are the very first to have thought of adding lime juice to scalloped potatoes – try to understand that there must be a reason for this.”

So why does brash, strange fusion still exist? Partly, of course, it’s because of the breathless publicity certain sectors of the media will give any menu if it goes far enough out on a limb. It’s also a result, I think, of the disorientation induced by catalogues of the latest ingredients flown in from half a world away, ingredients seductive in their unfamiliarity and the ease in which they can now be ordered. Maybe it’s also encouraged by consumers too young to have traded their short attention spans in for the appreciation of true culinary integrity. These pressures result in a kind of accelerated unnatural evolution that produces things like Sichuan coleslaw.

So how to nurture creativity without stifling it? Well, perhaps chefs new to their trade should spend some time getting acquainted with the ‘fused’ dishes of antiquity, and try to understand why they have persisted. And learn to live and play with an ingredient long enough for it to reveal all its selves. Then they might not be so quick to plate up unthinkable things like Peking duck risotto with fish sauce and coriander leaves, and Asian cassoulet with Chinese sausage (I did not make these up). And listen to their mothers more. “I always think true fusion comes from housewives of different cultures who eat each other’s food, give each other recipes,” culinary pundit Violet Oon said to me once. “You must fuse your culture, you know, not just your food.” In other words, don’t raid someone’s backyard, lean over the fence and get to know them. And then share your riches.

a la mode

Published in Wine & Dine Magazine, 2000

Welcome to the millennial catalogue of Restaurant Concepts 'R Us, the arbiters of all that is happening in the dining scene! Have we got a bumper crop of projects for you to swoon over this year, folks - we're so in the moment, we are the moment.

To begin with, let's get personal. At the end of a long, hard day, isn't it just the best to sit down to a meal, nay, to immerse yourself in a dining experience that fits you as snugly as a second skin? Well, at BYO, you can do just that, every time, scout's honour, because here, we provide the walls and floor, you bring everything else! Your favourite music! Your favourite food! Your favourite wine! Even your very own favourite antique Limoges flatware to eat off! Thus we guarantee a meal perfectly in accord with your desires. Because at BYO, it's all about you.

Yes, you. Because we care. And we also know, dear diner, thanks to exhaustive research, exactly where you want to be when you want to be anywhere but here on a flagstoned balcony, sun pouring down on your bronzed shoulders, azure sea lapping somewhere below. Yes, the Mediterranean! And at It's A Med, Med, Med, Med World, we endeavour to bring you the sunkissed flavours of this, your favourite fantasy gourmet destination. Savour crisp fried calamari with a tomato, garlic, and basil dip, fettuccine with basil and garlic tomato sauce, potage d'ail avec tomates aux basilic, garlic-roasted rabbit with tomato gravy and basil gremolata, basil risotto with garlic and tomato confit, seafood paella (subtly seasoned with basil and tomato, and a soupcon of garlic), and so on! And don't forget to try our house special dessert, courtesy of our chef's bottomless pit of creative energy: tiramisu a la Med, a creamy, luscious fusion of decadent mascarpone with tomatoes, basil and garlic. Is it French? Is it Italian? Is it Greek? Silly, it's none of them! It's Mediterranean!

Fusion is dead, right? It's kicked the stockpot, it's popped its orthopaedic clogs, it's pushing up celery. But sshhh, fusion fans: don't let on what we both know it's not dead, it's only hiding! And find it you will at Meal Of Fortune, where every table's centre is a revolving wheel labelled with the countries of the world. Spin it as many times as you desire, and whichever nations come to rest in front of your plate, those are the cuisines that our crack team of talented chefs, all also fully qualified anthropologists, will blend into the ultimate in cutting edge, personalised, 21st century fusion food, just for you! Ameri-Spani-Kyrgyzstani? Greco-Somali-Slovaki-Thai? Czech-Mex? Aye aye! Folks, you'll have more fun here than Meg Ryan ever did in that diner scene.

If that's not progressive enough for you, then bring your jaded palate down to EI Aboratri, where texture, texture, texture is all! Our signature dish? Well, for now, it's a curd of poulet de Bresse served with organic buckwheat precipitate, wreathed in a cranberry colloid, with a cloud of cilantro fog puffed over the plate at table; and what's more, the entire dish warms up as you eat it. Foams and gels are yesterday's news, honey. Hurry hurry hurry though, because our 27 course degustation menu changes twice a day!

Gentle diner, we know what magazines you flip through. We know what misty bordered pictures hold your gaze. Most of all, we know that your desire to live beautifully is as strong as your wont to eat magnificently. And so we present to you Emulsion, a revolutionary traiteur for the new century. Not only can you pick up ravingly delicious, immaculately presented dishes to bring home, but also paint, wallpaper, furniture and accessories for your abode, all immaculately coordinated so that your meal can have the perfect backdrop. A rustic Provencale farmhouse look to go with your boeuf en daube? A mood of Marrakesh surrounding your djej kdra? No problem! Simply choose one of 240 themes from our brochure, which includes everything from medieval wassailing parties to Tibetan picnics (roast sheep and yak butter tea, yum!) fax us your home dimensions and guest details at least six months in advance, and Bob's your waiter.

And finally, we have a restaurant conceived for a very specific, very special group of diners. Are you young and dynamic? Is your wallet well padded? Is cyberspace your office, your hunting ground, your hobby, the air that you breathe? Do you like seafood? Can you air kiss like a champion? If you answered yes to all of the above, then The Net is for you. Let's surf on in. You enter the dining room, a shimmering cube whose giant flatscreen wall monitors beam live feeds from undersea cameras trained on the Barrier Reef. You sit down; your square showplate doubles as a PC terminal whose Web browser is bookmarked with online auction sites for the world's premier fish markets. You click on, say, Tsukiji, and work up an appetite by bidding furiously for that perfect side of marlin. Then, as you while away the hours by emailing other patrons you want to network with - because you're bound to know them, darling - your purchase is whisked by express helicopter to our kitchens, where it is transformed into a sumptuous vision of oceanic splendiferousness.

Are you hungry yet?

Footnote: This column was originally written as a parody of the restaurant and dining trends then manifesting themselves in Singapore and on other shores. Shortly after it was published, a conveyor-belt sushi bar opened in Singapore in which dishes were ordered via computer terminals displaying browser-based clickable menus. Also shortly afterward, I read about Ferran Adria's concept of scented 'airs'...