Saturday, November 28, 2009

Abalone, Shark Fin and Bird's Nest - Not really all that good

Abalone, shark fin, and bird's nest soups are all way overrated.

For their last night in town I took my parents to Sumie, one of the nicer Japanese restaurants in Taipei. We all ordered different 7-course set menus, and overall the meal was delectable, with the fastidiously painstaking presentation and service that one would expect from a restaurant in this price range. It wasn't perfect, though - with 7 courses, there are bound to be some misses. One of them came in our first course, when my Dad and I were both served abalone soup.

Abalone is a mollusk that, like shark fin and bird's nest, is an extremely expensive ingredient and considered a delicacy in many different Asian cultures. If you've ever had one of these ingredients, it was probably in a soup, and probably at a meal in which the (Asian) host felt compelled to conspicuously advertise how much money he or she is spending - weddings (got to show the in-laws!), large family reunions (got to show the in-laws!), important business dinners (got to show the clients!), etc. The thing is, none of these three ingredients have any flavor of their own at all. The best thing that can be said about any of them is that much like potato, pasta, tofu, or crackers, their bland flavor makes them reasonably good at soaking up the flavor of whatever is around them. Now, I'm rather fond of tofu, crackers, and potato. They definitely fill an important role in composing a tasty soup. But they're also relatively cheap ingredients, unlike abalone, shark fin, or bird's nest.

Apologists for these ingredients usually assert that though they may be flavorless, they have unique textures which work well with flavorful dishes. To which I say: nonsense! Bird's nest is simply a thoroughly soaked cracker or crouton, and tofu of the right consistency is nearly indistinguishable from shark fin. As for abalone, it has the approximate consistency of rubber, so if you actually enjoy that sort of thing you can just drop some rubber into your soup. (Though I suppose octopus is a pretty close approximation too.) Yes, serving rubber in soup would be ridiculous. But it'd still be less ridiculous than using abalone, because at least you'd save quite a bit of cash.

There's a reason these vastly overpriced and utterly flavorless ingredients are pretty much only ever served in soup, people - all the other components that go into a rich, hearty broth work overtime to lend some flavor to the so-called "signature ingredient," which itself contributes nothing other than an additional zero or two to the end of the price. I'm confident that there is no such thing as a good shark fin, abalone, or bird's nest soup. There are simply good soups that happen to have shark fin, abalone, or bird's nest in them, and all of them would probably be much improved if you took out the obscenely expensive flavorless mass at their center and tossed in some tofu, tako, or crackers instead.

There's another reason abalone and its cousins in exorbitant blandlessness are often served in soup - in multi-course Asian meals, as in Western cooking, soup is an early course. The conspicuous extravagance of the soup advertises the cost of the entire meal and is intended to signal to the diner that all subsequent courses must be equally upscale.

At Sumie, where we had just ordered dinners that definitely fell within the potentially aneurysm-producing range, the restaurant no doubt placed abalone soup in front of us right away in hopes of assuaging any sticker shock. On me it had the opposite effect. The soup itself, aside from the rubbery mass of mollusk in the middle, was solid, if unexceptional. But I had started calculating how much of my check would be going to the soup - the soup - instead to the real meat of the meal, and it did not bode well.

Luckily, Sumie won me over with the second course, a truly delicious sashimi plate, followed by a solid third course for me (tempura) and a exquisite third course for my dad, which I sampled (grilled sea bass). Even so, after we left I remembered that the two real highlights of the meal - the sashimi and the sushi - were definitely both on the smaller side. I couldn't help but wonder how much larger the portions would have been if the chef had skipped the abalone and bought something actually tasty with that money instead.

Ultimately, these soups are culinary veblen goods - prized for their high price, and nothing more. Like designer handbags or Rolls-Royces, the mere fact of their high price lends them an exclusivity, and they actually would become less desirable if they were available more efficiently and cheaply.

Sumie delivered an extraordinary meal overall, and I would definitely go again at some point. But I've also had plenty of Asian meals that were utterly unremarkable, aside from the ostentatiously profligate soup course. Now that I'm living in Taiwan I know more truly "Asian" people, so to the one or two of you that can follow my English I beg of you this: I know it's tradition, but if you're hosting an important dinner, don't ever buy Bird's Nest, Shark Fin, or Abalone soup. Instead of spending money to impress me, spend the money on something I will actually enjoy eating instead.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Expat Politics

A few weeks ago I saw a DPP/Green protest march down Roosevelt Avenue. It was a scene that would be pretty familiar to anyone who lived in NY or SF during the Bush years: protesters dressed in elaborate, sometimes theatrically overwrought costumes (this one featured lots of folks dressed as "death," people with "blood" poured over their faces, etc. - again, reminiscent of US antiwar marches), lots of banners with provocative slogans unlikely to change any minds ("Stop the [President] Ma [Ying-Jeou] Death Toll"), annoyed locals upset to have their daily routine interrupted by all the traffic, and even a Code Pink-esque group of matronly older Taiwanese ladies leading a pretty raucous chant. I thought it was a pretty inspiring spectacle to see a 5' Asian grandmother stamp and shout with the energy of a college liberal, no matter what your politics are.

I'm not sure if these similarities are simply another example of how the left here often takes inspiration from the rhetoric of western democracy, evidence of a vast lefty communist conspiracy that pulls all the strings and organizes these protests - though why would a communist conspiracy be opposed to closer relations to China? - or perhaps most likely, simply the product of convergent evolution.

One thing that was different from your typical US protest march, of course, was all the Asian faces. In the States, Asian-Americans are usually too sensible to get involved in these kind of political frivolities. It's part of an Asian-American under-engagement with politics in general - lower even than the anemic American average - that Asian leaders sometimes decry, pointing out that politicians don't court an Asian voting bloc like the Hispanic or Black vote, because the Asian vote by and large doesn't exist.

That's the kind of political participation I'm used to, as an Asian-American, a generally lefty-liberaltarian thinker sympathetic with the ideology of US protesters but still annoyed at having to deal with them, and a Poli Sci major that's never personally voted. What? The math says that the odds my participation will affect the outcome of the election are nil. You can thank Poli 33, Voting Systems, for that stunning insight.

I also saw a bunch of foreigners in the protest march, which brings me to the putative point of this post: I'd say that expats, to the extent that they care about Taiwanese politics, skew very green here. I'm making this statistically unfounded estimation just based on expats I've talked to, blogs I've read, and political intuition. For one thing, there's the selection bias on who comes here in the first place. It's a very lefty, one-world impulse to go live and work in another country. Also, Westerners, especially Americans, both left and right are generally inclined to support small democracies their struggle for self-determination and human rights against totalitarian neighbors. The left likes the self-determination and human rights part, the right likes the stand up to China part. And perhaps most importantly, it's easier to make a stand on principle when you don't have to live with the consequences.

The messy truth is that Taiwan is one of those fascinating cases where ideology and political principle collides with the 400-lb gorilla that is reality. There are committed ideologues on both sides and the polling is very confused, but the vast majority of Taiwanese can generally be expected to support something along the lines of "No reunification, no independence, no war" as Ma Ying-Jeou put it in a brilliant bit of election sloganeering. Never mind that the empty phrase is a contradiction in terms and logically incoherent. If you aren't part of China, and you aren't independent, then what are you? Something much like Taiwan today, I guess, a fragile quasi-state perpetually teetering on the fulcrum between independence and annihilation.

In a concession to the reality that (1) China has a whole bunch of missiles pointed at Taiwan, (2) China and Taiwan have a trade relationship that is enormously mutually profitable, and (3) At this point no one honestly believes the ROC is, or really ever was past 1949, the legitimate government of all China, the Taiwanese people have concluded that the calculated ambiguity of the status quo is the best they can hope to live with. If you were to phrase a poll question to ask "If China would not object, would you support Taiwanese independence?" you'd have substantial agreement - which drops precipitously once that qualifier is removed from the question. So clearly sovereignty is an idea that has great support in the abstract, it's just not something that's perceived as achievable. Principle takes a backseat to pragmatism here, because pragmatism lets you keep making money and not be bombed.

Expats don't have to live with it, though, so it's easier to make a stand on principle. It's easier to support the righteous struggle for justice and liberty when you have a passport and can leave the country when the bombs start falling.

It'd be very interesting to me, purely academically, to learn how support for independence among overseas Taiwanese compares to the level of support within the country. On the one hand, you kind of have the reverse urban-rural divide here, with the rich urban north trending conservative, blue, and China-accommodating, and the poor rural south trending liberal, green, and nationalistic. (Yes, the "liberals" are nationalists here, while the "nationalist party" aren't... it's all very confusing.) Since it's generally the urban rich that have the opportunity to emigrate abroad, you'd expect selection bias to lean the (Taiwanese) expat community to the right. But based on the don't-have-to-deal-with-the-consequences theory of sovereignty support, you'd also expect it to be a little easier for Taiwanese emigres to advocate independence from the safe removes of California, Maryland, and Texas. My hypothesis is that once you control for income, there'd be a statistically significant increase in support for outright, no-qualifications independence among Taiwanese expats.

Sounds like a thesis. Who wants to go write it?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Greatest Sentence Ever

Or maybe that even the mere possibility of expressing any of this childish heartbreak to someone else seemed impossible except in the context of the mystery of true marriage, meaning not just a ceremony and financial merger but a true communion of souls, and Schmidt now lately felt he was coming to understand why the Church all through his childhood catechism and pre-Con referred to it as the Holy Sacrament of Marriage, for it seemed every bit as miraculous and transrational and remote from the possibilities of actual lived life as the crucifixion and resurrection and transubstantiation did, which is to say it appeared not as a goal to expect ever to really reach or achieve but as a kind of navigational star, as in in the sky, something high and untouchable and miraculously beautiful in the sort of distant way that reminded you always of how ordinary and unbeautiful and incapable of miracles you your own self were, which was another reason why Schmidt had stopped looking at the sky or going out at night or even usually ever opening the lightproof curtains of his condominium’s picture window when he got home at night and instead sat with his satellite TV’s channel-changer in his left hand switching rapidly from channel to channel to channel out of fear that something better was going to come on suddenly on another of the cable provider’s 220 regular and premium channels and that he was going to miss it, spending three nightly hours this way before it was time to stare with drumming heart at the telephone that wholly unbeknownst to her had Darlene Lilley’s home number on Speed Dial so that it would take only one moment of the courage to risk looking prurient or creepy to use just one finger to push just one gray button to invite for one cocktail or even just a soft drink over which he could take off his public mask and open his heart to her before quailing and deferring the call one more night and waddling into the bathroom and/or then the cream-and-tan bedroom to lay out the next day’s crisp shirt and tie and say his nightly dekate and then masturbate himself to sleep again once more.

-David Foster Wallace “Mister Squishy”