Julia Nagel/Sun Assistant Photography Editor

The spicy broth (back) and the vegetarian broth (front) from De Tasty, with bamboo, mushrooms, and tofu in the background, on Jan. 29, 2022.

February 7, 2022

America’s Lonely Tune

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The components of a cuisine, from common spices to dietary staples to preparation styles, vary widely across the world. However, the biggest divide between different food cultures may arise not in the cooking, but what comes after. I learned the importance of dining style through two specific eating experiences, which began continents apart and ended up a mile from each other here in Ithaca.

One crisp autumn night, the brisk wind pushed my friends and I out into town to find something warm and fulfilling. We eventually spotted a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant filled with steaming food and locals digging in, enjoying their eating experience together. My friends and I watched the spirited atmosphere bustle in front of us as we anxiously waited to join the feast. At last, we sat down at a table for four and received a single menu. We’d found De Tasty Hot Pot, a Chinese restaurant known for its signature delicacy: hot pot. 

The hot pot is a unique Chinese cooking method that was first introduced to East Asia thousands of years ago when Mongolian horsemen cooked soups in their helmets over open fires and added various meats to the broth. Hot pot — completely foreign to me — was about to make its grand entrance to my palate.

We collectively decided to order a double-sided pot with small plates of cold ingredients: lamb, smoked crab, pickled cabbage, thin translucent rice noodles, tofu and bean sprouts. The table offered several different sauces, from creamy peanut sesame to sweet-and-sour and chili soy sauce. Fifteen minutes later, the waiter set our double-sided boiling pot onto the induction burner at the center of the table. Both sides contained a fragrant broth made of chicken and Virginia ham, one side mild and the other infused with a spicy red sate sauce. 

Our server instructed us to submerge the ingredients into the hot pot, cooking them as thoroughly as we liked. My friends and I shared the ingredients around the table, sitting shoulder to shoulder and cackling at our dire efforts to hold onto cabbage with chopsticks. Arms overlapped over the steaming pot as we reached for pieces of food, and eyes monitored bites of lamb. The savory aroma of simmering ingredients regaled our nostrils. The subtle chicken broth enhanced the natural brine of the meats, and the spicy sate sauce washed over our taste buds like ambrosia. Glazing our warm food with our chosen sauces, we finally ate until we exhausted our tray. 

With no music, television or flashy interior to see, I turned my attention onto the people and shared food in front of me. I connected this experience to my Bengali culture; back home, in my Bangladeshi household, eating is not only a nutritional necessity, but also an experience to reconnect the soul to its intrinsic appetite for company. Dinner time is a place to reconnect with my loved ones and slow down. Can you imagine eating hot pot alone? Or ordering a generous round of jasmine rice for one? Asian cuisine is often communal, fused through countries bound to a collectivist culture which values community over the individual. 

During a separate night out, my friends and I found ourselves staring at the illuminated red and yellow rays from the neon Ithaca State Diner sign. We entered the diner to “Only the Lonely” by Roy Orbison. In tune, a waitress sang the chorus, “Dum-dum-dum-dumdy-doo-wah.” I was transported back home to Edina, Minnesota, where I would frequent a diner to exercise the late-curfew Friday nights that my permissive parents allowed. The same diner in upstate New York flashed before me: stainless steel countertops, porcelain tiles, leather booths, large windows and wall decor all helped preserve the retro look in 2022.

Seated next to our booth, a young couple shared a basket of onion rings. A few solo patrons — with only their newspapers for company — asked the cook for their usuals. Silently flipping through the predictable eight-page menu, we ordered a Belgian waffle, fried eggs and the signature Bo Burger topped with bacon. I patiently watched as the cook pressed my medium-rare burger onto the cooktop stove in the open kitchen. 

One cook and twenty minutes later, we each got our individual plates and silverware. My Bo Burger was coated in grease with bacon and cheese sizzling on top of one another. It came with a side of crispy French fries, deep fried in the Crisco canola oil my mom would use for her own homemade fries. We ate up quickly, made a few comments about the food and watched a football game broadcasted on the flat screen TV. Afterward, I thought about how different this experience was from my dinner at De Tasty Hot Pot, despite the two meals costing the same amount.

The two dining experiences, hot pot and the American diner, emerged from needing to cook quickly and cheaply in rapidly developing nations. As much as the United States flourished after WWII and China prospered after the Jin Dynasty, the success came at a cost. For Americans, it meant less time for Mom’s chocolate pancakes, cohesive family dining and balancing community identity. For the Chinese, these bustling decades simply meant a shortage of complicated utensils and more collaboration. 

The reasons why Chinese cuisine maintained communal dining ethos while America became more autonomous can be found in the foodstuff of each culture. At De Tasty Hot Pot, the ordering process is made collectively, down to the sauce; the savoriness of the rice noodles depends on the soporific broth that friends share in addition to the chili sauce across the table. In contrast, a Bo Burger cannot benefit from the maple syrup on a neighboring plate of waffles; unfortunately, American diners must experience their independent dinners. 
I discovered that the diner embodies American culture for all of its independence and autonomy. Americans are content with their solidarity, their newspaper and $3.99 breakfasts at their respective diners. Chinese cuisine, in contrast, reveals the tastefulness of togetherness that thrives within that culture. From hot pot to jasmine rice, the Chinese pay attention to the group and promote synergy during meal time. I have ate many meals in Ithaca since arriving summer 2019, but the familiarity of the indensepensible American diner and gregarious nature of hot pot will remain as cherished dining experiences.

Ayesha Chowdhury is a junior in the ILR school. She can be reached at [email protected]