The Korean dish of bibimbap comes as a bunch of distinct little piles of veggies and meat, on a bowl of rice. You pour out a little splat of hot sauce, and mix all it up yourself.
My friend Kathy Shin told me that mixing it up yourself was part of the very meaning of bibimbap. When I asked her what would happen if they brought it to you pre-mixed, she jumped out of her seat and actually smacked me. “It wouldn’t be bibimbap! You’d be eating something, but it sure wouldn’t be bibimbap.” When I pointed out that the (non-Korean) patrons at the next table over were eating their bibimbap without mixing it up at all, she recoiled it almost moral outrage. “I don’t know what they’re eating, but it’s definitely not bibimbap either.”
Her horror and semi-comic outrage might map onto how an American might react, say, if they saw somebody carefully disassemble a sandwich and eat the bits daintily and separately, with chopsticks: they’re eating something, but it sure ain’t a sandwich.
All of this makes me wonder how culturally complicated the idea of a particular dish is. Is our idea of “sandwich” or “bibimbap” or “egg roll” made of, not just the ingredients, but how we how we assemble them for ourselves? Does the idea of a particular dish include a very specific idea of the eater’s role in assembly or disassembly?
Hsian Ju Lin, in Chinese Gastronomy, comments that, though Westerners often view the chopsticks of the East as comically uncivilized (“look at ’em, eatin’ with a bunch of sticks”), to the Chinese watcher, Western eating traditions are unbearably barbaric. European eating culture involves bringing tiny little tridents and tiny little knives to the table, for God’s sake. It’s one step away from Vikings in the long hall, eating with their hunting knives and throwing the rest to their dogs. Whereas in high Chinese cuisine, everything comes to the table perfectly bite-sized and ready, all the violence confined, out of sight, to the kitchen.
In fact, it becomes curiously evident that a lot of Asian culinary traditions involve building the final dish-entity at the table. In a Vietnamese restaurant, when you order egg rolls, you’re brought the egg rolls with a plate of fresh green herbs, and you’re supposed to wrap the egg rolls in a bit of lettuce with a few bits of fresh herbs, and eat the whole thing, glorying in the contrast between the hot crispy roll and the cool crispy lettuce. There’s the various forms of beijing duck (a.k.a. Peking duck) where you assemble just the right amount of crispy skin and soft wrapper and sweet sauce, just to your precise desire.
And there’s my beloved pani puri, the mint hand-grenades of Indian street-food culture, where you take a little tiny crispy fried hollow bread puff the size of a golf-ball, and carefully tap-tap-tap a hole in the top, and fill it with bits of chickpea, bits of potato, a little drizzle of sauce, and the fill it to the brim with cold spicy mint water and – quickly now! – throw it your mouth and bite down and feel the whole thing explode cold mint water and crispy shards of bread all over the inside of your mouth.
And then think of the Western traditions: carving the chicken at the table. Carving the ham at the table. Carving the roast at the table.
And here, I was so goddamn excited about the clarity of this contrast, that I was pounding on the steering wheel and shouting to Melissa: “Don’t you see? The Asian traditions are all about creation at the table, and the Western traditions are all about destruction at the table, and of course it must seem so goddamn uncivilized! You’ve got to kill the thing outside, and then symbolically kill it again at the table!”
But, of course, she brought me down to earth. Western culinary tradition is full of assembly-dishes, too. Most preciously: the Thanksgiving dinner. Think of the horror if you were to come to a Thanksgiving dinner, and were presented with a pre-assembled plate. No no! The right thing, the only thing, is to make your plate yourself, to assemble just the right balance of turkey and ham and stuffing and potato and gravy, placed with just the right amount of overlap – mashed potatoes just barely spilling over the turkey, maybe – arranged on the plate to by yourself to please nothing but your very own gut. The notion of self-assembly is so deep in our soul-concept of Thanksgiving dinner, that you probably don’t even see it, until somebody breaks it.
So inane cultural reductionism doesn’t work here. Maybe there’s a practical explanation for some of this stuff – for the lettuce-wrapped egg-rolls, for the pani-puri, you have to assemble it at the last moment. Otherwise, you couldn’t get the temperature contrast, the crisp-wet contrast. But that doesn’t explain all the cases. It doesn’t explain bibimbap; it doesn’t explain Thanksgiving.
I need more examples.