Thursday, November 17, 2005

Name your Food

Who came up with the notion that the more exotic and unpronounceable the name of a food item, the more desirable it is? Whoever it was, they didn’t do the Canadian restaurant goers any service. Studies conducted by your humble correspondent through personal experiences have shown that trying to order shiitake mushrooms, for instance, can only result in public humiliation. There is no way a newcomer to the rarefied world of haute cuisine can encounter the word “shiitake” in a menu and not mispronounce it.
The popularity of exotic food names in restaurants is particularly bad news for Canadian restaurant-goers because Canadians hate having to ask questions about our food in public places – which, incidentally, explains the success of KFC’s “popcorn” chicken. A true Canadian will eat a piece of raw meat in a restaurant rather than complain about it being under-cooked. Now that patrons are opening their menus only to be confronted by a list of food items apparently written in Sanskrit, rather than risk appearing ignorant, or - heaven forbid – upsetting the waitperson, the customer is likely to order what sounds as harmless as possible, without first finding out what they are actually about to put in their mouths.
“Is the pomelo fresh?” Someone might ask, unaware that they are about to dine on a giant Malaysian grapefruit. Or “How’s the pfeffernuesse?” If you can pronounce it, you can have it, as long as you like lots of pepper with your cookies. You think that couple over there at that table in the corner really wanted a large bowl of parsley for lunch? No, they wanted pasta. But they saw “persillade” on the menu, and assumed they were going to get some kind of spaghetti. Will they complain? Not a chance.
If restaurants must insist on using exotic names in their menus, they should at least bracket some simple explanation next to it so we gustatory neophytes can know what we are ordering as we mangle the names. What is “Quenelle”, for instance. A bird? A spice? Five of something? Not at all, it is Vegetable dumplings. Or “mortadella.” The name of an Italian soprano? A Spanish expletive? A character in a Shakespearean play (“Oh, sweet Mortadella, I take thy brother for a codpiece…”)? Wrong again. Mortadella is the Italian sausage which was first saddled with the moniker “bologna”. (As for the codpiece, don’t ask. It has nothing whatsoever to do with fish).
Is there a reason why people encounter “boule” instead of bread in certain restaurants, and “shoga” instead of ginger? Well, sure. Who is going to fork over $6.00 for a loaf of bread? But a basket of boule fresh from the kitchen, that’s worth something! And if it is “ficelle”, we’ll even pay a little extra, unless we realize that this is just a thin loaf of bread. And $11:50 for a plate of noodles? I don’t think so. But for an order of fideos? You bet.
Finally, a few words of warning about exotically named foods: surimi is not sushi, and sushi is not cooked. Sunomono is not a disease, but it may have seaweed and spinach in it, and stromboli is not the name of a 1940s Hollywood director, but a sandwich invented in Philadelphia. A squidhound, by the way, is a kind of fish and not somebody’s exotic canine pet, so go ahead and order it if you want – it is actually very good. But stay away from the codpiece.
Bon Appetit
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