Two years ago, I had decided and announced that I wouldn’t comment on the Rubberman’s annual award of macarons to eateries in Hong Kong. I have also grown tired of discussing why the annual World's 50/100 Best list by Restaurant Magazine/San Pellegrino is ludicrous and Euro-centric. So when the first Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants from the same people came out a few weeks ago, I barely took an interest and mostly watched the internet traffic flew by. I’ve been busy at work, and already spending more than enough of my spare time filling this space with material.
Then yesterday something caught my attention on Facebook. Fellow blogger Tom posted a screen shot of a comment he had received in response to something he wrote, and the comment was simply appalling, to say the least. No, it was idiotic, ridiculous, and pure, unadulterated RACISM. My blood was boiling within a matter of seconds upon reading this person’s comments. I got so worked up that I asked Tom for the link to the full article, which appeared on the Wall Street Journal’s blog, so I could read his work in its entirety and also all the responses that came along.
While there may be a couple of points I may take issues with, I largely agree with Tom’s point of view. No, I am not Korean, nor am I an expert on Korean food or culture. However, I have travelled enough to Korea on business, count many Koreans (both in and outside Korea) as friends, and have even had cooking lessons on Korean cuisine – enough to have more than a glimpse into that culture. And since I am the Arrogant Prick, yes, I do think I’m qualified to give an opinion.
There are always going to be people who bitch and moan about “how come there are no restaurant from [insert city] on the list?!” Well, as with any other “definitive” list, this one is inherently flawed. The people on the voting panel – and there are many – have historically been Euro-centric. The restaurants from Asia that have shown up on the World’s 50/100 Best list in the past have traditionally been serving non-Asian cuisine, or Asian cuisine which have had influences from the West, with modern techniques and/or use non-traditional ingredients. And let’s not forget that this list is about fine dining – and therefore non-food criteria such as service, ambiance, wine lists can come into play.
In many Asian cities where one can find excellent local food, there is a dearth of restaurants which fall into the “fine dining” category – especially when we’re talking about cuisines that are not indigenous. In a recent text message I sent, I called my hometown of Taipei “a culinary wasteland.” Of course that’s a harsh statement, but it is absolutely true when one looks at anything other than cheap, local fare or Japanese fare. Other than Japanese cuisine and a handful of French restaurants, “fine dining” doesn’t exist in Taipei. I cannot even find a handful of Chinese restaurants - regardless of their regional specialty, be it Cantonese, Taiwanese, Shanghainese… - that I would consider to be fine dining by my standards. I doubt many (if any) of the voting panel has ever been to L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Taipei. No surprise that Taipei is missing from the party.
Similarly, cities such as Beijing and Seoul…etc. are noticeably absent. The cities that make the list are Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai – the most cosmopolitan and “worldly” in Asia. They are very much exposed to cultures other than their own, many through their relatively large expat communities. There is a community of diners who are sophisticated, well-travelled, well-versed in non-native cuisines, and perhaps most important of all – willing to pay top dollar for fine dining. Without this last crucial element, what you have would be cities like Taipei and Seoul, for example, where the local street food culture dominates and everything gravitates towards the "cheap and cheerful" lower end. I can't tell you how many people have told me that they "love the food in Taiwan", but how many of those have actually had good experiences with fine dining in Taipei? Probably none.
Some of the comments on Tom's piece bring up the issue of alcohol in the Korean dining culture, which I found interesting and completely agree with. From what I can see, the alcohol part of the Korean dining culture is a lot about drinking cheap alcohol to get drunk, and not about truly appreciating the taste of the alcohol. I have always referred to soju as "industrial rubbing alcohol", and consider it something vastly inferior to sake or wine. Years ago when I asked my Korean colleague why they drink poktanju (폭탄주) or tornados, the reply was that it was about get drunk cheaply and quickly - it was about efficiency. When you have that mentality, then the lack of fine dining options in Korea is no longer a surprise… as fine wine and fine dining do go hand-in-hand.
The most interesting comment - which brought my blood to a boil - was the one from "Hyun-so Han". I'm lifting that part and highlighting it here: