Monday, February 27, 2017

Culinary Customs

We sat there, waiting. And waiting. Talking a bit but clearly just waiting. Our server must have passed by us five times and never stopped. It was soooo annoying. Finally, I stood up and walked towards him, caught his eye, and used the universal sign language to get the check. And so, finally, he brought it.”

My friend was talking about dining in Paris, where she ran into this phenomenon several times. “What is it with them?” she asked.

“Ahh,” say I, “I do happen to know about this. That is the custom there. They think Americans are hugely rude, not to mention crass, with our delivering the check with the dessert or at the end of the meal with a ‘No rush’ comment. They believe in a leisurely meal over an appropriate amount of time. They’re not really being rude or neglecting you. It’s their custom.”

Ok, so French. But every country, every part of the world, has its own customs and traditions that you may not know, and may not glean, from the guide books. Those customs may not be so obvious in Kansas City’s international or ethnic restaurants, or even those who have a dish or three based on another country’s taste buds and habits. We thought we’d gather a few of the ones you may not be so familiar with. 

I See France
We’ll begin with the French, since we already started there. First, we spoke with Patrick Quillec, owner of  Café Provence in Prairie Village, who mentioned that of all the bêtes noires (thorn in the side, dislike, something especially hated or dreaded – there, now you speak the language) the French typically mention, he thinks asking for the salt and pepper shakers is about the worst sin you can commit.

There are others of course. For instance, in restaurants, we keep looking at the menu often while we’re waiting.  In France, put your menu down when you are ready to order which signals the server. The tip is generally included on the bill – you can add a bit to it but to add 15% or 20% just ranks you as pure amateur.  Servers are professionals there and get paid a living wage.  If you’ve been invited to lunch or dinner by a French person, don’t try to split the bill. The expectation is that you will return the favor soon. The subject of money is quite personal in France, so don’t talk about it.

The influence and popularity of French food and culture is everywhere, even in Kansas City. For instance, we have authentic French Restaurants like Le Fou Frog in the City Market area and the afore-mentioned Café Provence (which has gone on to spawn French carry-out and retail items in its French Market). Quillec remembers when he first came to the U.S. (at 18 years old) and was totally amazed by fast food – there was no such thing then in Brittany. He got off the plane and went straight to his first burger (at Burger King) – and thought it was just inedible. Now, of course, American fast food abounds everywhere, including France – and the global fast food market is worth nearly 617 billion dollars – to the sorrow of many gourmands. 

There’s also Tatsu’s French Restaurant, owned and cheffed by Tatsu Arai, and here in Prairie Village since the 80s. It began as a pastry and luncheon shop in 1980 and a few years later, expanded into a complete dining destination for lunch and dinner with white tablecloths and elegant French cuisine, sometimes with an additional Asian influence. 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention an easy way to learn about the various customs is go on a tour and let the guide handle all matters. I say that because recently I went on such a trip with Global Culinary Escapades and not only did we get a thorough grounding in what to say and do in restaurants and bars all over Bordeaux, we learned a lot about wine. These annual trips are so much fun despite being educational – and this fall GCE has partnered with Louie’s Wine Dive to do a trip centered even more on wine. The French make some really great wines, in case you’ve not heard. 

Go to their websites to learn more about this trip:  globalculinaryescapades.com or louieswinedive.com.

Visit Nearby Italy
When in Italy, do as the Italians do. Drink coffee (espresso that means) but remember that cappuccino is for breakfast or an afternoon break but not a drink to have with lunch or dinner. Don’t try to drink it as a “to-go” item – even though there are now Starbucks in Italy. If you’re looking for an American, he’s the one walking and drinking.

Even though we don’t have a “little Italy” part of town, we do have several Italian restaurants we’re especially fond of. There’s Café Verona in Independence, where traditional dishes flourish.

You may not have known that Pinstripes on 135th has a definite Italian flair, making their own pastas and tomato sauce and they pride themselves on their authenticity – even though most Italian restaurants don’t have bowling alleys. But bocce?  All right, then!  It’s not just a game for old Italian men. Also south is North Italia in Leawood, which specializes in handmade pastas and pizzas. And their zucca chips will make you forget their brother, potato, forever.   

Genovese Italian Restaurant in Lawrence offers faithful northern Italian cuisine with handmade pastas and many classic items on the menu for the last ten years, creating their stellar reputation.  Ricco’s Bistro in south Overland Park, owned by three families since 2003, is another fine example of regional Italian cuisine but served in American size portions. 

Closer to Home: Mexico
What to do if you’re in Mexico?  We’re not going to teach you how to drink tequila shots (though that is an art and you don’t want to look like a sissy – combo in your mouth the salt from your cupped palm, the lime whose juice you’ve squeezed in, and the shot and it’s one gulp only) or that you eat street tacos with your hands, but we do want to mention the time thing. 


“In Mexico, you don’t ask for separate checks.  You just evenly split the entire bill among the number of people at the table.”   
Victor Esqueda, Ixtapa


It is said that instead of eating around work, the Mexican culture works around eating. This means a much more relaxed schedule for many – breakfast can range from 7 to 10 a.m. and can be just coffee to what seems like (or is) a full meal with eggs, meats, veggies, and tortillas or just fruit and sweet rolls. But lunch is the big meal of the day, occurring between 1:30 to 4 p.m. and its heaviness may necessitate that famous siesta afterwards. That custom is going away, however, because work schedules are less forgiving than they used to be.  Nonetheless, dinner typically stays relatively light and people eat fairly late – say, starting no earlier than 8 p.m. and sometimes, just a bowl of soup is adequate. Celebrations of any kind, however, are an entirely different concept – and the concept of punctuality is not especially appreciated, which carries over in Mexico to service. Relax. Enjoy.  

Mexico’s heritage is complex in that there are several influences, the people – from the early Aztecs to the later Spaniards; the African slave trade (among other immigrants); the over 7,000 miles of coast line supplying much seafood, the tropics providing fruits and veggies year-round and the more barren grazing pastures supplying beef, lamb, and goat. There are regional differences so do not think for a second that all Mexican food is all the same. For instance, chiles en nogada (chilies filled with a mixture of meat and dried fruit, covered in walnut (the nogada part) cream sauce and garnished with pomegranate seeds and parsley is from Puebla and seven traditional mole varieties, with up to 30 different spices, are attributed to Oaxaca. If a restaurant here emphasizes a region, you may very well have a much different experience from another Mexican restaurant. 

Most of us are so familiar with Mexican food that we barely consider it ethnic or foreign. It’s both. Kansas City is blessed to have so many Mexican based restaurants because of the strength of our Latino population here. You’re probably familiar with some of our favs. Independence Square offers not just Italian but also Mexican --  El Pico Mexican Restaurant is a local watering hole with many fans. Ixtapa Mexican Cuisine, just south off Barry Road, is well known for their regional dishes which Alejandro will help you choose. There are nine different shrimp and 15 chicken dishes. But try their posole. 

“Goin’ down on the Boulevard” used to be an adventure all on its own, but now Margarita's has been in town nearly forever, leading the way in a crowded field and due to their popularity, now has five locations. If you do want to take a walk on the less flashy side, go to Lawrence for authentic Mexican street food at La Parrilla. A smaller sensation is Los Alamos Market y Cocina west of downtown on Summit, which gives a nod to both English and Spanish in its name, is definitely a little bit of Mexico -- and doesn’t even provide menus. The opposite, perhaps, of Los Alamos is The Lucky Taco in the Argosy Casino which offers a big variety of items plus has a very large salsa bar so you can fix exactly what you want. And finally, give Ted's Café Escondido, now with three locations, a chance even though it really isn’t a “hidden café” so much since its enthusiasts keep helping it grow.

And, by the way, just to re-emphasize, all Mexican food is NOT Tex-Mex, which does have its own identity, though it’s not called that in Mexico where its northern province of meats and cheeses are the likely source of the characteristics.  Kansas Citians seem to be fond of it, no matter its history. 


“We find it so funny that Americans put their noses next to the food or spice to smell it. Let the aroma float up to you and so will the flavor.”  Balkaran Singh, India Palace.

Wherever You Go, There You Are
Diner’s interest in other cultures is very much a continuing trend throughout the U.S. and that’s very true in Kansas City as well. By all means, go experiment and try out those cultures with which you’re not so familiar. You’re sure to find something that pleases your palate, expands your culinary tastes, and even truly excites your senses. 

You probably won’t have to worry about the protocol of the clean plate club like in the home countries (in India and Japan, clean plates mean you liked it). In China, it more likely means (to your host, that is) you weren’t fed enough and it’s an insult. In Thailand, you use your fork to push your food into your spoon, then eat from the spoon; in Italy, don’t use your spoon. Eating only with your left hand with knife perched in your right (Italy and France) isn’t necessary if you’re here. 

Life’s an adventure, especially if you’re eating your way through it. Wherever you go, learn first, then eat.  

Tell us about an experience you had in foreign country.

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