Monday, March 13, 2017

Indian Restaurants Seduce Modern San Franciscan Palates with Diverse and Ancient Cuisine


Indian Cuisine has a history not measured in centuries, but millennia. During the course of which it has evolved and changed through long distance trade, colonization, and international relations. And through the trade of spices, Indian Cuisine has influenced other Cuisines across the planet. Indian Cuisine has traveled far due to the wisdom of adaptation (for example: adopting foreign ingredients such as potatoes) yet has also remained unchanged in its cooking methods (such as the use of the ancient tandoori oven – perhaps the oldest type of oven ever used), to evolve into a more complex and varied Cuisine that meets the expectations (and pleases the palates) of different cultures and tastes. In a city like San Francisco, diversity is a state of being here; a state of being and a life style, and along with it the choices made on a daily basis. And the choice of "what to eat" is the communion that binds the diverse population of San Francisco, every day. Diversity is equal to "different needs." And to attract and satisfy all of those different needs, we have to offer as much culinary diversity as possible. And when the matter at hand is food, Indian Cuisine fulfills the expectations of nearly all of us.

Indian Cuisine was first known in the United States through British Colonial references, to help Americans understand the cuisines of exotic India; "curries" were the staple of the few Indian restaurants available in the United States, and the only variation among their curries were the meats within them. In the Bay Area in the 1960s, the telephone directory listed only 3 Indian Restaurants. 

After independence from the British Empire in 1947 (in a process that covered 40 years), "Indian Cuisine" began to refer to the Mughal Empire Cuisine – rather than "British Colonial Indian Cuisine" – asserting Indian independence not only in India, but abroad as well. Indian restaurant owners could finally celebrate their great cultural history, and by 1990, celebrate the opportunity to offer the authentic cuisine elements of the Mughal court (combined with other traditions across the Indian subcontinent and beyond), with the introduction of tandoori oven specialties, and later adapting to Organic and Vegetarian Movements.

Even modern history has changed the shape of Indian Cuisine.  In the San Francisco Bay Area, Indian Cuisine was easily understood and welcomed: Bay Area residents had a prior familiarity with Asian and Mexican Cuisines, for some time. Asian Cuisine (Chinese, especially due the high concentration and long history of Chinese immigrants) was "the exotic" while Mexican Cuisine provided a familiarity with foods with higher volumes of heat and spice. 

How did Indian Restaurants make Mughal Cuisine familiar? In part by following traditional Mughal Cuisine procedures for eating: like serving courses in small portions (resembling Spanish tapas) and/or adding spices on demand (since the Mughal tradition varies from mild to very spicy). Mughal Tradition was also known for its succulent buffets, and Indian restaurants made their mark by making lunch buffets available to local office workers who did not have much time to sit and dine, and who welcomed the variety a buffet can offer.

Between the 1970s and 1980s, Indian restaurants displayed on their menus a list of ingredients and cooking techniques, with references to Chinese Dim Sum and "Mexican Style Spicy Indian" (or serving Indian papadum lentil crackers with tomato chutney, which resembles the well known tortillas chips and salsa served in Mexican restaurants). They described their exotic menus with terms already known to residents of the Bay Area, to make their food accessible through the familiarity of other foreign Cuisines' specialties, already well established in San Francisco. No longer confined to curry, Indian Restaurants began to also offer vegetarian dishes (resembling the Cuisines of the southern regions of India) made with local and organic ingredients, creating hybrid menus and dishes that where often associated with other South Asian, spicy and vegetarian foods. 

Indian Cuisine adapted to the multicultural San Francisco Bay Area, embracing the variety of cultures present in the City. By doing so, expressing modernity by adopting local ingredients and tastes, yet maintaining their Cuisine traditions and procedures intact. Tandoori cooking and the ubiquitous curry are still familiar items on Bay Area menus, but we now see the addition of local Californian wines as a menu choice for customers; Indian Cuisine continues to adapt and evolve. In 2000, the telephone directory listed 16 Indian restaurants in the city of San Francisco, and 133 in the greater Bay Area.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Menu

The criteria for how we chose a meal in a restaurant and how we chose a vacation destination are nearly identical. Regarding the vacation: we decide upon a destination by considering what we pay for and what we see in travel articles and catalogs; how the hotelroom looks like, or the swimming pool or the beaches around, and if the price is worth it. In this case, our brain builds images based upon the pictures our eyes see; we project ourselves into the physical accommodations of the vacation in those beautiful places that we can now imagine, only because those beautiful places have been seen by us through photos.


Then, when we happily arrive at that destination we chose, and we walk into that hotelroom which instead now appears different than what we saw in the catalog: we are suddenly surrounded with a different view than our expectations, or not as the same visual expectations that were sold to us through those pictures in the advertisements; the feeling we would have would probably be of disorientated disappointment.
In a restaurant instead, often we cannot see what we ordered, but the secret key of envisioning our meal is held in its description. In a restaurant, written descriptions most often substitute for pictures. Those written descriptions are imaginative images for something we don’t see, but experienced through the projection of our mind from words that become representative of an object, and consequential mouthwatering expectations.


Falling in love with a place we have visited means, of course, the temptation to plan another trip to go there again soon. Instead, if our vacation is just an "okay" trip (and not what we expected), the next time we decide to travel, we will certainly choose a different and more appealing destination. For this same reason, we (The Customers) get very passionate about specific restaurants, or certain well-prepared delicacies, or we don’t ever return to a restaurant that wasn’t what we expected. The description of items on a menu – meaning the meticulous written list of all ingredients present in each dish – is a guaranteed lifetime ticket to The Happy Land of Culinary Experience.

Eating is equal to traveling (or at least should be an attempt at it). Yet, a beautifully prepared delicacy loses its intriguing imaginative halo when, materialized in front of our eyes, is presented to us with extra or additional ingredients, or sauces that were not mentioned at all in the menu description. What if we, The Customer, didn’t expect the dish to be like that? What if we simply chose that meal because it did not have sauces mentioned in the menu, or we didn’t want our meat floating in an unknown gravy? And what if we surrender our expectations and decide to eat it anyway and we don’t like it? What if we were allergic to some ingredients that might be contained in the additional “surprise sauce"? Or what if we simply and genuinely despise the taste of a way too generous amount of chopped parsley tossed on top of our meal, and again, not mentioned in the menu?

Another example: let's use French Toast. We can picture it already. But, what if our French Toast is served to us drowning in maple syrup? What if the amount of maple syrup poured atop our French Toast (which should be served on the side instead) is simply way too much when compared to how much we usually prefer (based upon our personal tastes)? What if that huge lake of maple syrup has made our French Toast so sweet that it is intolerable; so saturated with syrup (because of the length of time that elapses from the kitchen, to the waiter, to our table) that it looks like a sugar-soaked sponge, and we are left with the only options of eating French Toast with a spoon or sending it back? Need we also consider addressing the extra, and perhaps unwanted, calories that have been consequently added to our meal?

Dining out can be frustrating at times; a lack of menu descriptions is a sign of poor professionalism and a big step toward dissatisfied customers. Which also means many steps away from success and the longevity of a business, not to mention the potential threat to the health of diners who may have life-threatening food allergies.

TIPS OF THE DAY (FOR CUSTOMERS):

Always remember to tell the waiter to inform the kitchen about any type of food allergy that you might have. And if, for any reason, you are not satisfied with your meal – if some "surprise ingredients" you didn’t expect to be present in your dish make you unhappy with what you ordered – please send it back almost untouched, and never forget to be “extremely polite” in doing so.

When you send back your meal for any reason, you are providing an opportunity for customer feedback for the owner (if he/she is smart enough to grasp that) to improve their business, instead of merely being a complaint about it. Though our personal tastes might be questionable, having common sense about good interactions with customers, and the food ordered by them, is a fundamental requirement in The Food and Hospitality Environment. You pay for what you want to eat, and dining out it is not cheap. You, The Customer, are in charge.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Painted Recipes: Mojito



Oil on Paper- Painted for La Bodeguita Del Medio Restaurant, Palo Alto. Artist A. Andrisani 


  • 12 Mint Leaves
  • 1 tsp Sugar
  • 2 oz Rum
  • 2 oz Soda Water
  • 2 oz Fresh Citrus Juice (lemon/lime)

Preparation

In a Collins glass place mint and a teaspoon of sugar. Crush the mint using a pestle. Add rum and citrus juice. Mix again with the pestle. Finish with soda water followed by crushed ice. Enjoy!








Manners: Sound and Dining.

            From appetizers to desserts – in a constant state of learning first and then teaching to others after – being a Chef has become a state of being of both honor and elegance; a social behavior which I strongly try to pass along to the Cooks who have worked with me, as a precious inheritance.

          Imagine a professional Chef: impeccable white coat and hat, calm and never losing their temper – not a tyrant ready to yell at their Cooks, but instead prone to comprehend and teach with patience and love. This is someone who lives for the state of bliss that comes with creating amazing food.  A Chef is a guide in which an entire restaurant relies upon to conduct another perfect night, to make people satisfied and comfortable, and to remedy the stress and chaos behind the scenes which (hopefully) customers don’t ever see. We must also consider the endless hours of exhausting work already done before the restaurant opens for the day and is ready to perform for its customers. Then, the Chef continues for many more hours performing a show where even smallest mistakes can become cyclopean enemies; when too many mistakes are made, Chefs and Cooks could lose their jobs, for the chain reaction of failures that mistakes can generate. Failures can become the loss of customers, and the loss of customers is a constant threat to the longevity of a restaurant. So, most Chefs and Cooks take precious care of their cuisine, doing their best every day.

          A Chef has no room, nor the time, to show fear; he/she keeps pushing the kitchen to their very best, as a master Conductor will push The Orchestra to do their greatest performance. So does a Chef every day, day after day, week after week, for years, to create something that will amaze. The amazement is the unity of the people in the kitchen; it is the synchrony between people, timing, and cooking. Like instruments that need to play together in harmony to please our ears, so is the art of cooking – and the result of that complex and incredible work is the final dish served to the customer.

          Imagine being in a restaurant run by that kind of Chef. Imagine her/his creation for the night's special. It is there right in front of you, you ordered it:

        Cream of Candied Cherry Tomatoes topped with a Shell of Parmigiano Cheese and filled with House-Made Saffron Tagliolini Pasta, sauteed with a Pesto of Fresh Thyme and Slowly-Roasted Marinated Eggplant, finished with Toasted Pine Nuts and a Chiffonade of Mint Leaves.

          That beautiful plate is there in front of you. It smells delicious, you take a bite and suddenly feel moved: your senses awaken so much that you ask to speak with the Chef. That one single, beautiful bite left you desiring to thank and compliment the Chef for their art. And here the Chef comes to you through this beautiful restaurant, with soft lighting, candles on antique wooden tables, lovely music (not too loud to strain or overwhelm conversation), the light jingle of the cutlery all around, and delighted people smiling. Now imagine this culinary Guide, with kind manners – elegant, smooth, and secure – walking through the dining room to welcome and to thank you. Picture their pride: the reassuring smile properly belonging to one who knows they possess a power of creation that can seduce and conquer palates and hearts. The Chef, there, is about to approach you and then…

          A LOUD SLURPING, SUCKING noise destroys the beauty of the moment. Both the Chef and you – along with your company at the table – turn to find the source of this vulgar noise. A few tables away from yours, a man eating that same special plate as yours has become immortalized in an image that he would likely never post online. As many farm animals would slurp water on a hot Summer day, that man is there loudly sucking his poor pasta as if he were drinking it: head over his plate, lips in the shape of a suction cup, and with his fork clenched in his fist, facing down, ready to attack and kill that beauty in front of him for a second time. The Chef (turning crimson red) is about to pass out, noticing that the entire dining room has become suspended in time. For a moment, gazing in pain at the source of the noise, you inevitably think: “I just lost my appetite!”




          Fundamentally, it would be like a loud cell phone ringing while the orchestra is performing its most intense masterpiece.  How would the Conductor feel? How would the entire concert hall react? And a symphony and a meal are in many ways identical. There are many Chefs out there who put their heart into their food; cooking is their life, their passion, and their Love. To serve customers a dish, Chefs take hours of preparation before. What a customer eats is a masterpiece: after entire shifts of practicing, hours of trying and struggling with imperfections, and with the tormented fear of failing to reach a perfection.

          When those kind of Chefs cook, they perform a belief: which is the hope of giving birth to a vision that began from somewhere in their imagination, their memories, and their taste buds.  Preparing a meal and serving it to you is the "final harmony" – the last effort before the concert ends.  You are the audience, you are the receiver to whom Chefs are giving Love and a vision made real as food, for your pleasure. This is the final masterpiece that will make your eyes roll heavenward and will make you feel profoundly happy; it will allow you to travel through flavors like the notes of music… and it will make you want to go back for more.

          In exchange for being delighted customers, one's manner of eating is also a form of reverential respect; for fine cuisine is a unique talent not possessed by all. Making such a disturbing noise in a dining room full of other customers can be a sign of appreciation in some cultures. But in The United States, and nearly all European nations, it is not. And this is a simple thing to bother to know and practice. It is insulting chewing food with one's mouth open, with lips smacking and the clapping sound of tongue on palate. In Italy, it is considered one of the most disrespectful forms of social behavior: to the Chef, to the food you are eating, to the people that are forced to hear and see what they shouldn’t. And not just in a restaurant. When I was a child, my father would have taken away a meal from me and sent me with an empty stomach straight to my room if I had such bad manners and such low respect for what my mother had cooked with such a passion and care for her family.

          Learning the habits and customs of cultures in which we are a welcomed guest is the equivalent of respecting those cultures.

          Why we are asked to turn off our electronic devices in a room shared with other people? At a movie theater, a concert hall, a play, and even on the train, we are asked to whisper if we would even dare make/receive a phone call. And this is to not disturb others, of course. It is to respect the comfort of others, for sure, but this is really about manners, and manners are a social behavior.

          "Manners," from the Latin manus ("hand") and manuarious ("of the hands"), literally means “the way of using hands."  It is “A person's outward bearing or way of behavior toward others.”  All these rules apply to a state of being, in which even eating in public has its way of behavior.

          “Our manners are attractive when we regard other’s pleasure and not our own delight!” – from the book "Il Galateo: (in French known as Bon Ton) The Rules of Polite Behavior." The author of this enlightening book (published in 1558), which I will address more in further works, was a Florentine writer named Giovanni Della Casa.

               "In the last three chapters, the author writes about behavior in general: what you do should be appropriate and done with grace. A gentleman should never run, or walk too slowly. Della Casa brings us to behavior at the table, such as not scratching, not eating like a pig, not using a toothpick or sharing food. In Della Casa’s vision, slight slips of decorum become taboo."

             "Galateo" practically means "Etiquette."
            Some of the rules of the Etiquette have adapted or evolved inevitably to our modern time. But the fundamental rule which should be the basis of daily life style, remains. And it is the respect for others around us.


Artist A. Andrisani