14 February 2009

Sino Italo Bistro

Henry Yang Shigang was a freshman in Heze University, Shandong province when I first arrived as an ESL teacher in the PRC. He and his close classmate Owen liked to pull me aside me during classbreaks in the hallway and chat informally. More casual conversations often occurred this way than in the classroom. My feeling at the time was that each student wanted his own foreigner to speak English with privately. It annoyed me, especially during the long empty silences while I tried to lead a lesson, but it seemed better than the absolute silence that I encountered with some students. I was frequently asked about how to study English better, how to get a good accent, and sometimes, how to find a good job. It didn’t take me long to realize that the answers to such question would not come from studies at Heze University. When Henry asked me what he ought to do for his future, I told him to strongly consider leaving that school and finding another means to make his own path.

I don’t know what about Henry’s character and family background enabled him to consider and then to follow my advice. He himself sought out an agency to find him employment in Singapore and negotiated with his parents to fund the venture. Chinese parents tend to be conservative and they are inclined to help their children attain the highest level of education possible. For about the past 30 years and throughout most of Chinese history, a high education was as much a mark of status as a means of class advancement. The present state of Chinese education has undone most of this historical pattern. And to be honest, while most Chinese students know that they are not learning anything in their universities, many feel entitled to enjoy the break in their studying regimen and more sadly, they are often incapable of making decisions on their own. They do not learn critical thinking skills that could help them escape their own educational downfall.

Henry is different, but in some ways he is simply smarter about being himself. While he wants what most all of his peers want, he is better at breaking from the crowds of who want to achieve the same goals and by doing so in lockstep diminish the likelihood of successful outcomes. We were not able to meet on my first visit to Singapore. He had decided without telling me that he would upgrade his working conditions. To do this he needed to return to China and reapply for a work visa. When we finally met, he had been working in his second job there for about three months as a waiter in an Italo bistro.

During our first meeting outside his native China, we strolled near where he worked at his first job. He started out his career, working in a kitchen located in a museum in a former colonial structure that has been annexed to accommodate films, multimedia exhibitions, and live performances. We sat down and enjoyed coffee and a slice of the lime cheesecake, lounging on frameless chairs. He gave an invitation to go a nightclub to meet a colleague on the eve of the lunar new year. There I met Jek, the name he goes by in Singapore. He holds a degree in food and beverage management from a college in the Philippines. It was he who finally urged Henry to invite me for lunch at the restaurant.

I wanted to arrive as early as possible since I needed to be at the Zhangyi airport by midafternoon. I arrived with a good friend by taxi, suitcases in tow. The restaurant is located in Rochester Park, a former residential retreat on a thickly treed hill that has been converted into a series of upscale restaurants. I arrived and Henry offered me a cappuccino and I looked around the otherwise empty restaurant. The kitchen was open to the elements as were the majority of table settings. A plate glass roof littered with fallen leaves covered where we were seated.

The menu was typical Italo food, the international amalgamation of the various regional cuisines: pizza, pasta, and prosciutto. We started with a platter of antipasti misti. There were all the ingredients that made it look like a dish that people who had not closely studied Italian cuisine might feel comfortable identifying as authentic. There were slices of melon wrapped with shaved ham, roasted bell peppers (thankfully peeled), a slice of eggplant and another of zucchini both bearing light grillmarks but unsalted. There was a handful of salad of wild rocket, a tougher version of the more delectable arugula. I have grown this type of green and while it is a true Italian green, it does not serve itself well as a fresh salad green. There was a pesto and a drizzling of oil over the assembly. The oil was pomace grade and the pesto seemed to be made of parsley or some other bitter green, perhaps more of the wild rocket. Lacking garlic, pinenuts, parmiggiano, or salt for that matter, it was insipid and added little more than extra calories to the dish. There were two mozzarella balls that had been frozen and for some inexplicable reason, the plate also contained a few slices of preserved pink salmon slices.

I had ordered a glass of the house red and asked Henry to bring it with the pizza. An Australian Shiraz arrived just before the pizza. It had a pleasant nose that was not enhanced by the diminutive wineglass that it was served in, yet it was overoaked and needed time to regain its composure. I accepted Henry’s recommendation for the pizza selection. It arrived with a minimal crust: marina sauce, loads of shaved ham, baby shiitake, and white cheese. The restaurant had just acquired Italian pizza ovens and Henry told me that the staff was still learning how to use them. They were placed behind an exterior wetbar on the adjoining patio. Good baked bread is hard to find in Asia, European bread, that is, bread with a crust that requires chewing and that has flavor from multiple risings. The weakness seems to be the lack of hard wheat flour in the doughs. In an effort to compensate for the low quality bread, the headchef seems to have decided to overload the toppings. It was essentially tomato sauce with meat and cheese on a big round cracker. In fact, I have tasted worse pizza in mainland China.

Pizza has become an international dish, and being so it has been homogenized and reinterpreted by local tastes and foreign economic forces. I now forget which of the owners of the restaurant and the associated specialty food outlets throughout Singapore, the husband or the wife is the Italian. But it really doesn’t matter since having left the homeland, and abandoning the guidelines of whichever regional cuisine, generations of Italians have let the local market inevitably determine the outcome. This restaurant would fail in short order in any corner of the Italian peninsula, yet in Singapore, the palette of the overworked office workers and locals pressed for time seems to be happy with something different for dinner.

The same process occurred in the US as Italian immigrant families opened their restaurants and focused on what they needed to do to be successful. Any emigrant might have been a stonemason or a peasant back in Palermo and had only heard of Neapolitan pizza by name, but after being processed through Ellis Island, he could open a restaurant with his whole family and serve whatever dishes the local residents thought of as Italian. He didn’t need to claim it was authentic; the less the diners knew, the happier they could be as they ate their spaghetti and meatballs with imitation parmesan cheese. The same process has taken place with Chinese cuisine with chop suey and fortune cookies, the most frequently cited examples of Chinese food invented in the USA to appeal to the local tastes and based on the locally acquired ingredients. I thought about this confluence of a Chinese emigrant and Italo foods as Henry asked whether I wanted to taste the housemade tiramisu for dessert. I accepted his earnest recommendation.

I cannot even say what a good tiramisu is supposed to be. There seem to be as many variations as pastry chefs with the ubiquitous in their repertoire. Henry was telling me that most of the ingredients are shipped in from Italy. I don’t doubt that there are no nearby sources for mascarpone. This example had some kind of lady finger pastry that was apparently baked in a sheet. It was layered with cocoa powder and covered with finely grated bittersweet chocolate. Bitterness predominated since the mascarpone has not been flavored with anything else and after asking what sort of coffee liqueur was used, it was explained to me that simple coffee was used to soak the base. It was an interesting end to the meal, but both my dining partner and I had little trouble leaving behind the better half.

Cocktail Complexion

China seems to have become newly tapped market for olive oil exporters. Its main selling point seems to be its exoticism. The allure ties in with the general notions applied in TCM wherein the more distant an item’s provenance, the higher its price, and consequently the more ‘medical’ its value. In a new market and one with a fast growing urban middleclass, there is a lot of overpriced olive oil available, much of it is low grade pomace that is extracted chemically and after all the other more desirable grades have been expressed. I don’t know just how much olive oil has entered the Chinese diet. The most common vegetable oil for homecooking is soybean as it has been for centuries. Olive oil as a skin emollient, however, is becoming extremely popular and as any marketer knows, it is only necessary to put something in a little bottle and declare the contents therein able to make a woman more beautiful in order to charge a very high price. I have come across a few closet boutiques selling nothing but little bottles of the stuff with exotic looking labels.

Even though I came across this display in Singapore of a Korean label promoting its olive oil based product, I think it serves an example of how the olive is still regarded as an exotic fruit, one for which it is necessary to resort to an image of a fancy cocktail stuffed with pimento as the best known icon.