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Sep 29, 2007 10:15 AM

NOT coming to a restaurant near you! What foods never make it to restaurants -- and why?

I was trying to amuse myself this morning by compiling a list of places whose food you can't get in New York. Iceland, Paraguay, Oaxaca, Uganda, Bahrain, the list is far longer than I'd like to admit. And then I got to thinking, there must be kinds of foods and cuisines that are hard to find anywhere. Why?

So what styles of cuisine are underrepresented just about everywhere? In a word, REGIONAL. You can get great Pueblan food in NYC, and you lucky people on the West Coast can get great Oaxacan too. But Mexico has about fifty regions, and many of them have great recipes you just can't find here. . You can find lots of Moghul northern Indian food cooked by people from Bangladesh... but what about Hyderabad biryanis? Or the fabled coconut-laden food of the Jewish community of Kerala? China has far better regional representation than most, but there's a lot missing. Zhejiang, south of Shanghai, has FOUR great cuisines. Try to find even one. (One restaurant in Flushing, NY has Wenzhou dishes, but for Hangzhou, Ningbo and Shaoxing, fuggedaboudit.) Even regional American food is hard to come by outside of its own region, and often eve there. Take a look at some of the regional food faves listed on various posts on the General Topics Board -- goodies like chicken fried steak and various Cajun foods -- and see how many you can find where you live?

Why this lack? I think the main reason is, restaurant owners don't want to go bankrupt. If there are a lot of immigrants from north Ruritania, then there will be a restaurant serving north Ruritanian food. If there isn't this ready-made demand, then restaurants stick with the tried and true, crowdpleasers that are sure to succeed. Vaguely Tuscan favorites, in the case of Italian, with a few ragus thrown in. That's why Frank Bruni wrote that there must be an instruction manual for desiging upscale Italian restaurants, with strict instructions that require such dishes as branzino fileted tableside, and chicken cooked under s brick.

There must be other reasons too. Many cultures prefer home cooking. (I usually think, rightly or wrongly, of Indian and Mexican.) And a lot of regional cuisine is slowly (or not so slowly) dying. Why spend days making a peach pie from scratch when the kids prefer apple fritters from McDonald's? And, for similar reasons, what restaurants feature obscure cuisines often close. The NY Times reported the imminent closing of the only store in NY to sell homemade leaf-wrapped Chinese goodies. Why? Well, the owners work 15 hours a day and they are now old and tired. Their kids are doctors and lawyers and aren't going to give that up to step into the kitchen. Things change, tastes change, and old recipes die out.

Can you think of any other kinds of cuisine that are underrepresented in restaurants and why?

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  1. As someone of Greek ancestry, I'm astounded at the number of Greeks who have a hand in restaurant ownership across the country and either don't serve any Greek food, or serve a little and it's really poor quality and practically inedible. I have probably been to 20 Greek restaurants and they never seem to stay in business. Why? Because the food is by and large a) awful and b) really not how they'd make it in the old country.

    If you get a couple of good Greek cookbooks, those that describe real greek cooking, greek ingredients, etc., you'd be amazed. It's not all dried out pastitsio made with cheap meat (a dish I find disgusting) and gyros made from pressed/formed/heavily seasoned mystery meat. I think good Greek cuisine is dramatically and vastly underrepresented everywhere I've visited and lived.

    I don't think it's for lack of Greek immigrants, certainly, I just think it's sort of like the difference between American Chinese and traditional Chinese food - they're almost two completely different cuisines which only share a few of the same ingredients. The Greeks seem to crank out what is largely really bad "American Greek" food in many places, but it's not real greek food, nor is it any good.

    7 Replies
    1. re: rockandroller1

      This is interesting. Here's what Jim Leff wrote about Greek food in Astoria, New York City, in 2002. I am reproducing it rather than providing a link because it is in the middle of a huge post with 200 replies.

      Jim Leff writes:
      Fifteen years ago Astoria was a Greek wonderland. It was a thriving food scene. But gradually things changed:

      1. The original immigrants to the nabe (including all the good cooks and their most knowing clientele) started moving (or dying) out, and the second generation is never as interested in restaurant work (which is more attractive to immigrants) as their parents (old old story).

      2. The nabe lost its hermetic Greekness as many other groups started coming in, and this also reduced the magnetic attraction (or is it "weak force") keeping the community together.

      3. Zagat (and the rest of the press) pumped up a few places--mostly ones that had been reviewed before (and were conveniently close to the subways so they were obvious to outsiders and critics)--to the point where they were filled to the rafters with people who didn't know real Greek food (and so could be served food with many corners wouldn't believe the travesty of a meal I had at Elias Corner, which was once great, last year). The other places, already beset by problems finding chefs and clientele in this declining nabe, are withering.

      4. in light of above, anyone wanting to open a new greek restaurant must either appeal to the second generation kids (those few who haven't moved out) with flashy neon and stylish Greek inflected cooking (the only second generation in NY that broadly wants to eat their parent's style of cooking are the Filipinos in Woodside), or appeal to the gringo/zagat set via an Epcot sort of set-up with all the $$ going into the animatronic bouzouki players (yes, that's exaggerating). And they have no great old chefs to draw from. Any old places left in the dust by the Zagat--annointed restaurants who seek to get back in the game must do likewise. So they're all pandering or fizzling out, or both, and (may I restate this once more) there's no one left to cook; Stamatis has a lock on the one or two good guys (though it's russian roulette figuring out which branch they're in on any given night, or ordering dishes they didn't personally supervise).

      That's the short version. I've also typed up a long version, I think in our "articles and special reports" section.

      "There's a great 'middle' consistency to the Greek food there that seems to contrast the complaint about Indian, Italian, etc. Maybe no big stars, but for a few bucks at a random cafe, fantastic!"

      good point, and very well taken. There is a pretty sizeable number of not-terrible, fairly-authentic Greek places (which can't be said for a lot of other food types), and we'll miss them when they're gone...and they may be gone pretty soon. But they are the vestiges of a great empire, and I knew it at its full glory, so it's sad. I've never found in the past five years a single place in Astoria that makes 1. authentic Greek food 2. at a high level of quality 3. with reliable consistency (though you can find a handful of places that waver on any one of those variables). There used to be a dozen or so (maybe even more before my time).

      Jim Leff
      (the above was written by Jim Leff in 2002)

      1. re: Brian S

        In Tel-Aviv a few years ago, we found a restaurant on Dizengoff Street that specialized in Hungarian Blintzes. I've never seen them anywhere else.

        Also, in Austria, that spectacular dessert, Salzburger Nockerl, like a giant souffle served often on a board.

        1. re: Brian S

          thanks for that, Brian. Interesting.

          My father grew up in a pretty traditional Greek and Macedonian household and as a result, my Mom was forced to learn how to make a lot of foods of that ethnicity. Everything was made from scratch; my mother weekly made fresh bread and her own yogurt, I thought everyone's mother did this. It was ANATHEMA in my home for someone to use "store-bought pita" (phyllo is referred to as "pita"; probably because it's used for 'pita' dishes like spanakopita, tyropita). You made it from scratch or you didn't make it. I remember my mom buying some from the store once and fighting with it while working with it, vowing to never buy it again.

          The only place we seem to get pretty good Greek food on a regular basis is the Greek festivals that take place each summer here (Cleveland area). We mark our calendars well in advance of the dates that each greek church has their festival, knowing which one excels more at which particular food (the 14th street fair has the best dolmas - grape leaves, etc). And though we know they cut corners there (I can taste that they use margarine instead of butter in the pita), it's about as good as it gets around here. We go to each festival at least twice and the lines are out the door every day, all day. I don't know why someone doesn't get a clue and open up a restaurant serving this food. Nobody but the "gringos" (for lack of a better word, don't know what they'd call a gringo in greek) is in line outside for the gyros, everyone in the know instead gets souvlaki, or is inside in line to get fish plaki, lemon-garlic roasted chicken, lemony potatoes, dolmas, greek meatballs, and pita (spinach and cheese, several of each please!) . Downed with a cold Greek beer and followed with cup of that wonderfully bitter, thick Greek coffee and a single pastry treat, it's one of the best meals of the year, almost like a summer Thanksgiving.

          1. re: rockandroller1

            That is wonderful. It reminds me a lot of people I've met in Oklahoma.

        2. re: rockandroller1

          Funny. I'm from Winston-Salem, NC. The restaurant industry there was long dominated by Greek immigrants, but only one place served anything resembling Greek food...

          1. re: rockandroller1

            I've said it before and I'll say it again: There is something in the genes of Greeks (and Turks) that washes all ability to cook well as soon as they are more than fifty miles from the old country. The absolute worst Greek food I have ever had was at a Greek Orthodox church's annual "Greek Festival." Annually I thought about offering cooking lessons to the ladies of the church before the festival!

            Unless I make it at home, I have never had a decent flaky piece of baklava (or kadaif) in this country. And where I live now, EVERY Greek restaurant I've tried so far (all five of them) make their tzatziki with sour cream. That is disgusting.

            Maybe there is a curse on all Greeks that once they leave their native soil, they can no longer cook. hmmmm... Wonder what would happen if Greeks emigrating took a box of native soil with them, like Dracula moving to London? Worth a try!

            1. re: Caroline1

              Cincinnati has it's own version of Greek culinary mutation. Greeks moved there - and created Cincinnati Chili parlors.

          2. As the last generation of French speaking millworkers dies off in New Hampshire, the restaurants that used to cater to them by serving tourtiere, gorton, salmon pie, poutine and chicken croquettes is fast disappearing too. When I moved here in 1994, there was a restaurant in downtown Nashua called the Modern--cigarette smoke hung heavy in the air, as did the quebecois. It's now a fancy chinese restaurant.

            1. You mentioned Bahrain in your opening paragraph. It is interesting that the Arabian Gulf countries (Bahrain, Saudi, Oman, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar etc) share a similar cuisine which is rarely, if ever, found in restaurants. Even within that region of the world it is practically impossible to find local cuisine anywhere outside of home kitchens. All of those countries have a huge variety of international restaurants serving up all manner of worldly treats, yet hardly ever the dishes of the nations themselves.

              4 Replies
              1. re: hrhboo

                Well, when I lived in Saudi Arabia (early 70's) there were NO restaurants. Period. All cooking was done in the home, and it was delicious. Unfortunately, much of it was based on seafood that we simply can't get here. Also, I don't think there's much of a goat craving here in the U.S., although I came to like it quite a bit. A lot of the food I had at people's houses in Riyadh had a distinct Ethiopian, or Yemeni, or Lebanese (most common) influence.

                1. re: pikawicca

                  Yes, goat is not a common menu item. Though in south Texas, you can get a nice cabrito near my mom's house in Harlingen.

                  1. re: pikawicca

                    There are tons of restaurants there now, unfortunately very few serving Saudi food. Saudi is such an enormous country that the local cuisine varies from region to region. Camel meat features prominently in many dishes, rarely seen elsewhere in the world.

                  2. re: hrhboo

                    I agree with this...I live in the UAE and also lived in Oman. There are all varieties of Indian, Eastern European, Italian, North American, Ethiopian, Iranian, regional Indian and other South Asian, and American Chinese, even (bad) Mexican and Tex-Mex places, but local food is only available in people's homes. The few places that sell authentic local food are catering kitchens that are not open to diners, but service weddings and parties with a select few of the traditional "party" dishes. It's just weird. The closest thing once could get to local food would be Yemeni food in a couple of restaurants. People always ask me where to try local food when they come visit...most expats or tourists who are not from the immediate region don't even realize that the Lebanese style fare at generic Arab restaurants is nothing at all like local cuisine.Local people love to eat out, too. It's just a weird phenomenon and I have spent time thinking about why there are no real local restaurants as well.

                  3. Most home style Japanese cooking doesn't appear in restaurants. Same with Okinawan.

                    Are there any Inuit restaurants in NYC? If so do they serve seal, whale, sea lion oils and blubbery bits, some fermented?

                    Are there any Lao/NE Thai restaraunts that serve real peasant food including edible leaves from the forest and all the parts of a water buffalo?

                    Are there restaraunts with foods from Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Uganda, Kenya, Congo?

                    Are there any Costa Rican, Honduran, Nicaraguan places?

                    What about the central highlands of Madagascar? Hard enough to find restaurants there, let alone in NYC. Same with Bhutan. Can you get yak butter tean in NYC?

                    I would guess that NY doesn't have places that serve foods from the Amazon--western or Brazialian.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                      Honduran? We have something far rarer.

                      New York is beginning to have quite a few Nepali immigrants and hence a few restaurants have put Nepali food on the menu. Some restaurants serve Nepali and Japanese food combined.

                      1. re: Brian S

                        Brian, you're a well-fed genius.

                        On the other hand, Japanese and Nepali???!!!

                      2. re: Sam Fujisaka

                        In SF there are a couple of Nica restaurants (Las Tinajas, Restaurante Nicaragua), but usually what happens with a lot of Central American places in the SF Bay Area is that they get "slammed in" with other Central American countries, and depending on where you live and what the predominant Central American expat/diaspora is, that is what it will the SF bay area, the dominant diaspora are the Guanacos (the Salvadoreans). Hence you will see restaurants advertised as "Salvadoreno/insert (country) here". There are even Salvadorean/Chinese, Salvadorean/Japanese restos in the deep Mission...because a lot of times they are the line chefs in these places and then they go off and open their own shops!

                        I've rarely had Honduran (despite being Central American) but that is because my nanny (legal and she pays taxes, BTW, lol!!) is Honduran and reciprocates my Guatemalan num-num sharing when I make some. Otherwise, I would not have a clue...and I'm Central American!! Other than that, I've obviously had Salvadorean because they are pretty popular, Nica food I've only had their tamales (Nacatamales) although I just met a fellow mom from our daughter's elementary school who is Nica so I'll expect to be sharing dishes over the holidays with her...Other than that, I've only had Tico food when in Tiquilandia (Costa Rica) and Panamanian when in Panama. Even Guatemalan is hard to find in the SF Bay Area, historically this has not been a chapin magnet ever since I could remember...those of us who live up here just end up cooking for ourselves...although the one ingredient I dearly wish we could get fresh is Loroco!!!

                      3. BURMESE!!! I used to love Mandalay in Cambridge, MA, and Boston, that claimed it was the only Burmese restaurant in the U.S. They had the most incredible soups and stuffed pastry appetizers, shrimp with fermented bamboo shoots, you name it. Where are the Burmese restaurants? A wonderfully flavorful and unique cuisine...

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: bistro66

                          I had an incredible meal in a small village in Burma and could never find the food anywhere else. A poster from Boston wrote a great essay about Burmese food.
                 Finally, just last year a Burmese restaurant opened in New York.

                          1. re: Brian S

                            You bet. And Burma had my favorite street/highway foods: rice field rat and deep fried sparrows. Both really good.

                          2. re: bistro66

                            The Mandalay was the best! There is a Burmese restaurant in Allston, MA now - Yo Ma. Haven't liked it much, unfortunately.