Mass media covered every detail of US President Donald Trump’s recent trip to Asia, from what he said and didn’t say, to his wife Melania’s dresses, and to the meals served to him.
Which got me thinking about how important food has become, even creating a specialization called food journalism, complete with their own Association of Food Journalists, described as “a professional organization dedicated to preserving and perpetuating responsible food journalism across media platforms.” The key word there is “professional,” complete with a code of ethics.
You might have guessed by now: Food journalists are also known as food critics, sampling eating places from grand fine dining restaurants to corner eateries, and writing up their reviews for the different media platforms. Some of the critics are feared for their power to make or break a restaurant with their reviews.
Food journalists are supposed to be independent and objective, their reviews preferably made on meals they paid for. But with the advent of new media, especially, there have been breaches not of food etiquette but of food journalism ethics, with allegations sometimes by food critics against food critics of KBL (kami’y bayad lang) reviews.
Writing food reviews seems to be a fun, and fattening, way of making a living, but more serious food journalists go beyond meal reviews. Many now analyze the way food cultures, particularly food tastes, are evolving. I particularly liked a recent article, “Asian-American Cuisine’s Rise, and Triumph” by Ligaya Mishan, a Filipino-American who also has a column, “Hungry City,” in The New York Times.
Here’s a luscious quote on how the American palate is changing, which she says now craves for ingredients like the “briny rush of soy; ginger’s low burn … Palm sugar, velvet to cane sugar’s silk. Coconut milk slowing the tongue … Thai bird chilies that immolate everything they touch.”
I should say now you wouldn’t find universities offering degree programs in food journalism. I suspect some food journalists are probably not even journalism or mass communications majors, but may have taken a degree in the social sciences. Anthropology, after all, has a whole subfield of anthropology of food and nutrition, looking at how cultures adapted to their environment with the foods to eat, the ways of preparing the food, and all the symbolism and rituals that go with cooking, serving and eating, and even the history of food ingredients and of meals themselves.
The coverage of Trump’s meals in Asia offer still another take from the social sciences: political gastronomy or the power relations of hosts and guests, of cooks and diners.
From the beginning of Trump’s trip, journalists speculated on how his hosts in each country would deal with Trump’s notoriously conservative food tastes, his favorite food said to be steak with tomato ketchup.
The Chinese, Japanese and Koreans can be excruciating with food etiquette so it wasn’t surprising they tried to accommodate Trump’s “simple” (I use the word in a more negative sense) food preferences.
In Japan, following a golf game with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump was served a US Angus beef burger from a Tokyo hamburger shop. At another meal, his hosts decided they could get him to go Japanese at Ginza Ukai-Tei, a teppanyaki grill restaurant. The state dinner in Akasaka Palace had more Japanese food but nothing too extraordinary. We could say the Japanese were being cautious.
South Korea was bolder with a meal served at the presidential palace. There was grilled beef ribs with 360-year-old soy sauce. Now that’s so East Asian: Guests are honored by meals steeped with ingredients that are old and revered. I don’t know though if Trump appreciated the old soy sauce.
The controversy wasn’t in the soy sauce though, but in the prawns that had come from off the coast of Dokdo Island, whose waters are disputed by Japan and South Korea. Not only that. Invited to that presidential meal was a woman who had survived World War II as a comfort woman. Japan protested.
In China, Trump was treated to grand Chinese political opera, and I mean it literally and figuratively. At the Forbidden City, closed to the public during his visit, there was a Peking opera performance, as well as a tour of three of the compound’s main areas, strategically chosen of course: the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony.
Food didn’t figure prominently, the Chinese hosts perhaps at a loss on how to get political capital with meals for a hamburger man. The grandest meal was, well, simple: stewed beef steak in tomato sauce (see the attempt to come close to his favorite food?), kung pao chicken (one of the more familiar foods from Chinese-American restaurants, although historians dispute the American version’s authenticity), seafood chowder and a coconut-based chicken soup. The Chinese served local wine and one journalist reported the Riesling was going on the online shopping site Tmall for $30 a bottle, nothing close to 360-year-old soy sauce.
Finally, the Philippines. I’m proud we didn’t infuse politics into the gala dinner. Prepared by Chef Jessie Sincioco, the menu does tell us something about where we are, or should be now, with Filipino hospitality, as shown by what we serve presidents and prime ministers.
Let me give you the English version first and see if you can tell what they are in Filipino: 1) heart of palm and Malabar spinach salad with tamarind vinaigrette dressing; 2) soured red snapper in miso broth; 3) slices of grilled US black Angus beef tenderloin marinated in soy-calamansi with sushi rice and caramelized onion rings; 4) charcoal-grilled apahap fillet with tomato-mango sambal and, for dessert, Filipino caramel flan.
Let’s go now for the Filipino names. The first was ensaladang ubod at alugbati; yes, now you can point to the Malabar spinach growing in your backyard. The second is sinigang na maya-maya sa miso. (A quip later.) The third is nice, short, proletarian: bistek sushi. Diners did have a choice between that and the apahap, which was not translated but that is our equivalent of sea bass. Finally, for dessert, not quite leche flan but budin.
It’s a simple (and I use the word in a positive sense) menu, evolved and modern Filipino, no political meanings as far as I can tell unless you want to read something into the red snapper (no yellow?). I was impressed though, and it’s a menu I’m sending to our College of Home Economics’ hotel and restaurant department with a note: Look at what you can do with ubod, alugbati and apahap.
No reports on how much Trump ate, and what he thought of the food. Or was he too busy listening to the music.
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