I love restaurant/dining guides. I am actually a little fanatical about them. When I am thinking of trying a new restaurant either in my own neighborhood or in a new city I am visiting - I cross check reviews - Zagat, Michelin, citysearch, Wallpaper, Concierge, various newspapers and so on.... Depending which city I am in, the array of guides I consult undoubtedly vary some. It is a little anal I suppose, but it has saved me from some horrid establishments and helped me find some gems that I return to every chance I get. Generally, they work for me - and up until recently that is where my thinking about these guides stopped - until I read an article in the Financial Times on the coveted Michelin 3 star rating and Chinese food.
The article by Fuchsia Dunlop was about how the Michelin guide awarded its highest honor, 3 stars to the first Chinese restaurant ever. The recipient was Lung King Heen in Hong Kong's Four Seasons Hotel. The restaurant's chef Chan Yan Tak (see image on the left) is a specialist in Cantonese cuisine. And from every article and review I have read about this restaurant, the food is spectacular. But given the long history and diversity of Chinese cooking, it is curious perhaps even controversial that this is the first and only Chinese restaurant to win this rating. According to this article, Michelin acknowledged that only 2 out of the 12 inspectors working on the Hong Kong/Macau guide were Chinese. Hong Kong foodies and some critics argue that foreigners lack the cultural knowledge to fully appreciate and judge Chinese food. Chinese cuisine has significant differences from European traditions such as "the relative unimportance of sweet dishes; the lack of anything corresponding to the European practice of wine matching foods; and perhaps most of all, the Chinese love foods that have no taste but are eaten largely for their slithery, squelchy or rubbery mouthfeels."
All this then raises the question - whether it is truly possible to judge cuisine from vastly different cultures using the same criteria?
According to the director of the Michelin guides worldwide, "Good cuisine is good cuisine where ever you are," and one doesn't have to be an insider to appreciate it. In support of his argument, 6 Japanese restaurants in Tokyo received the prized 3 star rating. In addition, Tokyo has the most Michelin stars of any city with 227. (I wonder how many of the judges were Japanese?) However, the question remains valid - can we judge all cuisine with one universal standard. I really don't have an answer to this question. But every so often when I go out to eat with my Chinese side of my family, I do wonder if I would be slurping up every morsel with extra zeal if I was more Chinese, less foreign. Instead, more often then not, I am staring at the dishes quizzically, wondering which mushy jello like substance is more flavorful. But this experience of mine is not unique to Chinese food. Mate is the national drink of so many countries in Latin America and while in Argentina I ordered it at the conclusion of one of my many extraordinarily delicious meals, but I simply could not get past the second sip. Having grown up in Japan, Japanese food more often than not is my go to comfort food, even so there is an entire smorgasbord of Japanese cuisine that I will not go near. All this makes me wonder, how much of this is cultural variances and how much is merely personal preference? Or are your personal food preferences determined by your own cultural influences?
I suppose it does make sense that when judging a culture's food to have critics or foodies who can fully appreciate and explain the unique characteristics and flavors of a specific food. People who can gently push us a little outside our comfort zone and open our eyes and palette to new experiences and tastes. Ultimately, isn't that the whole point of sampling different types of cuisine - to enrich ourselves and to learn about another?