Defining American food is tough. America prides itself for its diversity and the same applies for its food. International influences are not only seen in their demographics but their food culture as well. From Mexican Enchiladas to Indian Biryani, American eateries offer it all, which puts the identity of popular American food in murky waters which makes it hard for a newbie to identify authentic food that defines America.
Fast, canned and greasy were the words tailored for American food, in my head. America offered more, much more.
America offered me Perspective.
Upon landing in Philadelphia for a long 6 hour transit, I could not help but enter the food court. The first place that struck me as truly ‘American’ was Wendy. I had always imagined how a big juicy American Wendy burger would taste like. With high hopes, I waited for my Chicken Deluxe burger, but what a shame it was. A dry bun with a slab of meat was all it was. Then and there, I doubted my expectations.
I remembered one of the conversations I had.“I tell you, the worst part about being in a foreign land is staying away from the flavors of Nepali food. I miss it more than I miss you”, one of my friends, Anjila said over Skype, a few days before my flight. “It’s funny how I used to judge a restaurant on international standards. Or even compare our curries to the ones shown on TLC. A universal standardization for food can only work in a world where pigs will fly.”
Do you realize how magazines rate restaurants? From the largest restaurants to the smallest of takeaway cafes, from Thakalis to Chinese eateries, everything is rated on a scale. I ask how. How can one compare two entirely different tastes on the same scale? Haritha Thilakarathne, a Microsoft Student Partner from Srilanka, says, “It would be funny to compare sea food cooked in a land locked country like Nepal to the one cooked in islands of Srilanka. The basis of the dish; the meat itself will be different. It might both be a delightful treat but it is still wrong to simply compare on a vague basis.”
Taste is a sensation of flavor perceived in the mouth which befits differently to different people. Generalization is utterly wrong when it comes to food.
American food is more than just sandwiches.
Not that I would complain, I love sandwiches. Apart from hundreds of sandwich options, America does have more to it.
After one of our American facilitator, Tom Lang handed over a S’more to Chaminie Nanayakkara from Srilanka, she took a bite and chew in slow motion with her eyes closed, like the way we see in movies and with a slight smile on her face said “This is life changing.” For this, she still gets teased. S’mores is an abbreviation for ‘some more’ because you just can’t have enough of them. Who knew roasted marshmallows squished between graham crackers with a bar of chocolate could be such a delight? Gooey, sweet and warm, nothing evokes camping under the stars as this American food does.
I personally loved the way Americans cook fish, especially salmon. With a hint of white pepper and a dash of salt, fresh salmon cuts are smoked to perfection for one to enjoy. Salmon is one of the most loved and preferred fish produces all over America. I can’t agree more.
They have got chips, they have got steaks, they have got cakes, they even have salads. The question is, do you still just want the sandwiches?
America was a See-saw.
Just like a see-saw, my ‘Eating America’ experience had its thrilling highs and saddening lows. First week was not a good one. Wrong decisions not only emptied my pockets but my appetite as well. With a huge land cover, the States has undoubtedly covered many regions which have their own regional delights. But, not everything is as delightful.
“You don’t like pretzels? What kind of a person does not like pretzels?” 11 year old Wnysome Burke, one of the daughters of my host family, asked me astonishingly. I would react similarly if someone would refuse Lapsi ko Titaura. Mexican dinner nights would trouble me more than other. And I doubted my love for cheese when we had nothing but Mac and Cheese everyday for lunch. Everything was sweet, even fried chicken. I had started looking at food with a skeptical lens.
Then, came in Sishkaberry! Sounds familiar? Take Sishkabab and replace the ‘bab’ with berry. It literally is a stick full of strawberries dipped in chocolate with whipped creams and sprinkles. It tastes as good as it sounds. Corn on hub also can be called ‘poleko makai’ though is the simplest thing to make is one of the best things to eat there.
“You have not eaten American food if you haven’t eaten Curly Fries” said Kailyn Stewart, on the annual food fest, Bite Of Seattle. “And hey, it resembles your hair too”, she added. And I ate it with guilt but with pleasure. They are French fries but all curled up. They are calorie bombs all right, but it is one thing that can’t be missed.
From smoked Salmon to sun dried tomatoes, from pan fried pizzas to Buffalo wings, America, could be heaven for a foodlover. But hey! One needs to make the right choices.
Simply put, American food is not the most flavorsome food.
“Does no one use chilly here? My food needs chilly, not pepper.” said Dipendra K.C, after eating a spoonful of a bland curry. This is the most recurring complaint I heard throughout the trip.
With hundreds of spices like tamarind, chili flakes or pepper used around South Asia, our palate is at ease with food with spices. This is why we fail to get accustomed with bland food with nothing but salt. This drives majority of Asians crazy in the initial phase of their dining. The only dominating flavor is the sweetness or the acidity of the food and this is the toughest part about eating American food.
“For a guy who has been raised in a culture where dinner is incomplete without a zesty pickle, it was extremely agitating to gobble down tasteless food. But that is the way it is. In the States, they don’t have the same culture. So, despite our difficulties, we should acknowledge the fact that we can’t just disrespect the food we are being served. ” adds K.C.
But America had coffee. And coffee made bonds.
“Muted with oil, the tumbling beans become eerily silent. A master roaster watches, knowing that if he pushes them a second too long, they will burst into flame. White smoke hangs down as the glistening beans turns ebony. This is French Roast”, states one of the coffee packets at Starbucks.
I met people who cannot function without a strong steamy cup of coffee. And boy, I tell you, it is different from coffee here. Way too bitter, for me. But with time, it tasted better. Seattle is the home of the first Starbucks and alongside it stands many other coffee houses. Like every other corner in Nepal has a chiya pasal, there is a Starbucks at every other street in the States. Over a cup of tea, we discuss our family issues, relationship troubles and our life decisions in Nepal.
Labisha Uprety says, “I don’t go to coffee houses for the coffee really; unless it’s a really rainy day and I’m stuck in traffic. Meeting at cafes is all about the idea; the atmosphere the aroma fosters. I usually am a chiya person but while chiya seems to give birth to politics, coffee nurtures romance and long conversations on just about anything.”
Coffee bonds Americans in the same peculiar manner. American theatre artist, Ben Atherton Zeman shares, “Meeting people over coffee is a social thing. It’s not about the coffee so much as being with people you love.”
People say everything is big in America. They are right!
“I had a preconceived notion that Indians eat huge proportions of food without any consciousness about their diet.” says Mitali Rathod, a resident of Goa. “But after experiencing the American Food Culture, I can’t say the same.” she states. Just like Mitali, every other new folk in the States might feel overwhelmed by the proportion of food they get.
Unlike us who experience buffets only in ceremonies, American cafeterias and restaurants do have a widespread system of buffet meals. A 10$ bill can get you an array of multiple appetizers, couple of main dishes, plenty of deserts and drinks to go with it. For a famished one, such American restaurants are in no way less than a heaven.
“The French fries and drinks are floatless, Ma’m!” declares our server at the Red Robin, Seattle. ‘Floatless’ is one aspect of the American eateries that fascinated Saifullah Muhammad. If any food or beverage is declared floatless, the customer gets a free refill of that as long as he wants. “How awesome is this? This is what I call value of money”, he says, pointing at his (third time) newly filled glass of lemonade.
America is diverse. So is their food.
With people having complete or partial lineage from Japan, Mexico, India or even Brazil, America is home to many. Diverse population gives rise to diversity in food, flavors and fondness levels. From lip smacking salsa with burritos to delicate sushis, Americans have modified their eating preferences over time which shows great acceptance of international food in the American food culture.
“If there is one thing I miss about America, it is the variety of cuisines we could choose from. Every other street had restaurants serving food inspired from various parts of the world. From Ethiopian to Greek, you name it, America had it all. Every dinner was a new adventure as there was so much to try. Despite some of it being the worst food choices in my life, it was all worth it.” says Saifullah Muhammad, a Kathmanduite. “Here, I am bored. Every restaurant has the same thing to offer. Despite its great taste, the monotony of the food in Kathmandu repels me.”, he adds.
The five week long trip taught me more about the world than my five semesters in college. I just didn’t meet people from all around the world, I felt as if I had just been all over the globe. Everyone had their own story to tell. Many of them illustrated their story through their food. Joshlyn’s batch of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies reflected the warmth America holds. Charlie’s barbeque parties demonstrated authenticity that is still intact. Catherine with her empty snack packets always showed generosity. Food shows qualities that the person holds, food shows us how the people are.
Apart from being a nourisher, food is a bond that connects people. Food on a plate has a story to tell. It takes us on a journey. It sometimes leaves a footprint in our heart. It even leaves a legacy. Be it here or there, food clearly casts magical spells.
(Image Credits(in this article); emdee photography, unless stated otherwise)