HOME > Chowhound > General Topics >
Sep 24, 2006 06:37 PM

Why keep eating the same ethnic dishes?

I don’t like Indian and Thai food.

BORING ! – Chicken Tiki Masa, red, yellow green curries. pad thai, papaya salad, etc, etc

And the thing is, most of these dishes aren’t very good in the first place. How did they get so popular? It’s like the old days in Chinese cuisines where with two you get egg roll and sweet and sour pork.

Someone recently wrote about a sublime green curry, but you have to eat a lot of mediocre green curry to get there.

I’m sort of having fun right now looking for items on the menu that I don’t see elsewhere.

Most of the time, that is the dish that is the best thing at that restaurant. However, even the spectacular failures ... and I’m talking about the memorably horrible Nicaraguan boho ... are interesting, sometimes funny and entertaining... and at the least give you something to kvetch about. I've gotten years of mileage out of that dish.

Ironically at the same place and same dinner, I had one of the most memorably great tastes in my life, pitahaya, a mind-blowing tasty and beautiful ruby-colored drink made from dragon fruit.

Most of the time ethnic food isn’t that expensive, so if it is a taste disaster, order something else.

I regret all the years I spent order broccoli beef in Chinese restaurants when after I started following Chowhound I found there were so many wonderful and amazing Chinese foods.

And if the lesser known stuff doesn’t get ordered, the restaurant has no reason to expand. The interesting stuff gets cut.

There’s a great Chinese restaurant near me, Lily’s, that is struggling to stay alive because everyone orders the same old, same old and rarely bothers with the regional specialties they excel at. In fact the restaurant doesn't push these dishes because they think no one wants them.

And by ethnic, I’m including everything that isn’t burgers and steak. How much lasagna and coq au vin can one eat anyway?

However, when I’m eating my own cuisine, Polish, I do stick with the comfort dishes for me like pierogi. When I’m brand new to a cuisine, right now that is Bolivian, I’m going to go for the most ordered dishes like, in this case, salteñas, one reason being all of the restaurants in my area ... a whopping two ... have that on the menu and I can compare.

But I seems like a vicious circle ... we order the same things over and over ... the restaurants say ‘aha’ that’s what they want ... we get the same old boring stuff.

So, two questions:

1. What less common dish have you ordered that knocked your socks off ... or was a spectacular failure?

2. If you don’t stray from the tried and true ... why not ... money considerations ... fear of the unknown?

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. well first of all, papaya salad is NOT boring. At least the version they serve at Lotus of Siam in Vegas is NOT boring. neither is a well-prepared pad thai, IMO.

    but to answer your second question: How can you order what you don't know? If its not on the menu, and you know nothing about the cuisine, you are at the mercy of the restaurant. If they think it'll suit your taste and have it on your menu, you can order it. So things that are "boring" are made so to suit their idea of what your taste should be.

    I think the solution is to seek out people of the various ethnicities and make friends with them. Offer to take them out to their favorite restaurants. You may discover places you never knew existed. Better yet, find a way to eat in their homes. I GUARANTEE you the Indian food you eat in my house will be different than what you've eaten in Indian restaurants. Come on up sometime and find out :-)

    6 Replies
    1. re: janetofreno

      I agree - a good green papaya salad is actually very exciting - the unique texture of the papaya, bite of the chillies, salt from the little dried shrimps and brightness of lime. In all of New York City, I've only found one place that makes it well. I find that most Thai (and Vietnamese) restaurants I've tried put way too much sugar in the salad which ruins it. Then they throw in unnecessary ingredients such as beef.

      1. re: chowmeow

        One of my favorite papaya salads includes some little bits of dried beef.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          Clearly this is a mutant papaya salad. If you ask for beef in your papaya salad, you will insult the chef and you don't deserve to eat in a Thai rest...

          ...oh, sorry, just got done posting on the sushi thread.

          I've never had beef in it, but bits of protein (dried shrimp, raw shrimp, blue crab, etc.) are common.

          1. re: Das Ubergeek

            Dried beef is not unusual in Vietnamese papaya salads. I've never seen it in the Thai version.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              ditto. there was a vietnamese place in NY which offered a very good papaya salad with bits of jerky in it - could have been pork or beef, I cant remember.

      2. re: janetofreno

        I just had a really good dryish, red Thai curry with chicken and Thai basil. It was thick, not soupy, and not boring at all.


      3. I never get bored with papaya salad or pad Thai but I don't always order them. I usually try at least one new dish every time I go to my favorite places.

        Last time I went to my favorite Thai place, we didn't have one dish we'd had before.


        1. Sometimes I keep trying the same dish because I'm looking for a great version of it. e.g. Thai curries, sweet and sour pork, tangerine beef. They not intrinsically bad dishes, but good versions require serious cooking that many places seem incapable of.

          1. My favorite Indian restaurant has a rotating menu of less common, panregional dishes. Consequently, although I eat Indian food at least once a month, I haven't eaten CTM or Lamb Vindaloo in years. Some of the better dishes I've had recently:

            Dhaniwal Murg Korma: This dish from Kashmir is named after 'Dhania', the Hindi name for cilantro, a major ingredient in the sauce. The sauce is green in color due to the use of cilantro. The fresh, herbaceous flavor makes it delightful for eating in summer. A very tasty dish with a sauce that tastes and looks very different from the yellow curry sauces normally associated with Indian cooking. (This stuff is incredible, and it's still on the menu).

            Goa Lamb Curry: Almost all the curry sauces in Indian dishes are made with a base of onions. This lamb curry from Goa has an unusual and very tasty sauce that does not use any onions. The sauce is made with tomatoes, coconut milk, ginger, and spices. Boneless cubed leg of lamb is simmered in this sauce until tender. Like most dishes in Goa, this dish is eaten hot.

            Vendaka Masala Pachdi: : From Tamilnadu. Fresh Okra is trimmed, sliced, sauted and then briefly cooked in a sauce made with onions, tomatoes, yogurt, coconut milk, urid dal, curry leaves and spices. The sauce is rich with a multitude of textures and flavors. The okra is cooked in a way that makes it not slimy.

            I'm happy I found an Indian restaurant that features such a diversity of options instead of the same, tired standards. It's fun to show at at the start of the month and find something new on the menu to experience.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Morton the Mousse

              I'd like to second your recommendatin of Goan Curries, well our favorite Indian restaurant labels them Goan curry I have no idea which is more correct Goa or Goan. At any rate we alternate between a Goan chicken curry and a Goan lamb curry and find them rich, velvety and the perfect foil for other spicy dishes.

              Personally, I don't find that ordering the same old dishes is a particular problem. I do sometimes hesitate to try certain dishes at mediocre Chinese American restaurants because some of what they offer is so sicky sweet and gloppy. But in a good Chinese restaurant I'll try anything!

              OTOH sometimes I become so taken with a dish that I just don't want anything else. One of the Korean restaurants we frequent makes a kimchi and pork bok um that I have never ordered anything else there!

              We have found that being friendly and inquisitive with your waiters and particularly with the owners can help you explore a menu. At some restaurants it can take time because they will steer your toward the most common dishes that they know will appeal to a broad American palate. But if you make yourself a regular a lot of restaurants will recognize your interest and suggest special dishes or even offer you items from the 'natives only' section of the kitchen!

            2. Goa is a region in India, so "Goan" would probably be the proper adjective.

              The whole idea of regional cooking brings out something I hinted at but didn't quite state properly: a country's cuisine (especially a large country like the US, India, or China) may vary considerably depending on the region. And one problem is that immigrants from a particular region tend to go into similar businesses for simple practical reasons: Someone immigrates and maybe starts a business, and then his brother comes to help, and his brother's friend, and so on and so forth, and pretty soon you have a whole community of folks from the same region with similar businesses. I could bet you $100 that if you ask someone from Gujurat if either they or someone in their family is in the hotel business that the answer would be yes, and I would probably win that bet. Which is fine, but unfortunately very few Gujuratis have gone into the restaurant biz. (Unfortunately because their food is excellent!) OTOH, most Indian restaurant owners in the US are from Northern India, with a few from Southern India. So if you walk into an Indian restaurant here, chances are you'll get a northern Indian menu.

              And of course, a country's cuisine can vary greatly depending on region. Southern and Northern Indian cooking is as different as say, the cooking of Minnesotta and New Orleans. (Maybe more so!) Even the natives of countries with a lot of regional variation will have their preferences, depending on where they were raised. My husband is from Gujurat, but he spent a lot of time in Southern India growing up, and has developed a strong liking for their food. If he is served Northern Indian food he invariably finds it too bland. And he would say that there is no way you can say all Indian food is "boring" based on northern Indian dishes such as Tikki masala. And he would be right.

              2 Replies
              1. re: janetofreno

                No, that wasn't my point at all with this post.

                My point was that too many people order the chicken tiki masala and don't explore the menus to find different items.

                In fact, Goan food is what got me started on this.

                Walking into that Indian Restaurant there was the choice of the standards: vindalo, saag, tandoori, biriyani ... in this area most of that, to my tastes, is not worth my time or calories.

                So, it becomes an adventure for me to look at a menu and find the different thing ... in this case the Goan dishes ... and chicken soup instead of the same dal drek ... and I'm sorry but I've only had one dal in my life that was earth-shaking.

                Then there was the lamb nan which isn't on all that many Indian restaurants around here.

                It's sort of playing "Where's Waldo" with menus.

                As far as papaya salad, like chowmeow mentioned, she had a very exciting one ... once ... and sure, there are some out there ... I personally have never found them ... but I've heard tell.

                Actually a few months back I used papaya salad as my Thai test dish. I tell you I have never been so bored in my life and that includes the touted Ruin Pair.

                So my point is why are these dishes popular whether it be CTM, or tangerine beef or papaya salad? Most of it is the worst representation of the cuisine.

                It's not an issue of ordering off the menu, but looking at the menu and ordering dishes not seen before. That, to me, has been the more interesting thing to do. It wasn't meant to dump on specific dishes or cuisines.

                Actually when you do that it starts a relationship immediately with the restaurant. You are not ordering the gringo special and I find I get better service and more advice than going for the green curry or pad thai.

                It's also often a good barameter for a restaurant. If they don't perk up when you order that different dish, usually something is wrong there.

                Then too, by not ordering the different, those dishes go away.

                There's a pizza place near me where the owner once ran an brilliant Brazilian restaurant that was even written up in Gourmet magazine. But boring, average pizza sells and no one takes chances on the Brazilian. The Brazillian part is going away.

                Another Brazilian Pizza joint just tanked and now we have yet another insipid place selling pizza.

                To his credit, a local food critic that I'm not usually fond of, sniffed out the Peruvian menu on a local mainly Mexican joint. The cook is from Peru, yet all that people order is the same burritos and tacos from the Mexican side of the menu.

                So the question was one of why not look beyond the obvious?

                If you've done that, what have you found?

                1. re: rworange

                  Papaya salad is not one of "the worst representations of the cuisine." Though som tam is Isaan, it is ubiquitous in Thailand and you will find Thais eating it all over the place. When made properly, it is a wonderful and typically Thai balance of salty, sweet, sour, and spicy.

                  Also, why do you care what other people order at restaurants? As long as there are choices that you perceive to be off the beaten path, what difference does it make to you what anybody else wants to eat? Some people like to know what they are getting in advance, and are not interested in experimentation every time they eat a meal out.