• This typical Isan som tum platter served with sticky rice. (Boo's Kitchen)Source: Boo's Kitchen
"According to my aunt and uncle, a cultural restaurant serving a scattergun of dishes aims to attract people who aren't from their culture." Food writer Jess Ho talks about the impacts of ordering off the menu on culture and cuisine.
By
Jess Ho

15 Jun 2022 - 8:07 PM  UPDATED 21 Jun 2022 - 9:01 PM

There is a Thai restaurant in Abbotsford that I love. It specialises in Northeastern Thai, or Isan cuisine. This is characterised by refreshing, fiery, pungent flavours. It is also notably devoid of coconut milk. But this restaurant still services dishes from central Thailand, like green curry, tom yum and pad Thai. 

When I went with a group of friends who didn't know Isan food, their automatic reaction was to order central Thai dishes and a plate of spring rolls because they're well known. 

ISAN FLAVOURS
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After I gave them a small geography lesson and an overview of Isan food, my friends asked: "Why put that stuff on the menu if that's not what they're good at?"

That question immediately brought me back to my childhood.

I grew up learning about regional specialties from my aunt and uncle. They had impeccable taste, worked in restaurants and knew the best dishes to order in particular venues. We'd go to one restaurant for seafood, another for duck, one for roast pork and somewhere else for dim sum. It made sense once they pointed it out to me because this is how restaurants operate in Asia: they do one thing incredibly well and that's it.

According to my aunt and uncle, a cultural restaurant serving a scattergun of dishes aims to attract people who aren't from their culture. The restaurant operators want to make sure they have something on the menu that they like. If these diners come back and become regulars, only then will owners likely feel confident enough to tell them about the dishes they do exceptionally well. 

"Only then will owners likely feel confident enough to direct them to the dishes they do exceptionally well." 

Of course, times have changed. The world is smaller and, through travel, television and the internet, we know more about food and its significance, story and history than ever before. It's now common for the average Australian to know the dish of a cultural restaurant. But some of these restaurants are still hesitant to put certain dishes on the menu.

A neighbourhood Cantonese restaurant only tells Hong Kong regulars about its special: a dried oyster hot pot. You need to pre-order braised intestines when you book a table at a Chiu Chow joint in Melbourne's eastern suburbs. And, as I've been told you can always order East African lasagne in Ethiopian restaurants in Footscray, you just have to ask for it. 

THEY KEY TO EAST AFRICAN LASAGNE
Berbere

“Berbere is a spice blend that varies in ingredients from household to household… but it usually consists of chilli peppers, garlic, ginger, fenugreek, and native herbs and spices like Ethiopian holy basil and korarima. The key thing that separates East African lasagna and Italian lasagna is berbere.” Beź Zewdie

So why all the secrecy? Well, it isn't secrecy, really. Restaurant operators are concerned about wasting food and money. They can only bring dried oysters of a high grade into the country in limited amounts, they need to do a lot of preparation to make intestine dishes, and telling guests about a dish's history can be daunting. There is also the immigrant mentality of thinking that these humble dishes can only be appreciated by one's homesick community. A rejection of these flavours by people who aren't from their culture would be heartbreaking. It's the 'Lunchbox Moment', only in a restaurant setting. Rejection may be too much to bear. 

When I first started going to this Isan restaurant in Abbotsford, I repeatedly ordered pork liver salad, tom sab (also spelled saap: a spicy, sour and aromatic pork rib soup), chicken feet, and sticky rice and grilled meat until one of the staff members and I became friendly over my several visits. He would suggest dishes off the menu and I'd take his lead.

When I asked if I could order them again, he said, "Yes of course", and pointed to the specials board written in Thai. As I crunched on fried chicken tendons it became obvious to me that I was the Aussie person they were keen to share their specialties with; they just needed to know I'd appreciate their culturally significant dishes as much as they do. 

 

Hosted by food writer Jess Ho, Bad Taste is a six-part podcast series that will make you reconsider the perception of good taste. "In Bad Taste, I wanted to explore the complexity of different dishes and let them be their own hero. I wanted to explore the full story behind each dish and see how they make us who we are." Follow Bad Taste in the SBS Radio app, or wherever you get your podcasts, so you get every episode delivered straight to your device. Like the podcast? Email us at badtaste@sbs.com.au.

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