The Best Recipe for Culinary Cultural Imperialism

You know, I should just stop picking up Cook’s Illustrated Magazine.

I should know better by now.

I should know by now that the authoritative tone that their writers take works my very last nerve. I should know that, while their recipes are researched and tested obsessively and thus WILL work, most of them are bland and boring beyond belief. I should know by now that I disagree with most of their taste test reports and opinions on which cooking tools are the best; in America’s Test Kitchen, cheap tends to win out over good.

And I damned well should know better than to even look any Asian recipes that their writers decide to analyze. I have yet to read one recently which wasn’t buggered up in some way or another.
But, I get sucked in by the pretty cover paintings, and pluck the magazine from the stands and flip through it. Most of the time I put it back down again, but sometimes I see something that just burns me up, like this month.

I feel stupid about being so angry, because I should know by now that my cooking philosophy, particularly when it comes to ethnic cuisines, is antithetical to the whole nature of the magazine. Cook’s Illustrated’s raison d’etre is to present foolproof recipes. Not only are they rigorously tested such that they can be made by anyone who knows which end of the knife is the pointy one, but they will also appeal to whoever eats them, without unduly challenging anyone’s taste preferences.

That’s fine when they are covering American regional or European-based classic recipes like meatloaf, brownies, pumpkin pie, pot roast and lasagne. There is a need for recipes which any competent cook can use to create old favorites which will not fail them, time after time. Most home cooks don’t have time to fiddle with recipes and get them to work right, so America’s Test Kitchen does the work for them. That’s great. I applaud them.

I also support the sense of scientific inquiry that the recipe testers and writers bring to their investigations. As someone who can geek about food science all day and all night, who loves to use her knowledge of chemistry and physics in the kitchen to good effect, I can really get behind the careful analysis that each recipe undergoes before it is published. My nickname is the Culinary Nerd, after all.

However, the way in which Asian recipes are treated in this magazine never fails to set my teeth on edge.

It is one thing to experiment and play around with a recipe in the quest to simplify it and make it your own. However, when one violates the spirit of the cuisine in order to create a dish which no longer really resembles the original–that is culinary cultural imperialism. Instead of stretching their readers’ experience, the editors strip the unfamiliar, foreign foods of nearly everything unfamiliar or foreign; It’s much like when Chinese restaurateurs changed the perfectly respectable Cantonese chow mein into the strange glop that came to be called chow mein, with one significant difference: The choice isn’t being made by Chinese cooks in order to survive, it’s a change wrought by American writers for the sake of convenience, at best.

One of the main reasons the magazine gives for changing ethnic recipes is in order to allow an average American cook to make these dishes with ingredients found in typical American grocery stores. Apparently, typical American cooks cannot be bothered to frequent ethnic grocery stores. Or get ingredients online. Or, really, do much of anything that keeps them from going up and down the same grocery aisles, literally and figuratively. This shows that the editors have a pretty dim view of the American cook, and, what’s worse, they reinforce this parochial view.

One of the latest issues (February 2007) contained the straws that broke this camel’s back: two of my favorite dishes, one Thai and one Sichuan, are featured and, as usual, are turned into pale imitations of themselves. What I found perhaps more infuriating than the way the recipes were watered down was the more than vaguely patronizing way in which the foods themselves were described.

For their bastardization of Sichuan green beans, the editors chose these sentences as a subtitle: “This tangy, spicy dish offers an exotic change of pace from everyday green beans. We set out to overhaul its foreign ingredient list and simplify a troublesome technique.”

Every time Cook’s Illustrated writes about Asian food, the stuff is described as “exotic.”

Don’t believe me? Well, how about we take a peek at the subtitle for the tom kha gai recipe from the same issue: “Authentic Thai chicken soup gains complex flavor in minutes via a handful of exotic ingredients. Could supermarket substitutes deliver comparable results?”

And then, I look at the March 2007 issue and see that there is a recipe for “Chinese Barbecued Pork at Home.”

Would CI’s editors think of a better word than “exotic” to describe Asian foods? I hoped so. But, alas, no; the subtitle reads: “These lacquered strips of pork look exotic, but the meat is actually barbecued in the oven, making it an ideal candidate for home-cooking, in theory, at least.”

Why do you think this might rub me the wrong way? Here’s a suggestion that should clear things up: Step away from your computer, and tell an Asian woman of your acquaintance (or, if you lack same, the next Asian woman you run across) that she looks, “so exotic.” Note the reaction, then return and finish reading. I’ll wait.

Not only are Asian foods exotic, but, they are “foreign” and “troublesome,” and only easy “in theory.”

Those sentences smack of xenophobia. Not only is the use of “exotic” over and over in the descriptions offensive and redundant–the recipes are generally useless if one wants to actually make Asian food that tastes, well, you know, Asian. CI doesn’t increase appreciation of Asian cuisines, they reinforce fear of unfamiliar techniques and flavors.

And it seems to really only be Asian recipes that suffer from the “exotic” treatment. When Italian recipes are covered in Cook’s Illustrated, they are not described in a dismissive, condescending fashion. The authors simply present easier ways to create classic recipes, without removing every element of the recipes that make them recognizably Italian. The garlic is still present, olive oil is not replaced with canola, and milk is still used to make ground meats in pasta sauces tender. With Italian recipes, what the writers do is give readers step-by-step methods to create good versions of classic dishes in their homes.

This is perfectly laudable, and is akin to the way in which Julia Child made French cookery accessible to Americans back in the 1960′s. Julia’s philosophy was not that French food was mysterious or impossibly difficult for Americans to learn; it was simply unfamiliar. She gave Americans the cultural knowledge and techniques they needed to learn how to make authentic French foods in their homes by showing them that if she could do it, so could they.

However, the ways in which they remove much that is culturally unique about the Asian dishes they cover, are disrespectful to these cuisines and are distinctly not in the same spirit which Julia Child exemplified.

(What is really odd about this editorial xenophobia and policy of dumbing down Asian recipes is that it is fairly recent; in looking back over about a decade’s worth of back issues, I found that in August 2005, Thai Chile Beef was considered “exotic.” However, in 2002, both Pad Thai and Kung Pao Shrimp were presented with perfectly respectable recipes that included authentic ingredients with nary an “exotic” in sight. On the other hand, in 2001, Sichuan Noodles were “demystified” by being made “without exotic ingredients.” Perhaps what is recent isn’t the xenophobia, but instead a certain editorial laziness when it comes to finding different ways to say, “exotic.” Maybe I should send the editorial team a thesaurus.)

Back to the February 2007 issue: for the tom kha gai recipe, the author says you cannot substitute for galangal, lemongrass and lime leaves because it won’t taste right. But he then goes on to suggest replacing galangal–which by the way, is the dominate flavor in the soup, “kha” being Thai for “galangal–” with ginger, which he admits is not ideal. He does say that you have to use lemongrass instead of lemon zest (good for him), and extols the virtues of lime leaves vs. lime zest. But, due to how hard it is to find all of these ingredients, he suggest that the home cook use a mere two teaspoons of Thai red curry paste, “because it contains all of these ingredients” along with shallots, lemon grass, fish sauce and coconut milk. That way, he can avoid using ginger for the galangal, and produce a soup that “tasted every bit as good as that served at my local Thai restaurant.”

Wow. Two teaspoons of red curry paste substituting for fragrant fresh or frozen galangal (which are pretty easy to find in Asian markets, but then, that would necessitate going into one) and lime leaves make a really great tom kha gai? That can only be the case if your local Thai restaurant sucks.

I mean, I use a bit of red curry paste (usually homemade, but not always) in my own tom kha gai, but that is not -instead- of the fresh ingredients. It is -in addition to- the fresh ingredients, just to give the soup a little extra kick. Sure galangal, lime leaves and lemon grass are in the curry paste, but they are in such small amounts that it is utterly laughable to see two teaspoons of canned paste substituting for them in a recipe that purports to be as good as what one can get in a Thai restaurant.

Look, even if you don’t have a local Asian grocery store, you can buy fresh galangal, lime leaves, lemongrass and Thai bird chiles online at Thai Grocer. I have ordered from them several times and their quality is exceptional, and they have recently added new vegetables and herbs to their offerings.

As for the Sichuan Green Beans recipe–oy. First, the author tried to avoid using Sichuan preserved vegetables by substituting dill pickles. Then, she claimed to have discovered the way to cook the beans that avoided deep frying them–by using the technique of dry frying. I think she meant “discovered” in the same way that Columbus “discovered” America. Much as America was pretty well known to the millions of folks already living there, so dry-frying was more than passingly familiar to the home cooks of Sichuan who have been dry frying green beans for generations. I mean, how hard would it have been for her to try looking up some authentic recipes from a respected source like Fuchsia Dunlop and then find some sources for authentic ingredients online to help her readers make a dish that is not some jack-leg shadow of the real thing?

But, I guess that is just not what the magazine is all about. Based on what I’ve read, it is all about “do it yourself” kitchen discoveries, with a generous helping of culinary cultural imperialism on the side.

Needless to say, I am not going to bother buying Cook’s Illustrated ever again, even if I do like their Brown Sugar Cookie recipe in the March 2007 issue.

Note: I would like to thank Zak, my beloved husband, for his editorial assistance in writing this post.

32 Comments

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  1. I totally agree with you and your points, though I am still a fan of Cook’s Illustrated.

    I use their recipes as a guidelines in comparing other recipes or I take them and alter them a bit. It’s always nice to know that whatever you’re starting with is a good base.

    But yeah. Their recipes are never “out there”.

    BTW, what’s your favorite Sichuan green bean recipe?

    Comment by Noah — February 12, 2007 #

  2. I don’t even think most of their recipes are all that “tried and true.” I have had some pretty dismal results with some of their baked goods, which is pretty funny since I have had great results with similar recipes gleaned off of blogs.

    But yes, they don’t exactly push Americans out of their lazy “land of bland” mentality. Unless you live in an isolated rural area, it shouldn’t be too hard to find Asian markets. Their philosophy seems to be that its not worth seeking out the best ingredients- the local supermart will have to do.

    I think it even extends to Western food as well. Their product tests always seem limited to the mass-produced brands. I suppose that is realistic given that artisan producers are often extremely local or expensive, but it means that this a magazine I will not longer bother with.

    I suppose that is the root of it in my mind- Cook’s illustrated plays to the average, not even bothering to delve the issues that surround food like ethics, culture, and economics. It’s Good Housekeeping wrapped in lovely illustrations of fruits and vegetables.

    Comment by Melissa — February 12, 2007 #

  3. Okay. I see you linked to one. That’s what I get for commenting before checking the links I opened in tabs.

    Comment by Noah — February 12, 2007 #

  4. I read Cook’s Illustrated with the same jaundiced eye that I read every other cooking magazine and book. Like every other mainstream cooking magazine, they have to play to Middle America. Most people feel uncomfortable going into groceries where most of the labels are in a foreign language, the veggies don’t look a thing like the stuff you buy at the typical Kroger’s and the meat department may not look as “pretty” as you see in the average American supermarket either. When was the last time you saw a live eel in the fish department at Meijer’s? Or even better, had the thing killed and cleaned for you?

    Truth be told, Cook’s Illustrated isn’t aimed at people with your level of cooking experience or even at people who have your comfort with foreign cultures. People have to take baby steps. When they make those recipes, they are going to say – “Hey, this stinks – I wonder why?” Some of them will get curious enough to work up the courage to go to the library and do research then stop into the local Asian market and ask some questions. Others will just assume that they can’t do it at home as well as the restaurants and give up. And some people will know what they need to do and are just too damn lazy to do it…Either way, they need to learn to be comfortable with the whole process. Just like riding a bike with training wheels until you get your balance and learn to ride on your own. Barbara, I thought you gave up your training wheels a long time ago, so I am puzzled as to why you would be upset by people who still need them…

    Comment by Rosie — February 12, 2007 #

  5. Good job Barbara. They miss the great opportunity to teach. With so many ethnic restaurants around this country there are cooks that would love to learn to make a Thai or Indian curry. If they focused well on one country or one ethnic dish using the appropriate ingredients and techniques the magazine would be more successful and appealing. Yes, there could be baby steps….but the baby has to be heading in the right direction.

    Comment by Maureen — February 12, 2007 #

  6. How funny! I have EXACTLY this reaction to it as well.

    However, I have to say that the engineer in me (I’m a construction manager and love to problem solve!)likes the style of it. If I read it purely as a science experiment with no intent ever to cook from it, I’m OK. From that POV I like reading it. I NEVER cook from it.

    I don’t even eat out Thai any more because the most basic Thai cookimg I do is waaaaay better. So, I started reading the Tm Kha Gai recipe and didn’t even get halfway through. I think it was the ginger/galangal substitution that ran me into the wall.

    Comment by Diane — February 12, 2007 #

  7. Turns out, we don’t miss out on nothing sitting in far-away countries that don’t yet have glossy food mags! :)

    Comment by Anita — February 13, 2007 #

  8. Rosie, there are a lot of Asian dishes that can be made with average supermarket ingredients. There is no need to go bastardising a cuisine because it’s inconvenient, and I think a bad recipe for an unfamiliar dish is more likely to put someone off it forever than send them on a search for why it’s so gawdawful. CI isn’t offering a “baby step” by presenting versions of dishes unlike the traditional ones; they’re giving a firm shove in the wrong direction.

    On a completely unrelated note: in case somebody in an isolated rural area lacks an Asian woman to ask about being “exotic”, I can offer a complimentary punch in the face as a sample.

    But wait: would a fully Asian woman offer two punches? Would they both be to the face? And is the punching itself a manifestation of exoticism destined to be fetishised by those fellows who watch a whole lot of anime?

    Truly, these are the identity-defining questions of this evening.

    Comment by persimmon — February 13, 2007 #

  9. But the illustrations are so pretty.

    I read the February issue and my big problem was with their ratings of Dutch Ovens. They boiled water in a preseasoned Lodge item (while the rest were stainless steel or enameled) and then didn’t give it three stars because the seasoning bled out. DUH!

    I did think that pork looked really good. Of course I’ve been craving some pork. Bloomington, IN doesn’t have a China Town. Yet we have two Tibetan restaurants (neither of which are that great)? We have an expensive bland vegetarian restaurant, but no Chinese food that is not laden with MSG. Sigh.

    Don’t suppose you can post a glazed pork recipe? I’ve come to rely on your blog for pretty much all my adventures in Asian cooking.

    Comment by mujeresliebres — February 13, 2007 #

  10. Bless you for saying this. Just the other day I was ranting briefly about CI’s approach to Asian cooking, specifically in re: their dictum on the suitability of frying pans for cooking Chinese stir-fries, in my own blog, and a friend of mine expressed some disgust that I would have stopped my CI subscription over something like that, when CI was so “authoritative.”

    They may be authoritative about which frying pan performs best, I suppose, but they’re still wrong as wrong about whether that frying pan is an appropriate or even adequate substitute for a wok.

    Comment by Hanne — February 13, 2007 #

  11. I have to agree with Rosie. Not all cooks are well-versed in Asian ingredients, and not all are ready to jump in head-first, and that’s okay with me. Using training wheels in the beginning didn’t prevent me from eventually learning how to ride the bike eventually.

    Where my mother lives now, it would be over an hour to the nearest Asian grocery. And I doubt she’d purchase a handful of unfamiliar ingredients from an online grocer because – I can hear her now – she’d be throwing her money away if, after all that fuss, she didn’t like the recipe. With ingredients she can find at Kroger’s, she can try something she might not otherwise. No, it won’t be perfect, and it might not be the way I’d do it, but it’s a start.

    But just to get back in good graces, here’s why I’ll never forgive Christopher Kimball – he talked shit about Lidia Bastianich. Here’s his quote from an October article in the Washington Post:

    Q: How much room do your books and magazine leave for creativity and interpretation?

    A: None. Make the damn recipe my way. [He laughs.] I had someone write in a long time ago and say, “Lidia [Bastianich] cooks with her heart.” And I wrote back and said, “Well, yeah, that’s the wrong organ. You should use your brain.” Until you know that recipe inside out and you really get it and you can make it without looking at the recipe, don’t play with it. It’s sort of like saying: “I’m going to play a Bach sonata. But I’m going to change the key.” No. You play it the way he wrote it.

    Hey, Christopher, you’re not Bach. You’re not writing sonatas, you’re making pot roast. Let’s not take it so seriously.

    Comment by Bomboniera — February 13, 2007 #

  12. I can see both sides of this question AND I don’t read that magazine, but I can still have an opinion.

    When I lived in rural South Dakota I was very frustrated by not being able to buy fresh mushrooms locally, so I understand the ‘can’t buy the ingredient’ whine. (This was in pre-internet days, so I made my family members send/bring me dried mushrooms instead)

    Otoh, if the magazine’s target reader is someone who won’t shop outside of their local supermarket, then it’s the magazine’s responsibility to present recipes that can be cooked out of the readers’ local stores.

    On the gripping hand, I now live in a multi-cultural city and have been approached by other shoppers in my local supermarket and asked ‘what is that’ and ‘what are you going to do with it’, so it’s perfectly possible to stretch cooks’ horizons inside their familiar shops.

    Comment by wwjudith — February 13, 2007 #

  13. I think you make a lot of valid points, as you usually do. But I also think there should be some room for dipping your toes into other cultures’ culinary arenas. Maybe this is just me but when I’m approaching a completely unfamiliar food spectrum, I tend to try the ingredients first, maybe by throwing an unfamiliar spice into a familiar dish or incorporating a new vegetable into something I make on a regular basis. I recently used cardamom for the first time (finally gave into the temptation to start down the road to eventually try out your awesome Gateau de Mumtaz Mahal cake) in a basic chocolate cake. Now I know what it tastes like and what to expect from it. Of course this approach is no reason to treat any culture so… poorly, but maybe that’s what they’re trying to do.

    On a completely different and possibly selfish note, I wanted to thank you for the inspiration. I recently started my own food blog ( east-end-eats.blogspot.com ) which is to focus on my local area. I can’t promise to aspire to the same heights you do in eating locally but that’s something the blog is going to address. So thanks. Your blog is awesome and so are you.

    Comment by Vixen — February 13, 2007 #

  14. It’s quite a while since I wrote this. So not just a British phenomenon, then!

    Comment by Trig — February 13, 2007 #

  15. bravo!

    Comment by Christopher Gordon — February 13, 2007 #

  16. I’ve never read Cooks, although I’m always throwing out their solicitations after noting their taste tests of processed ingredients and their inevitable preference for things that I simply won’t eat (like shortening). Although I don’t begrudge it to those who like it, for whatever reason, I do find it’s end-justifies-the-means approach to cooking utterly unattractive. There are some great points in this rant, though, which transcend the particular weaknesses of Cooks. There’s no arguing with your critique of the way in which Asian food is both exoticized and distorted in the states. Sometimes, I think Asian restaurants are the worst in that respect. We have a local Japanese restaurant, quite highly recommended, that is run by a Chinese family. The sushi is certainly good, as long as you don’t mind eating sushi composed of elements that nobody in Japan would wrap up in their rice. As for the other things on the menu, they are often altered beyond recognition– NOT for lack of proper ingredients, certainly, nor, one assumes, because of willful ignorance; maybe not even because of some misguided notion that Americans have a certain warped expectation of Asian food. Based on the obligatory bamboo-laden decor, I suspect the problem is an assumption that Americans don’t really know what they want, and don’t really care what they get, as long as it’s “exotic.” We have actually had to send back basic dishes because they were simply not what we ordered. Zaru soba came drenched in a gelatinous peanut sauce– that is simply not what zaru soba means. Did they think that the typical dipping sauce would be too boring? Peanut sauce wouldn’t appear on *anything* Japanese, so they must be figuring that Americans– even those willing to pay the typically higher prices at a “Japanese restaurant”– are perfectly glad to lump together all of Asia and Asian cuisine. I’m really not a snob about “authenticity,” but it does seem disrespectful all around to see a particular ethnic cuisine, yet treat its particularities as if they don’t really matter.

    Comment by mdvlist — February 13, 2007 #

  17. I like the idea of Cook’s Illustrated better than the reality of Cook’s Illustrated. I did appreciate their apparently careful research on profiteroles/cream puffs many years back, but I agree that for the most part the recipes are far from inspiring when they veer outside the range of American comfort foods.

    The magazine shines most when covering techniques, not recipe variations or substitutions.

    The Asian recipes I’ve seen in there were so off the mark I only read them when I need a good laugh; they aim only to approach suburban Asian restaurant experiences. I’ve only seen more misguided approaches to Japanese, Chinese and Thai food in 70s-era hippie cookbooks.

    “Exotic” is only an exotic-sounding word for foreign, and when the word is used as a descriptive term, it reveals more about the person using it than what he or she is discussing. It’s a fair marker of an observer who scarcely understands a subject.

    I’d like to think that someone could be the Mario Batali of Japanese, Chinese, Korean or Thai cuisine, passionately exploring and enthusiastically sharing all the regional variations, able to articulate the things that actually matter and make a cuisine what it is. He emphasizes the essential simplicity of the cuisine, even while celebrating some of the regional specialties that you might only truly be able to experience in Italy.

    In my experience with Japanese cuisine, after several longish trips I started to get a fairly decent sense of balance and what works. In the US, save for an occasional decent Saveur article or a few specific cookbooks, there’s nobody really helping to articulate what makes Japanese food what it is. And it’s far more simple than people presume; driven, like most cuisines, by what was available, most preparations are fairly minimalist. I wish I’d see more of the fundamentals of cuisines relatively unfamiliar to US audiences rather than bad imitations of already mediocre restaurant experiences.

    Comment by Jason Truesdell — February 13, 2007 #

  18. Hey now, I love Cook’s Illustrated! I have to admit, I really liked their idea of using curry paste for Thai Chicken Soup. When I want Thai Chicken Soup, I want it now, usually when I don’t have time to drive the 40 minutes roundtrip to my HK Asian Supermarket (which is really fantastic by the way) to get the lemongrass and galanghal, but I ALWAYS have several different kinds Mae Ploy curry paste on hand (and I always have dried lime leaves, because my only option for buying them at HK is a HUGE package, which I can never use up before it all goes bad).

    So, I took their idea and ran with it. I didn’t use chicken breast (which I find bland, I like using leg and thigh meat), I added ginger and garlic, onion, scallon, thinly sliced celery and carrot. Plus I used about 1 tbs of each red and green curry paste ( I really like that combo), which I sauteed in coconut cream before adding the coconut milk and chicken broth and poaching the chicken (all veggie garnishes I added after the chicken was poached and shredded up).

    God that was really good soup. “My” recipe yielded about 4 quarts, and it was totally gone by the next day.

    Comment by Roxanne Rieske — February 13, 2007 #

  19. I still love them dearly for their geekiness, but I can see what you’re sayin’. Some of their Mexican dishes come across the same way to me, and I’ve hardly got the same level of expertise in Mexican food as you do in Asian. When they get up to good Cal-Mex level I’ll pay more attention ;) but it’s not their strength.

    Comment by Charlotte — February 13, 2007 #

  20. Did we get up on the wrong side of the bed today? Baby not sleeping well? ‘Culinary Cultural Imperialism’, ‘Xenophobia’, you are joking, right? Geez, I can’t believe you wrote this. Just what does this rant bring to your blog and your readers?

    Comment by Jim — February 13, 2007 #

  21. I think you miss the point, Barbara. Cooks Illustrated strives really hard to make everything accessible to the home cook. Sure the average home cook COULD go to a local ethnic store but first off they are somewhat bewildering, even for me and I spend a great deal of time in them. And second what happens when it turns out that you don’t like that particular ingredient and you have a ton of it left over. What then? Most home cooks don’t understand how to turn to the internet for recipes. We live in a somewhat insular world where finding a recipe is as easy as reaching out to google. And we are all use to researching recipes on our own. But for the tremerous home cook who is afraid of going outside of their comfort zone these recipes are a step in the right direction. It may introduce them to a few new ingredients or a new technique or two easing them into the unfamiliar with the familiar. The average home cook seeing ingredients with foreign names is scary. A lot of them will automatically dismiss any recipe with more than one or two unusual ingredients. Even in California where ethnic food is the norm, people get weird about cooking it at home. When my mom owned her restaurant she would give away here recipes freely, she would even allow customers to come into the kitchen to watch her make the food and help out (it was a very family operation) and they still got weird about parmesan that was not out of a Kraft can or ricotta cheese. And ricotta is available everywhere. I commend Cook’s Illustrated for easing people out of their comfort zone. Perhaps the person that makes the bastardized version of a classic recipe will fall in love and want to make others. Perhaps they will find a cook book and learn more about the real cuisine. Or maybe not but Cook’s is merely trying to shoehorn people out of their culinary ruts. So how bad is that?

    Comment by Kitarra — February 13, 2007 #

  22. I appreciate you so much for this post! I am so glad I’m not the only one who thinks Cooks Illustrated smacks of colonialism and cultural imperialism… maybe even the dreaded R-word! I have had great luck with some of their recipes but I stopped subscribing when I found that my dietary restrictions didn’t jive well with their uber-American approach to cooking. And no, it didn’t help that I was annoyed by the tone they used in writing about “ethnic” foods and the total butchering of various cuisines.

    I have no problem with people cooking the food of other cultures, or borrowing from other traditions, but I think people are foolish to think “it’s just food” and not consider the cultural, historical and political implications of what they’re cooking and eating. I personally enjoy educating myself about the roots of different traditional cuisines and try to eat the authentic versions of a food at least once. I hesitate before claiming that a dish I cooked belongs to an ethnic cuisine that I’m not intimately familiar with. I particularly feel this way about the term “Asian” as it is used in American cooking – It is usually shorthand for “soy sauce and sesame seeds” and is just too vague and meaningless since it includes so many countries as different as India and Japan. This just contributes to the idea of the east as “exotic” (which is objectifying and makes something or someone intriguing only because they are an “other”). In a rapidly homogenizing world that has been stripping people of their own cultural heritages, I think its important to preserve the integrity of individual cultures – And this includes food.

    On a different note… I do, like a previous poster, enjoy Cooks Illustrated’s geekiness. I like the science-geek aspect of the magazine.

    Comment by Gluten-Free By The Bay — February 13, 2007 #

  23. I keep swaying between opinions here. On one hand, I can’t stand when ingredients from the East are labeled as “exotic” or “mysterious”. I find that utterly ridiculous.

    But, the reality is that a large percentage of Americans live in rural areas where getting these ingredients is not feasible. I have an extreme interest in foods from across the globe but I live in a city that allows me to purchase the items I need to cater to my interest.

    I grew up in a town of less than 1000 people and the nearest city more than 20,000 people was over 100 miles away.

    I used to be a purist but then I got over it. I don’t like when a cuisine is misrepresented but the plain fact is that most people need to grow accustomed to the flavors of foods from other countries.

    Another reality is that most people just want to eat and like the taste of the food. If it tastes good to the person who eats it, that is what matters. And, like it or not, a lot of recipes that are far from pure representations and lean more towards inspirations than authenticity taste good.

    I think a lot of times, purists get so wrapped up in what is ‘right’, they forget to just sit back and enjoy the dish.

    Comment by Jenn — February 13, 2007 #

  24. I like the writing style in CI (well, except for odd things like ‘exotic’), and I occasionally leaf through it in the grocery store for that reason, but I almost never actually buy it because it seems like every issue has at least one recipe for brownies or something similar, and not even a new variation, but something I can make in my sleep and already have several recipes for, and some kind of barbecued pork, which I can’t eat.
    I appreciate the food science approach to determining what went wrong with the variations, but the actual recipes are not very interesting, and I have books at home which cover the food science so I can analyze my failures myself.

    I understand the people who say that some of their bastardization is necessary, since many people don’t have easy access to many of the ingredients. I’ve lived out in the country and wanted Thai stir-fry now, without having made a trip to a spice store and Asian market in the nearest big city in advance. However, they could address that by giving the recipe with the original ingredients, and then suggesting substitutions and describing what those substitutions do to the dish, which would be very in keeping with their analytical style.

    Comment by MiriRose — February 14, 2007 #

  25. I enjoy Cook’s, although I agree that their ethnic food is usually pretty far off the mark. I do like their scientific approach. And about “exotic” – I am an Asian (looking) woman. Someone told me at my wedding that I managed to “pull off that exotic look”. I was pretty surprised, since I was going for a classic look, in a vintage 1960s silk dress and the groom in tails. “Exotic” is pretty weird adjective to use.

    Comment by Kim — February 14, 2007 #

  26. Hey, Jim.
    Learn to use logic, ‘kay?
    Or did you just “wake up on the wrong side of the bed” too?

    Comment by the other daughter — February 14, 2007 #

  27. Okay, I have to be the dissident voice. I’ll give you that the ethnic recipe examples sound pretty boring and dumbed down because, I admit, I don’t think I’ve ever tried any of their so-called “exotic” recipes. But the ones I have tried, like the glazed carrots with chicken broth, walnuts, and bacon was very good and culinarily miles above the way I grew up eating them with just some brown sugar dumped on them while they cooked (Mom was otherwise a very good cook). I know I’ve tried lots of other things, so many so that turned out well that I bought the general cookbook of theirs “New Best Recipe” because I love the way they dissect every recipe and tell you why they did what they did and how things turned out. Maybe, like all things, they have their strengths and weaknesses, ethnic food being a weakness, but I can’t subscribe to the opinion that all of their recipes are “bland and boring beyond belief”.

    My 2 cents.

    Comment by Glenna — February 17, 2007 #

  28. I really appreciate ATK and CI for their version of Asian dishes. Where I live, we can’t even dream of an asian market much less shop in one. And ordering food online isn’t always an option financially. Obviously I do not have your experience with Asian cooking, but I’m learning. I’ve opened minds and introduced many people to Asian food. Next time, think of those who cannot shop where you shop, cannot order what ever they want online, and do not have your talent or experiences.

    Comment by Christine — February 18, 2007 #

  29. I have to say I am pleased with the discussion this post engendered; I never expected everyone to agree or disagree with me. What I am happy to see is the level of discourse everyone managed; there is plenty of agreement and disagreement going around, but, with one notable exception, everything has been kept polite, on topic and low-key. That thrills me.

    For the record, I really do understand why some people may feel uncomfortable going into Asian markets. I used to lead tours to a local supermarket sized Asian grocery store in Maryland, after all–tours for white suburbanites who wanted to buy authentic ingredients, but who were too intimidated to walk into an Asian store and pick out what they wanted and needed without a little push from someone knowledgable. So, I do get it.

    The truth be told, while I dislike the Asian recipes presented in CI–for reasons I have already stated, what upsets me more is the -way- in which they are presented and written about. The overuse of the term “exotic” is not only redundant and lazy, it is objectionable because it presents Asian food as an inscrutable “other”–which, if one is not aware, how Asian -people- have been presented by Western society for generations. This sort of xenophobic, Western-centric behavior is unacceptable to me, and -that- is what grated on me worse than the idea that someone would even think to use dill pickles instead of Sichuan preserved vegetable in a dish.

    I do want to point out, however, that as Persimmon, an Asian-American woman pointed out–there are plenty of simple Chinese recipes that -can- be made with grocery store ingredients–it just seems that CI’s writers and editors do not know that or care to present those recipes. Plenty of Asian-Americans also lived until recently in places which did not have Asian markets, so they had to adapt their native cuisines to what was available in local grocery stores. This has been happening for generations, but instead of CI investigating these recipes, they present recipes which cannot authentically be made with grocery store ingredients, and then have the audacity to say they are just as good as recipes made with the authentic ingredients.

    Also–there is the issue that many fresh ingredients can be frozen for future use. Fresh galangal, lemongrass and lime leaves can be frozen with little loss of quality. I find that if I travel to a “big city” where these ingredients are available, I stock up, stick them in the freezer when I go home, and then can make authentic tom kha gai, which indeed does taste better than what one can get in many Thai restaurants, or at least just as good–anytime I want, without having to take a trip to the Asian market here in town.

    I like the suggestion that one commenter posted: give an authentic version of the recipe, and then give an adapted one–that way readers who do and do not have access to a local Asian market are served. This also shows respect for Asian cultures, and, in my opinion, would make for a more interesting article.

    Once again, I want to thank everyone who contributed to this discussion–it has been interesting reading the comments, especially the ones who disagree with me. While I still hold to my position on the issue, I do also recognize that there are those who value CI’s recipes.

    FWIW–I am more fond of the Asian recipes presented in Fine Cooking–I also find the writing style to be much more respectful and engaging. Also, that magazine contains in-depth photo illustration of difficult techniques, and the writers tend to be professional chefs and cookbook writers, and thus, I tend to trust their experiences and authority more than those of the authors of CI’s articles.

    Comment by Barbara — February 19, 2007 #

  30. This post has so many nuances and possible discussion topics, it’s amazingly overwhelming.

    Like you, I’m both a science person and culinary person (the kind of folks born with big wooden spoons in their mouths), and I often have a mixed set of emotions with regards to CI. I love it for it’s organization and it’s rigorous experimental style (as well as for it’s “mystery kitchen tool” section). That said, I find Mr. Kimball to represent a lot of qualities I hate about professional cooking experts, including a pervasive attitude of “my way is the best way” as well as the idea that somehow New England is far superior to everyone else. I’ve had great success with many of the CI recipes (and I use my New Best Recipe on a fairly reguar basis), but I also am the kind of person who has never stuck to a recipe in her life. So I guess I’ve never had a bland CI recipe, because if it looked like a bland recipe, I would change it.

    This, I think, places me firmly on the side of “people that CI isn’t really meant for,” a side I suspect you’re on as well. Quite simply, and without trying to sound arrogant, I know too much about cooking and have spent too much time doing my own experiments to fit my own palate to really be the right audience. I can and do use the magazine for ideas, new approaches to guidelines, etc… I read several other magazines for the same reasons (heck, I use most cookbooks that way). It also keeps me from being too abstract for most of my friends, who wouldn’t want to make their own puff pastry just because it might be fun. But there are people that CI is really a good fit for – people who are trying to experiment, but have a really small comfort zone. They need to push the boundaries a little more slowly, and need to do so in a way that will produce consistent results, and usually for as little cost as possible. CI is definitely for them.

    CI does fall very flat on non-European ethnic cuisine. Oddly enough, I find that other magazines over-”exotify” the same cuisines (I would suggest “Gourmet” in this category, as much as I love reading it)…. a solid working middle ground is often hard to come by. While I’ve found great magazines with a solid middle ground in Italian cuisine, there is no equivalent periodical (that I’ve found) for Asian cuisines (with the exception of Japanese – alas, the magazine is in Japanese, so a bit hard to follow).

    So, yeah, I guess my point is that we’re the wrong audience for CI, and should really only ever use it as “grazing” material for our own experiments, rather than solid guides. For it’s given audience, however (especially those who have small comfort zones), I would argue that it’s a very useful source. The pervasive problems of “Orientalism” are an entirely different issue, but are definitely present at more levels than simply calling a shiitake “exotic.” Its disheartening, since I truly believe that the way to create understanding is through the sharing of food.

    Comment by Alexis — February 27, 2007 #

  31. [...] Tigers & Strawberries » The Best Recipe for Culinary Cultural … … the same way to me, and I’ve hardly got the same level of expertise in Mexican food as … I like the suggestion that one commenter posted: give an authentic version of the recipe, and then give an … http://www.tigersandstrawberries.com/2007/02/12/the-best-recipe-for-culinary-cultural-imperialism/ [...]

    Pingback by Master Degree WebLog » Blog Archive » food411.com - Your Online Food Directory - Prepared Ethnic Meals — July 18, 2007 #

  32. [...] know diddly-squat about and I did. And that, my friends torqued my gizzard so badly that I wrote a big long rant about it and has kept me from reading the magazine (or watching their television shows) ever [...]

    Pingback by Tigers & Strawberries » A New Food Journal: Lucky Peach — July 21, 2011 #

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