Starry Tables: My Best Meals of 2014

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nahmIt’s a big, tasty world out there.  I know, I know, this sounds like quite the headscratchingly obvious statement, but sometimes, as I go through my daily perusal of online articles and social media, I’m just flummoxed at the number of Twitter fooderatis and food writers who seem to think the holy triumvirate of New York City-Chicago-San Francisco provides all the food-related news fit to print (or tweet or Instagram or happy dance to). Oh well, to each his or her own I guess. I’ve always been preoccupied with culinary context and as I said in last year’s dining roundup, I don’t believe you can really fully understand the cuisine and its historical, cultural, and sociological influences and associations unless you’re eating it within the geography it’s from. Fortunately, my life and job allowed me to eat well and thoughtfully this year in Chicago, New York City, San Francisco (yep, so I did traverse the triumvirate this year as well too, so, uh, sue me), Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Sao Paulo, Hong Kong, Macau, Manila, Washington DC, Austin, San Diego, and Milwaukee.  I was lucky to eat at many great places this year, but though some of them had Michelin stars and World’s 50 Best restaurants rankings, my meals there were memorable and compelling because they were not only exceptionally delicious, but they clearly represented and illuminated the place of cuisine – ingredients, cooking techniques, the relationship of cooks and purveyors – within the larger cultural and historical framework.  Here then are my best meals of 2014:

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qui_sanmigMost of the time when people talk to me about Filipino food, they start off with the question “Have you had balut?”  I tend to shut down pretty quickly any talk about balut, the boiled duck egg that contains an 18-day embryo which has gained worldwide notoriety by being frequently trotted out in adventure eating shows and Fear Factor, with an eyeball-popping mother of all side-eyes.   Yes, I’ve eaten balut (who hasn’t if you grew up in the Philippines where it is a pretty common street-food snack?).  And no, this dish which is unusual and disturbing to Western eaters (but hardly any more unusual or disturbing than some of the indigenous food of other cultures, Peruvian cuy anyone?) doesn’t define Filipino food, in the same way that a Minnesotan hot dish casserole doesn’t define American food.  It’s hardly surprising though that there’s a lack of understanding and even basic knowledge about Filipino cuisine – unlike its fellow Southeast Asian cuisines from Thailand and Vietnam it hasn’t really broken into the American culinary mainstream despite the fact that Filipinos make up the second largest percentage of Asian-Americans according to the 2010 US Census.   There are a lot of theories from both Filipino and non-Filipino food people on why this is (Filipino immigrants assimilate into American food and culture more rapidly than other cultures because the Philippines was a former US colony; since Filipino immigrants are pretty dispersed in the US there are no “Filipino-towns” where Filipino restaurants can thrive; Filipino food just doesn’t have the attention-grabbing spice and “funky-ness” levels of Thai food, etc., etc.) which will take blog post upon blog post to dissect.   So my ears perked up, my eyes blazed, and my nose twitched when I started seeing Twitter and Instagram photos late last year of modernized takes on Filipino dishes like dinuguan, chicken adobo, sisig, and halo-halo being served at qui in Austin, the new restaurant from Top Chef Texas winner Paul Qui.  I knew from being an avid Top Chef watcher (and yes I was rooting for Qui to win that season despite the presence of six Chicago chefs) that he is Filipino-Chinese and that he moved to the US when he was a kid, but did he really open a Filipino-inspired restaurant when his celebrity chef-hood could have led to a myriad of different options that are sexier, less obscure and more “foodie-friendly”? Coming to Austin and checking it out was the only way to find out.

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