When Foodspotting launched in early 2010, one of our goals from the get-go was to help demystify restaurant dishes and to answer the question "What to order?" With over 15,000 dish recommendations being added to Foodspotting each week, we're excited to say we're on our way to achieving that goal.
But what about those other befuddling moments one has at a restaurant? When eating sushi, do you add wasabi to the soy sauce or leave it out; should mozzarella be served cold or at room temperature; is it rude to put elbows on the table; what's in a Cubano, anyway? And the list goes on...
Imagine our glee, then, when we were introduced to food writer Danyelle Freeman's new book Try This: Traveling the Globe Without Leaving the Table, which promises to hold your hand from the first course to the last. Part restaurant guide, part food history, part social studies - we really enjoyed it, especially the nifty inserts on everything from table manners to diners' rights to dating etiquette.
We love the focus on different cuisines in Try This and that you use signature dishes to tell the story of each. What were some dishes that really surprised you in the way they're made or how they originated?
I was surprised by the humble origins of most culture’s foods. So many great
dishes have humble beginnings, like France’s coq au vin, Italy’s brodetto fish
soup, or Spain’s paella. These humble dishes climbed the social ladder and
eventually made their way onto menus at fancy and formal restaurants.
But I was most surprised to discover that Pad Thai is likely not Thai at all. It was first introduced to Thailand by Vietnamese traders, but didn’t become popular
until centuries later. In an effort to boost the economy, the government passed
out pamphlets to street vendors detailing how to produce rice noodles and dishes
to use them in, including recipes for pad thai.
How would you introduce your book to someone picking it up for the first time?
Try This is a modern guide to dining out in the 21st century. I think of it as a cheat sheet to everything from British food to Italian, Thai, Vietnamese and everything in between -- a food manual of sorts. It's really for anyone who's ever had a question about a menu or looked down at the plate in front of them and wondered what they were about to eat.
Can you tell us about three dishes that turned you on to food or certain cuisines?
Ooh, that’s a great question. I’d say Tom Kha really convinced me of the virtues of Thai food. It’s a traditional spicy soup with galangal root and the glorious
addition coconut milk. Let me tell you: Anything with coconut milk is better for
it. It’s luscious, fragrant, and makes everything taste exotic – sticky rice, curries,
noodles, custards... I could go on forever.
For me, Korean BBQ particularly galbi (marinated short ribs) was the real gateway drug into Korean cooking. I’m obsessed with the tender short rib meat and the way the sweet soy marinade caramelizes when it hits the grill, sealing in the flavor of the meat. There’s something about Korean bbq that brings out the feminine, delicate side of meat.
I always appreciated Mexican, but I didn’t really get hooked until I tasted
posole. Like most people, I’d fallen into the habit of ordering the usual, eating on auto-pilot so to speak -- guacamole and chips, chicken or fish tacos, a tamale here and there. It’s like we’re blind to the other side of the menu. And then, I discovered posole. Posole is a chicken and hominy soup, enriched with oregano, onions, garlic, chiles with plenty of raw garnishes to add as you eat. When I get sick now, I’d much rather have posole than chicken soup. And mole! I’m preoccupied with mole negro, preferable on chicken, but I’ll take it anyway I can get it.
You're visiting a city you've never been to before. What is your food attack plan?
It’s pretty intense, bordering on obsessive. I don’t want to miss some sleeper
spot that’s fallen under the radar or a fantastic hole-in-the-wall. I don’t want
to get back home only to stumble upon some article raving about a place I
overlooked. I lose sleep over that kind of thing. So I do tons of research, online,
magazines, travel books, food discussion groups. I email chefs, writers, foodie
friends, well-traveled acquaintances, whomever I can get my hands on.
What's one dish that you recommend we try right NOW?
Find the nearest robata, which essentially is Japanese grill cooking over an open fire. A robatayaki (robata grill) is a little like dinner theater, a meal everyone should experience once in their life. Walk into a robatayaki and the staff bows and greets you with a warm (and loud) welcome. Grab a seat at the robata counter, so you can watch the robata chefs work over the charcoal grill and deliver your dinner on long, wooden paddles. Order anything and the entire staff shouts out your order. There’s usually a good luck ceremony that diners participate in and sometimes a mochi pounding ceremony where you get to eat just-made mochi.
"Try This" is out today. Stop by your nearest bookstore to pick up a copy or order here.