So what are you eating lately? And more important, why? No, I don't want to hear about your allergic reaction to the bubble of fat around your midriff, or your neurotic teeth-grinding at every diabetic noise that goes phlatt in the night. I want to know what you're doing for gastronomic kicks in your life. You see…when the preparation and consumption of food journeys beyond survival nutrition, it lands at the gate of entertainment as the art of cooking and it's as indexing, revealing, and self-defining as any art form. Impressionistic, expressionistic, cubist and in some windowless chambers, even abstract (commonly referred to as "tasteless") We call it… Cuisine.
Journeying into a cuisine is an addiction, seldom a curse, mostly a delight. I've had as many addictions as you've had, probably more. My current addiction is Thai cuisine. It is a wondrous array of food based on fresh vegetables and fruit, with an emphasis on spices, fresh seafood, and less emphasis on meats and desserts. It is an overwhelmingly sensual cuisine with its soups, salads, entrees and its touching, mingling, shared-way of eating.
America has no cuisine, it has Walmart. But it also has, in its vast, chaotic geography and culture, populated by waves of immigration, the joy of tastes of cuisines from almost every cooking culture in the world—primarily in its metropolitan centers. Put a curtain over New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami, and you're left with the reality of America—its true politics, its moralities, its hypocrisies, and its cuisinelessness… and Walmart.
For the addicted me, I have a lament. There are more than 4000 Thai restaurants in the U.S. I've tried, let me say, a lot of them. I cannot find the taste here, the sensuality, the art of Thai cooking that embraces me and fills me with affection when I'm in Thailand. This shouldn't be. American Thai restaurants cater to the American palate. They "bland" it, "chinese" it, market it to develop a successful business. Understandable. Yet many other "international" cuisine restaurants also include dishes on and off the menu for their fellow country-people who want the "real" tastes of the "real" cuisine. But not, seemingly, the Thai. Why? I don't know. Perhaps it's because Thai ex-pats are driven to assimilate and don't need to taste what was, but rather what is. It's part of the enterprising-entrepreneurial side of the intriguing Thai character. After all, they do come from the only Asian country that was never colonized by a foreign power.
My other near-addiction is Vietnamese food. It is somewhat similar to Thai food but with a pervasive French overlay that makes it unique. The story of the delivery of this cuisine to America and its evolution is a study in art nouveau. When the Vietnamese refugees were allowed to flood into the U.S. as a reaction to the guilt of the 1975 American war that nearly destroyed their country, they immediately created restaurants, primarily in California. Many of them offered menus which included dishes that were only prepared at home and seldom offered in restaurants in Vietnam—so called, maison food. These same restaurants usually had dishes "off" menu for the Vietnamese palate. There was motivation. Their customers were refugees, not immigrants, and they needed the taste from home. Unlike the Thai, they supported it. They still do, even their next generations.
And so dear consumer, not one to preach, but rather to complete this brief musing journey, I leave you with a cautionary tale. When the wave of Vietnamese refugees came ashore in the U.S., medical researchers, particularly at UCSF, realized they had a rare opportunity to study and perhaps define a dilemma: the origin and nature of colon cancer and other gastric maladies. Forty years ago, colon cancer displayed low numbers in a large part of Asia as opposed to a much higher incidence in Europe and the U.S. The prevailing focus singled out diet. Now came a large, rather homogeneous group of people from Vietnam from that low-incidence geography. Testing revealed the low incidence of colon cancer, et al, among a substantial cross-section of the refugees. Ten years later, follow-through research revealed a rise in colon cancer among that Vietnamese group that matched the incidence among the general American population. Though the Vietnamese cooked Vietnamese food at home and ate in Vietnamese restaurants, the natural course of assimilation added substantial quantities of other "cuisine" foodstuffs to their diet. It was stunning and deadly. It was diet.
So it is with obesity. Thai people are generally slim. It's not necessarily genetic, it has a lot to do with what they eat and their activity. When I first traveled to Thailand, I was hard-pressed to see an obese person. Today, I see more of them. In America, obesity is epidemic. And I see more obese Thai-Americans than ever before. When you strip away all of the fad-diets, the "miracle drugs", the disinformation on the internet, you're left with this simple fact: the quality and quantity of the food in your "cuisine" is all that matters. What goes in minus what goes out leaves you with what becomes… fat.
And that, as Lenny Bruce used to say, is that!