Friday, June 18, 2010

Conflict Kitchen

Super, super intriguing: a group of Pittsburgh artists started a food project selling foods from places that the US has historically been at odds with.

Conflict Kitchen uses food to bridge divide

They're currently serving kubidehs from Iran, encased in a wrapper printed with information about Iran, as well as personal views about Iran from both Pittsburg and Iran. The plan is to focus on Iran for 4 months, and then move on to Afghanistan.

Clearly this is a type of culinary diplomacy playing out on a citizen level, or perhaps a citizen diplomacy playing out on a culinary level. What's also interesting to note is that this is coming from an art angle, with an art professor at Carnegie Mellon University co-founding the project, and the university paying the rent for the space.

Apparently the word is spreading, with people interested in how this idea might be franchised. I, too, am intrigued by how this idea might be expanded beyond an "art" project, or an academic venture, as well as the attendant questions that would accompany such an expansion. For instance, how to incorporate a sense of "cultural authenticity"? The current project drew upon the founders' personal connections in Iran, as well as the input of an Iranian-born professor at Carnegie Mellon. Are such personal connections "enough" to imbue a sense of authenticity? How might future attempts to capture "authenticity", lacking preexisting personal connections, shape iterations of the project?

Or do such questions muddle the process? Perhaps this model should be taken for what it is and what it might achieve in its limited realm, its potential to inspire others beyond its direct influence notwithstanding, rather than trying to scale it up or politicize it. Though it still nonetheless raises the question, will this actually have an impact on people's perceptions of, in this case, Iran?

Of course, others might also say, so long as the food is good, does it matter?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Hong Kong eats (boy, does it ever!)

One of the great things about having a mom that lives in Hong Kong, is that when I find myself with a free month between the end of semester and the beginning of my summer study abroad program, I can actually say, Hey, why not hit up Hong Kong for a few weeks? While the freedom of a graduate student and the finances of a graduate student sadly don't always match up to make such a proposition possible, the generosity of my mom, aided by her United mileage rewards account, came to the rescue, and I got to spend what turned out to be 2 awesome weeks in the city of my childhood.

How to encapsulate the diversity that is the Hong Kong dining scene? I often tell people that what I love about Hong Kong is that you can have a five minute meal or a 3+ hour meal. You can sit on stools in the street, or in a plush armchair with mile-high windows overlooking the harbor. Your cutlery might consist of chopsticks from the communal container and a roll of toilet paper, or heavy silverware and new plates the second your first one gets the slightest bit dirty. You can cozy up to complete strangers at shared tables, or stick to your known entities at your own table. Interestingly, while Hong Kong and Macau only share 3 Michelin-starred restaurants for the area, that's already enough to encompass this diversity.

Some highlights of my own dining experiences:

Won ton mein (shrimp dumplings and egg noodles) and gai lan (Chinese broccoli) at Mak On's Noodles in Central. The awesome food aside, this restaurant is in what I've now decided is one of my favorites areas of Hong Kong. It's just around the corner from the famed Hong Kong style milk tea place, Lan Fong Yuen, and its neighboring streets are some very cool small alleys filled with fresh produce vendors.
5-minute meal (admittedly, my 5 minute meals -- I went back the next day -- actually lasted a bit longer. I'm a slow eater), shared tables, and chopsticks.

Sunday brunch at Spoon. (Special thanks to my mom's coworker, Charles, and his dad, the manager at Spoon, for pushing our reservation status from waiting list to confirmed). Sunday brunch in Hong Kong is a whole other category of dining in my book, which, for the purposes of this blog entry, might be summed up as fulfilling the 3+ hour, plush armchair and amazing harbor views, heavy silverware, and private table dining categories.

I would also add the category of incredibly good value for the luxury experience. The first glass of champagne and subsequent free-flowing red and white wines are included in the price of brunch; the Thai asparagus with black truffles and amazing beef tartare shown above were but two of the numerous offerings in the appetizer buffet. Cheers to mi madre!

Wet market and seafood lunch at Ap Lei Chau. You buy your produce/ingredients in the wet market downstairs, the fishmonger kills, cleans and bags the fish, and then you bring it upstairs to these "restaurants" that are really nothing more than small storefronts, and tell the cooks how you want it all prepared.

Your fish goes from water to plate in about 30 minutes (depending on how long you browse through the market). Not for the faint of heart, nor those who don't like to think about where their food comes from.
Stools (though not sitting in the street); chopsticks and toilet paper.

Dim sum at Tim Ho Wan. This is where the Michelin star reference comes in, although my family's opinion is that the place is okay, but not anything particularly special, and definitely not worth the wait to try more than once. When I was there with my dad at about 11 AM, the lady gave out numbers for tables saying, We'll honor your ticket any time before 4 pm. We ended up waiting about an hour. Personally, I think the prices and quality would make it a reasonable destination if the wait weren't so long.

Shared tables, slash, tiny tables crammed so close together you might as well be sharing a table. Unfortunately, my dad and I drew the short end of the stick and got seated at the outermost of 3 tables in a row. I had to get up to let people out and in about 4 times throughout my meal.

I've got some other dining experiences to report on, but they don't quite fit into the time/environment dichotomy I've set up here. Which probably just goes to show the danger of thinking in dichotomies...