Death by soy sauce

by Gautam Raja

In an earlier column I was annoyed, as I often am, about a certain kind of restaurant—one that’s run by business people rather than food people. These establishments leave you feeling cheated—having given the bare minimum that was promised, and yet charged as if you’d been served lovingly handcrafted artisanal food.

There’s another class of mediocre restaurant that’s common—the Indo-Chinese or pan-Asian places, often run by people who like and know their food, and yet are little misguided. Let’s first deal with the proliferation of “pan-Asian” and this insecure fear of specialisation. Why does a Vietnamese restaurant (in name, branding, décor and statement of purpose) have swathes of Thai dishes on the menu, with some Malaysian and Indonesian ones thrown in for luck? It feels almost offensive (“Do they all taste the same to you?”), and I think the very concept of “pan-Asian” or “inspired by the flavours of Asia” is such culinary sloth.

Once your restaurant is pan-Asian, there’s no need to immerse yourself in the food and culture of a country. You need just appropriate the main ingredients and the generic cooking methods. These restaurants typically hammer home big flavour above all, but don’t always focus on well-cooked, authentic or balanced food. Dishes come groaning under a mix of powerful ingredients: soy sauce, fish sauce, rice wine vinegar, oyster sauce, garlic, galangal, Thai basil, chillies and chilli sauce. Give these ingredients to even a monkey to mix and you’ll get an edible—even tasty—marinade or cooking sauce. So why is a chef needed over a simian? Because there’s a little bit more to food than big flavour—what of textures, balance (of dish and of meal), authenticity (to itself first, then to a stated cuisine—if any), and quality of cooking and ingredients?

Hand a good chef powerful ingredients and you’ll find them seeking balance—the heavy base of the sauces rounded out by the more heady spices. The dense umami offset by a lighter sweet and sour. A well-balanced Thai or Vietnamese sauce seems to shimmer on the tongue, with the taste buds all firing so you’re never sure whether what you’re tasting is primarily sweet or sour or salt. There’s a good ratio of marinade or sauce to the main ingredient, and if a gravy, it’s appropriately dialled down to not drown out everything else in the dish.

But after a meal at these “pan-Asian” places, I can feel the stomach roiling from all the heavy sauces, and the raging thirst coming on from all the sodium ingestion. The tongue feels coated, and my entire tasting centre feel exhausted. What’s especially tiring is that the meal itself has no balance. Almost every dish on the menu is similarly slathered and burdened, so it’s hard to get that merry mix at the table where the stewed, sauced meats are countered by, say, the crunchy lightly poached or steamed Chinese greens with a minimum of dressing, or the cool, nearly bland cabbage soup.

And so, just like those restaurants that are run by business-only people, you come away feeling cheated. The chef has taken a safe route and in doing so, hasn’t trusted himself, his ingredients, his staff, and most importantly, his customers. A bottle of soy sauce or hoisin or oyster is a wonderful thing, but doesn’t make a cuisine; not any more than sprinklings of curry powder make Indian food. This heavy handedness is the opposite of what happens to Asian cuisines in the West, but the assumptions are the same, and the meals have the same overhanging flavour of the spinelessness of the chef that created them.

First published in Gulf News, September 3, 2013