Thursday, May 20, 2010

The problem of when Western cooking shows go "Eastern"

I'm someone who loves his cooking, and loves his cooking shows. Be it The Naked Chef, Masterchef or Iron Chef, I watch my fair share. But despite whatever enjoyment this may give, in most culinary series there is a recurring theme that bugs the hell out of me.
It happens whenever a Western-trained chef attempts to cook food that is outside the Western European culinary canon. Simply put, 9 times out of 10 they demonstrate their ignorance about non-Western food.

Sometimes this is in the studio kitchen, and other times it is when the cooking show combines food and travel. In the latter case, inevitably, the celebrity chef goes to some exotic locale, eats some delicious food, meets the person who made it and then... makes his OWN version of the dish, which is almost always inauthentic in some way. Despite having a local expert available, the star of the show feels the need to flex their own cooking muscles, rather than allow someone else show the actual way of making it. Even some cooking shows that are amongst my personal favourites do this - The Hairy Bikers Cookbook and Rick Stein's Far Eastern Odyssey are ones that spring to mind.

Now, most viewers will be unaware of the inauthenticity, but if you happen to be knowledgeable about whatever cuisine is being represented, you will find yourself cursing out your TV screen.

Here's the three most common ways they piss me off....


Ok, envision this. A TV chef visits China, and tries an intriguing-sounding dish from a street vendor, then raves on about how delicious and incredible it is. Ok, great so far. So, let's watch the vendor make it, and perhaps the presenter can give a commentary while it is being made. No. Instead, the star of the show wants to remind you that he is the star, and thus makes it himself. Or at least makes "his own interpretation" of the dish he just ate. Why? Why, if something is so delicious, do you want to mess around with it and think you can improve on it? If you can't figure out exactly how to make it, or don't know what exact ingredients to use, why not get someone else to do it?
You need to be able to walk before you can crawl, as they say. Likewise, before you start "interpreting" and "modernising" traditional dishes, you need to understand the basic rules of that cuisine. Which leads me to...


Whether or not Westerners really think Asians all look alike, most certainly seem to think Asian cuisines are all alike. They demonstrate this by using "Asian" ingredients from one cuisine in other cuisines where they would not normally exist. Below are some typical ingredients from specific cuisines that TV chefs tend to see as just "Asian":
Coriander leaves (cilantro) - common throughout South and Southeast Asia as far north as China. Does not normally feature in Korean, Japanese or Indonesian cuisine, but TV chefs often don't seem to know this. They throw it into recipes purporting to be from those countries, because it just seems Asian.
Sweet soya sauce (kecap manis) - this is really only used in Indonesia and Malaysia, yet in TV chef land it finds its way into allegedly Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese food as well.
Sweet chili sauce - I'm sorry, but any TV chef who uses this is most likely a hack.
Curry powder - if you ever see a TV chef put this in anything, be immediately suspicious. Curry powder as we generally know it is a creation of the British, and most definitely does not go into beef rendang or any kind of Thai curry. Most Indians don't even use the stuff.

As an example check out Ian "Huey" Hewitson's recipe for "Oriental Pork Kebabs with Miso Corn". He combines Japanese, Chinese and Indonesian ingredients to make something "Oriental". Now, I have no problem with the idea of fusion cuisine, if you want to argue that is what he is doing. My problem is that this happens almost every time a TV chef makes something Asian. And given the way that Asians are so frequently seen as all the same, this sticks in my craw. Particularly when the same chefs will be sticklers for what does and doesn't constitute proper French or Italian cuisine.


I remember once on the Australian cooking show Fresh, it's presenters Jason Roberts and Lyndey Milan announced they were going to make a Vietnamese-style chicken noodle soup, or pho. Anyone familiar with these dish (probably Vietnam's most famous dish) knows that it is pronounced a little like the English word fur. The hosts went about pronouncing it as poe. A small quibble, you may think, but surely if you are going to present something on nationwide TV, you would have even a vague idea of its pronunciation - it's not as if it's an obscure dish. Needless to say, whatever they made was certainly not pho, at least in the way a Vietnamese person would understand it.

Kecap manis (see above) is another term that routinely is mispronounced badly. The English word ketchup is derived from the Malay kecap, and they are pronounced roughly the same. Manis (meaning sweet) is pronounced mah-niss. So kek-cap manners, then is really wrong.

Am I being too fussy? I don't think so. I'm not going into anyone's home kitchen and telling them they are wrong for putting coriander leaves in a Balinese dish, or mispronouncing pho. What I'm annoyed about is people who are paid big bucks to be on TV allegedly because they are experts in their field. If they are going to carry on about how amazing the food is in Asia or anywhere else, they should at least treat that cuisine with a little respect and be knowledgeable.

Fortunately not all cooking shows do this. If you want a much better and authentic example of how to present ethnic food, try Food Safari. It showcases a number of cuisines, all without leaving Australia, by going into the kitchens of chefs and home cooks from each ethnic background, and having them do the cooking. Thus, no need to satisfy the ego of a celebrity chef, and the viewer actually sees how to properly make each dish. It's a novel idea.


  1. ES:

    You're not being fussy at all. I've always noted how Western chefs always put a mishmash of whatever and passing it off as "Asian". And the comment about the sweet chili sauce is so true. lol! by

  2. Speaking of which, I went to a Vietnamese restaurant last night...actually, it was a 'Vietnamese' restaurant (forgot the quotes). Looked and sounded like a Saigon bar from the 1970s (or what I imagine it to be). The one waitress they had was dressed in a bright red outfit that looked like a cross between a cheongsam and Vietnamese traditional outfit. The decor also seemed to be playing on the exotic Asian image...and guess what the food was like? Sucked as. Very much a white washed version of not sure what with sweet chilli sauce and sauce that looked like kekcap manners but was extremely salty.

  3. And it's not just restaurants or celebrity chefs - supermarkets do it too. Catalogues especially from Coles and Woolworths/ Safeway contain 'fast', and sometimes 'authentic' recipe ideas - including my favourite for an Oriental Beef dish which consisted of beef, garlic and [Brand name] soy sauce. Just coz it's got soy sauce - it's 'oriental' and authentically Asian!

  4. @ kls: add soy sauce to anything and you immediately transported to the exotic East!
    Those recipe ideas are for those who consider fried "dim sims" as authentic Asian cuisine.

    @ fromthetropics: your use of the phrased "sucked as" indicates to me that you are on your way to being a true Aussie!

  5. This is a very, very interesting thing. Interpreting a meal is a valid anthropological theme.

    It happens all the time.

    On one hand, I do understand why western chef is the one making the meal in question (if it's his show, he's the star, like it or not, so ok, let him prepare the meal). Also, it can be a way (in theory) to learn something new about a foreign culture.

    But the way it's used... It's just pointless and it feeds people's stereotypes about "Asian" (one, uniform) culture. They all look alike, don't they? They are all so cute and exotic! OMG, an exotic, Oriental meal!

    That doesn't help human understanding.

    On the other hand, everybody would be sooooooo pissed if some Korean or Nigerian chef made an European dish, mixing Hungarian, Russian, French and British cousine.