Translating Food

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The New York Times has an interesting article up about the surprising number of American chefs who’ve gotten quite famous for cooking up foreign foods. You would think that people would be more likely to flock to restaurants run by people who are from the country where the cuisine in question originated, but apparently that isn’t the case. Examples noted in the article include Andy Ricker, a chef from Portland, Oregon who made his name cooking Thai food; Alex Stupak and Rick Bayless, known for their Mexican dishes; and Ed Schoenfeld, New York’s “Chinese” chef of the moment.

What gives? According to the article, part of the reason it’s easy for all-American chefs to make a name for themselves cooking other cultures’ food has to do with lack of connections and/or simple prejudice, which is unfortunate. But that’s far from the whole story. As it turns out, translating food from one culture to another is not that different from translating words from one language to another.

In fact, Krishnendu Ray, who teaches food studies at New York University, told the New York Times:

“Presenting a cuisine from afar is “fundamentally an act of translation. So you have to be attuned to two cultures. It’s a kind of bilingualism.”

In this sense, immigrant chefs often have the deck stacked against them, because while they may be bilingual in terms of language, they aren’t “bilingual” when it comes to flavors. For example, the article describes the difficulty that Thai-born chef Saipin Chutima faced when her family opened their own restaurant:

“Customers knew pad Thai, she said, but when the offerings veered too far from that, “they’d say, ‘This isn’t Thai!’ ”

The family managed to make the restaurant work by providing a high level of personal service, talking to each diner to learn about their likes and dislikes and to make recommendations.

Americans, on the other hand, have a more instinctive sense of the American palate. Mr. Ricker explained:

“Shrimp paste is delicious, but superpungent, hectic. I just know it will be sent back. But I can do very close versions of specific dishes that don’t require a sense of adventure to try.”