Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Tasting the Food

I was having lunch with a friend at a local restaurant known for fresh, local, organic ingredients cooked to order. They use a variety of ethnic dishes complete with ethnic sauces. They were willing to accommodate my complex special food needs: multiple food allergies. I told them exactly what vegetables, grain and fish I wanted, and how I wanted it cooked: stir fried in olive oil. I clearly said “no sauce, no croutons, no tamari, no garnish, no added anything”. They were happy to accommodate me. This is the way I cook for myself and I hoped that with their fine ingredients the food would be in accord with my diet and be full of flavor.

I don’t eat out much as it can be challenging to sort through the myriad of ingredients on a menu. I understand that for many restaurants it can be a challenge to make a special dish for people with special needs. It can slow the cook’s pace having to carefully check the ingredients, avoid the sauces, avoid the garnish and, in general, change their routine. The kitchen was visible and, as we waited for our meal, I saw a cook carefully reading from a slip of paper, reaching for ingredients and dropping them into a pan. All the other cooks were flying through their tasks.

My friend and I watched as people who had ordered after us received their meals before us. It took a long while for the meal to be ready but finally it arrived. The dish looked good, steam rising out of the mountain of colorful vegetables. I had chosen shrimp because I rarely cook it at home and it’s such a treat to have well cooked fresh, sweet shrimp. I took my first bite of shrimp. It was chewy with no sweetness to it at all. I was greatly disappointed. The rice tasted flat and was simultaneously overcooked and al dente’. (how do they do that?) Thankfully, the vegetables were excellent.

I decided to let it go and just eat. We were hungry, it was busy there and it didn’t seem worth the effort to send it back. I ate, truly enjoying my vegetables while wondering how rice and shrimp could be so badly prepared. Halfway through the meal the manager came over to check on my special order. I decided to be honest. “Well, the shrimp is tasteless and chewy and the rice is overcooked”. She responded by saying “Well, you didn’t want any sauce and we pride ourselves on our sauces to give our dishes flavor”. I looked at her and resisted launching into a diatribe about the natural palatability of fresh, well prepared, simple food. Instead I said “Never mind, it’s okay” and waved her away.

In my classes I offer tastings that are usually unseasoned, unsalted, and unsweetened partially because of students’ restricted diets but more importantly I want to offer the opportunity to resensitize their palates to the way simple food really tastes. A properly prepared brown rice is quietly rich with a substantial yet fluffy texture. Fresh shrimp sautéed in garlic and olive oil is both sweet, salty and invokes the ocean. Recently harvested vegetables served without extraneous condiments are bursting with sweetness and feel like power food. One is energized from them.

In my opinion a dish should be able stand up on its basic food ingredients alone. It should not have to depend on a sauce, marinade or a condiment for palatability. This isn’t to say I never use ingredients beyond the basic ingredients but that I really enjoy the inherent taste of each food. When I choose to use a sauce, marinade or condiment I use them sparingly so they will support and showcase the food rather than eclipse it.

One should easily be able to taste and enjoy food despite dietary restrictions. It may be a matter of resensitizing our palates in new directions. We need not be deprived of beautiful and exciting food nor should we be isolated or ostracized. As we learn to care for ourselves by cooking new foods we can share with others how they can cook for us.

Well prepared, lovingly cooked and graciously offered food is a blessing I encourage you to take part in.