Trump’s meals

Philippine Daily Inquirer - - OPINION - MICHAEL L. TAN

Mass me­dia cov­ered ev­ery de­tail of US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s re­cent trip to Asia, from what he said and didn’t say, to his wife Me­la­nia’s dresses, and to the meals served to him. Which got me think­ing about how im­por­tant food has be­come, even cre­at­ing a spe­cial­iza­tion called food jour­nal­ism, com­plete with their own As­so­ci­a­tion of Food Jour­nal­ists, de­scribed as “a pro­fes­sional or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to pre­serv­ing and per­pet­u­at­ing re­spon­si­ble food jour­nal­ism across me­dia plat­forms.” The key word there is “pro­fes­sional,” com­plete with a code of ethics.

You might have guessed by now: Food jour­nal­ists are also known as food crit­ics, sam­pling eat­ing places from grand fine din­ing restau­rants to cor­ner eater­ies, and writ­ing up their re­views for the dif­fer­ent me­dia plat­forms. Some of the crit­ics are feared for their power to make or break a restau­rant with their re­views.

Food jour­nal­ists are sup­posed to be in­de­pen­dent and ob­jec­tive, their re­views prefer­ably made on meals they paid for. But with the ad­vent of new me­dia, es­pe­cially, there have been breaches not of food eti­quette but of food jour­nal­ism ethics, with al­le­ga­tions some­times by food crit­ics against food crit­ics of KBL ( kami’y bayad lang) re­views.

Writ­ing food re­views seems to be a fun, and fat­ten­ing, way of mak­ing a liv­ing, but more se­ri­ous food jour­nal­ists go be­yond meal re­views. Many now an­a­lyze the way food cul­tures, par­tic­u­larly food tastes, are evolv­ing. I par­tic­u­larly liked a re­cent ar­ti­cle, “Asian-Amer­i­can Cui­sine’s Rise, and Tri­umph” by Ligaya Mis­han, a Filipino-Amer­i­can who also has a col­umn, “Hun­gry City,” in The New York Times.

Here’s a lus­cious quote on how the Amer­i­can palate is chang­ing, which she says now craves for in­gre­di­ents like the “briny rush of soy; ginger’s low burn … Palm sugar, vel­vet to cane sugar’s silk. Co­conut milk slow­ing the tongue … Thai bird chilies that im­mo­late ev­ery­thing they touch.”

I should say now you wouldn’t find uni­ver­si­ties of­fer­ing de­gree pro­grams in food jour­nal­ism. I sus­pect some food jour­nal­ists are prob­a­bly not even jour­nal­ism or mass com­mu­ni­ca­tions ma­jors, but may have taken a de­gree in the so­cial sciences. An­thro­pol­ogy, af­ter all, has a whole sub­field of an­thro­pol­ogy of food and nutri­tion, look­ing at how cul­tures adapted to their en­vi­ron­ment with the foods to eat, the ways of pre­par­ing the food, and all the sym­bol­ism and rit­u­als that go with cook­ing, serv­ing and eat­ing, and even the his­tory of food in­gre­di­ents and of meals them­selves.

Po­lit­i­cal gas­tron­omy

The cov­er­age of Trump’s meals in Asia of­fer still an­other take from the so­cial sciences: po­lit­i­cal gas­tron­omy or the power re­la­tions of hosts and guests, of cooks and din­ers.

From the be­gin­ning of Trump’s trip, jour­nal­ists spec­u­lated on how his hosts in each coun­try would deal with Trump’s no­to­ri­ously con­ser­va­tive food tastes, his fa­vorite food said to be steak with tomato ketchup.

The Chi­nese, Ja­panese and Korean scan be ex­cru­ci­at­ing with food eti­quette so it wasn’t sur­pris­ing they tried to ac­com­mo­date Trump’ s“sim­ple ”( I use the word ina more neg­a­tive sense) food pref­er­ences.

In Ja­pan, fol­low­ing a golf game with Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe, Trump was served a US An­gus beef burger from a Tokyo ham­burger shop. At an­other meal, his hosts de­cided they could get him to go Ja­panese at Ginza Ukai-Tei, a tep­pa­nyaki grill restau­rant. The state din­ner in Akasaka Palace had more Ja­panese food but noth­ing too ex­tra­or­di­nary. We­could say the Ja­panese were be­ing cau­tious.

South Korea was bolder with a meal served at the pres­i­den­tial palace. There was grilled beef ribs with 360-year-old soy sauce. Now that’s so East Asian: Guests are hon­ored by meals steeped with in­gre­di­ents that are old and revered. I don’t know though if Trump ap­pre­ci­ated the old soy sauce.

The con­tro­versy wasn’t in the soy sauce though, but in the prawns that had come from off the coast of Dokdo Is­land, whose wa­ters are dis­puted by Ja­pan and South Korea. Not only that. In­vited to that pres­i­den­tial meal was a woman who had sur­vived World War II as a com­fort woman. Ja­pan protested.

In China, Trump was treated to grand Chi­nese po­lit­i­cal opera, and I mean it lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively. At the For­bid­den City, closed to the pub­lic dur­ing his visit, there was a Pek­ing opera per­for­mance, as well as a tour of three of the com­pound’s main ar­eas, strate­gi­cally cho­sen of course: the Hall of Supreme Har­mony, the Hall of Cen­tral Har­mony and the Hall of Pre­serv­ing Har­mony.

Food didn’t fig­ure promi­nently, the Chi­nese hosts per­haps at a loss on how to get po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal with meals for a ham­burger man. The grand­est meal was, well, sim­ple: stewed beef steak in tomato sauce (see the at­tempt to come close to his fa­vorite food?), kung pao chicken (one of the more fa­mil­iar foods from Chi­nese-Amer­i­can restau­rants, although his­to­ri­ans dis­pute the Amer­i­can ver­sion’s authen­tic­ity), seafood chow­der and a co­conut-based chicken soup. The Chi­nese served lo­cal wine and one jour­nal­ist re­ported the Ries­ling was go­ing on the on­line shop­ping site Tmall for $30 a bot­tle, noth­ing close to 360-year-old soy sauce.


Fi­nally, the Philip­pines. I’m proud we didn’t in­fuse pol­i­tics into the gala din­ner. Pre­pared by Chef Jessie Sin­cioco, the menu does tell us some­thing about where we are, or should be now, with Filipino hos­pi­tal­ity, as shown by what we serve pres­i­dents and prime min­is­ters.

Let me give you the English ver­sion first and see if you can tell what they are in Filipino: 1) heart of palm and Mal­abar spinach salad with tamarind vinai­grette dress­ing; 2) soured red snap­per in miso broth; 3) slices of grilled US black An­gus beef ten­der­loin mar­i­nated in soy- cala­mansi with sushi rice and caramelized onion rings; 4) char­coal-grilled apa­hap fil­let with tomato-mango sam­bal and, for dessert, Filipino caramel flan.

Let’s go now for the Filipino names. The first was en­sal­adang ubod at alug­bati; yes, now you can point to the Mal­abar spinach grow­ing in your back­yard. The sec­ond is sini­gang na maya-maya sa miso. (A quip later.) The third is nice, short, pro­le­tar­ian: bis­tek sushi. Din­ers did have a choice be­tween that and the apa­hap, which was not trans­lated but that is our equiv­a­lent of sea bass. Fi­nally, for dessert, not quite leche flan but budin.

It’s a sim­ple (and I use the word in a pos­i­tive sense) menu, evolved and mod­ern Filipino, no po­lit­i­cal mean­ings as far as I can tell un­less you want to read some­thing into the red snap­per (no yel­low?). I was im­pressed though, and it’s a menu I’m send­ing to our Col­lege of Home Eco­nom­ics’ ho­tel and restau­rant depart­ment with a note: Look at what you can do with ubod, alug­bati and apa­hap.

No re­ports on how much Trump ate, and what he thought of the food. Or was he too busy lis­ten­ing to the mu­sic.


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