Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Philosophical Musings #1 - Small Plates

this was my first attempt at food writing from a few years ago. please note that the title "Philosophical Musings - #1", follows the same guidelines set in "Guilty Pleasures - #1" as a means to classify the continuous thoughts on various gastronomic themes i plan to write about. hope you enjoy....




The idea of food in its simple elegance; what an individual eats, and in turn how a society eats has always fascinated me. I believe food to be a pure expression of desires and aesthetics. One knows immediately by the senses if they are going to enjoy a meal. It first begins with scent, then sight, taste, touch and sound, each sense building one on top of another until your first bite has been swallowed. Since food is based on these primal instincts, our inhibitions are either masked or stripped away by the decadence or modesty of a meal. It was in Spain that I first learned of this precise ritual through the tradition of tapas, which I will explain in more detail.

In college, I was fortunate enough to travel abroad. I had been taking Spanish, and had become confident and proficient in everyday communication. I simply wanted to get out of Pax Americana and become immersed in another culture - I believed I could understand more about the language through food. Luckily, a friend was studying in Madrid, so I took that opportunity to tag along. The summer program lasted for 1.5 months, and I planned to stay in her dorm, or one of the nearby hostels. I was determined to have my way, and with a streak of rebellion, didn't tell my parents. As far as they knew, I was working at school and taking a few classes. One never forgets their first acts of freedom, and this had the makings of a grand adventure; it was the start of my culinary experience.

From Madrid I took the train south and made my way to Andalucia, and the city of Malaga; birthplace of Picasso, occupied by the Moors until the 15th century, winter resort for the wealthy, and major coastal merchant center to the Iberian Peninsula. It is also the birthplace of tapas. Tapas literally means "to cover" and the tradition began in the 10th century when bars offered small plates of food to cover the bar patron's drink. One reason suggests it prevented flies from falling into the wine, another suggests that the small plates of food whetted the appetite and increased the need for drink. Yet another was to prevent drunkeness. Whatever the reason, tapas has come to define the essence of Spanish cuisine.

I arrived at 13:00 and walked amongst the Malaguenos. I made my way to the plaza and La Manquita, the renaissance cathedral built on the site of a former mosque in the 16th century; its name loosely translated means "one-armed woman". I took in the architecture and history, noting the baroque facades, and made my way to the center of town; the Alameda Gardens lush with centuries old palm and bottle trees.

It was prime time for tapas as I reached No. 16 on the north side of the Alameda. Antigua Casa de la Guardia, the oldest tapas bar in all of Malaga. The old brick building was full, but I managed to find a corner amidst the businessmen, students and workers. From behind the bar hung whole ham legs, sausages and stacked barrels of wine. I started off with a glass of wine made from muscatel grapes; my thirst quenched, and yet not. I was hungry and my throat was left dry from the wine. I first order the iberico - mountain cured ham from Andalucian pigs that grow sweet from a diet of acorns. It came to me, about four paper thin slices, drizzled with a thickly golden-coloured olive oil; I can smell the salt. I can see the marbling of fat and cured pink flesh. Then I taste the delicate melting on my tongue and myself sigh in delight. I repeat the ritual again. Sip the wine. I am ready for the next. I order a mixture of manzanillas and gordales from Seville; the olives are sweet and meaty, and the larger gordales (the size of small plums) are stuffed with white anchovies. There's also a nice crunch from the whole garlic cloves that have been cured along with the olives. The ritual is again finished off with a sip of wine and I look ahead to my third choice. Everyone is eating seafood. I see hot and cold dishes, salpicon with chopped tomatoes, onions and peppers with prawns and octopus. There are boquerones en vinagre - marinated raw anchovies that are deep fried, along with calmares - tender squid rings. There are also numerous variations of shellfish al ajillo, ranging from razor clams to mussels to lobster and crab. Being a coastal town, Malaga is known for its seafood.

It was at this point of the meal that I started to make friends. Some students offered to buy me another glass of wine and to share their tapas. I gladly accepted and the next two hours sampled everything from meatballs in almond sauce, to chunks of garlicky grilled pork loin, broad beans and ham, braised pigs ears, piquant tripe, spicy snails, fritters and croquettes. We finish with remjon - salad of oranges, codfish, onions and olives dressed with more olive oil and lemon. I didn't want to leave. I would have happily stayed for the rest of the night, but I had a train to catch. I would return to Malaga over the coming weeks, and even made a trip to El Palo for pescaito frito - an assortment of fried fish that is served at all the bodegas .

Call me a romantic, but I vowed to never eat tapas again. I would never be able to top that gastronomic experience here in the States. As years went by, I noted the trend of tapas bars emerging in Los Angeles. I read the reviews, and although tempted to recapture the past, i declined; Los Angeles was not Malaga. Not long after, I noted the new trend of what was coined small plates. Small plates is not a new idea. Aside from my trip to Spain, I've had dim sum in Hong Kong, meze in Morocco, and izakaya in Tokyo. The idea of small bites of food to eat and share crosses many cultures. This new American trend seeks to combine this way of eating with the decorum of American society. After all, Americans tend to be rushed, insulated and detached from their eating. As inhospitable as fast food is with its boxed containers and drive-thru table manners, the small plate phenomenon seeks to slowly bridge that gap and bring a sense of camaraderie and pleasure already known by the rest of the world. Perhaps we would not see ourselves as strangers, and would instead offer to share a glass of wine and a plate of food. In the meantime, the small plate offers this sharing in the safety of a table amongst friends, or at the very least, good acquaintances and best enemies.

My first small plate experience was at AOC in Los Angeles. My friend and I chose four courses, including dessert. We started with some le bergere de rouscatin - sheep milk cheese from the Loire Valley. From there we had a salad of speck, apples and arugula, quail stuffed with foie gras and truffle, and finished off with cheesecake and fresh figs. Everything was shared, small and so delicious, that we didn't need to order more BUT we wanted to. Sneaky and brilliant.

While most protein portions in an entree are about six to eight ounces, a small plate will offer three to four, a more realistic and healthier serving. This also helps with the food costing, bringing a small plate item down in price to its entree equivalent. Going back to the ritual I described of scent, sight, taste, touch and sound, I believe that if one is to truly enjoy a meal, they only need a few bites to understand the message of what each plate is trying to convey. Our senses are fickle and our minds easily distracted. Something as uninspired as prime rib becomes painfully Sisyphean after the tenth bite, and upon finishing the hunk of meat, one must eat another slice to reclaim the glory of the first bite - a sad misconception, indeed. With the small plate, the flavors are every-changing, new, bright and straightforward. There was no confusion from the creaminess of the bergere, to the salty, tartness of the speck, to the warmth and crisp succulence of the quail; each had a perfect beginning and end.

I did try tapas recently, and although I enjoyed my evening, it was more the company than the food. It was inauthentic tapas made with inferior ingredients, and instead played out like "tapas inspired small plates".

I hope small plates continue to find a place beyond the status of a restaurant trend. We need the comfort and excitement it brings, and the subtle message that less IS more.


Patrizia said...

It's Sunday night... and I'm enjoying your blogs!!!


P.S. I remember AOC =)

Patrizia said...

It's Sunday night... and I'm enjoying your blogs!

Oh... and I remember AOC! =)