Friday, 18 August 2006

A Eurocentric View Of Cuisine

Bentley's restaurant in Piccadilly

According to the latest edition of Harden's Restaurant Guide to be published later this month, the trend towards "oriental/novelty" eating in London is coming to an end and diners are "turning back to more traditional restaurant styles of eating out - especially French". Guide Co-editor Richard Harden says there have been few oriental newcomers in the past 12 months.

This contrasts with recent years when, according to Harden, asian cuisine has been "almost de rigueur for fashionable openings" of restaurants in the capital.

Nobu Japanese restaurant in MayfairThe report, based on a survey of 8,000 regular restaurant-goers, listed restaurants on the rise as Gordon Ramsay's Maze, Chris and Jeff Galvin's Bistrot de Luxe, Nigel Platts-Martin's The Ledbury, Arrigo Cipriani's Cipriani and Richard Corrigan's Bentley's (where I had a fantastic lunch the other week) - all of them European and, with the exception of Maze, "traditional" in cuisine.

Nobu Matsuhisa's Mayfair "celeb-haven" has crashed out of Hardens' list, leaving Alan Yau's Hakkasan as the sole Asian representative.

I find something very strange about this report and if I was not too polite and generous to suggest such a thing, I would consider it racist. "Traditional" styles in this context implies Franco/Anglo/Irish cuisines, but underlying the definition is an assumption of modern eclectic cooking, kept tightly within bounds defined by the good folks from Michelin. When it comes to asian food, however, there seems to be an assumption way beyond eclectic, i.e. Asian = fusion = novelty.

Deep fried prawns in banana leafNobody would dream of lumping together the different regional cooking of Iberia as a single style and calling it "novelty". The regional cuisines of Extremadura, Calatunlya, Maderia, Mallorca, Lisboa, Asturias and the Basque country are very different from one another. Asia is no different. Exactly the same suble regionality applies to South-East Asian food, as I discovered during my holidays in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand last year.

Asian restaurant cuisine is every bit as diverse as European cuisine when it comes to its degree of localisation. It varies from traditional, regional fare using only local produce, through to pan-Pacific fusion cooking drawing on ingredients and techniques from Australasian, Asian and even mid-Pacific/US west coast island traditions. To lump all of these strands together as "oriental/novelty" is at best patronising and at worst...

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