Sunday, November 18, 2007

The food curmudgeon holds forth again

Yesterday, Rick and I went to the mall for a pre-Christmas scouting expedition. Because we were on a schedule due to other commitments, we wound up eating lunch at the food court.

A local Indian restaurant has opened a stall in the food court. This is a welcome development. I'll preface my further remarks with two important statements. First, we understand that fast food is never going to be as good as either home-cooked food or the fare available in a good restaurant. Second, this food-court establishment is still a cut above the usual greaseburger-and-fries mall haunts.

But still ....

We've eaten at the parent restaurant several times, both on buffet nights and on occasions when we ordered off the menu. We like the place a lot. In fact, we went there with a friend from Delhi, who is a terrific cook herself and is totally unforgiving of mediocre Indian restaurants. She liked the buffet there. Enough said.

But the food court food is just -- blander, I guess. The curries weren't as spicy. The palak paneer was actually a bit sweet, as well as too milky. And the rice pudding was sorely lacking in cardamom.

Yup, we understand that food-court food has to be suitable for keeping on steam tables, and that the prices have to be held at least somewhat in check. But the parent restaurant provides a good, reasonably priced buffet that survives its spell on the steam table just fine, and ordering off the menu there is always enjoyable, and won't break the bank either. Have they been totally co-opted into the conventional wisdom that most Americans won't touch South Asian food unless it's laced with sugar and deprived of all of its spice and sass?

For a culture that's obsessed with food, that overeats junk while worrying constantly about diets, we don't seem to actually like food all that much. I couldn't help remembering the Indian-American family we knew during our days in Boston who invited us to a lavish dinner party. Some of the food was catered by an excellent local restaurant, and the rest was cooked by the hostess herself. It was amazingly wonderful. I still remember it sixteen or seventeen years later.

And one couple we knew were so afraid of Indian food that they ate at Burger King beforehand. I don't get it.

During our recent three-week trip to Italy, we noticed that we were in a culture that didn't fear food, and didn't have to disguise main dishes or coffee as dessert in order to get people to eat or drink them. If you order a salad at a restaurant in Italy, you'll be served a bowl of wonderfully fresh vegetables (probably only three or four kinds) with a bottle of balsamic vinegar, a bottle of olive oil, and salt and pepper on the side. If you want lemon instead of vinegar, you get nice freshly cut wedges. You season your own salad to taste, and it's great. No one pours glop loaded with sugar and squashed cheese on their radicchio in Tuscany or Liguria, and it doesn't matter whether you're eating at a tourist joint or a small, family-owned trattoria. If you go into a local bar (generally more like a coffee shop than an American tavern) for a snack and a drink, you'll find interesting munchies like little eggplant sandwiches that are actually made with freshly cooked vegetables and flavorful cheese. And people might lace their after-dinner espresso with a touch of liqueur, or top it with real whipped cream, but no one serves you a pint of coffee-spiked drink base that tastes like apple pie. (Nor, for that matter, like cannoli.)

I don't get it.

I'm not a food snob, but I really like food. I'm a little pudgy because of my too-sedentary lifestyle, but I don't intend to stop eating the things I like (most of which are reasonably healthful, anyway.) I even like real Southern and Midwestern U.S. home cooking, which is a far cry from Sicilian or Sichuan food but is still great when it's made from scratch. And I occasionally still eat fast food when I'm in a hurry. Really, I don't think I'm that much of a grouch where food is concerned.

But I can't imagine being so afraid of food that I want my palak paneer de-spiced and sweetened before I'm willing to eat it. And it seems like a great opportunity to introduce suburban kids to interesting food is being very badly missed here.