Saturday, November 29, 2014

Essay: On challenges that myVinotype faces in Asia

This blog post is written like an essay rather than in my usual casual discussion style, because the material that I intend to present here is best conveyed in this format.  If you find the language style of essays and other "academia" daft and boring, please read some of my other blog posts.  However, I do recommend that you carry on reading this one, because there are many nuggets of information that may be new and of interest to you.

Before we get into further discussions about this topic, I'd like to reiterate that I'm a myVinotype proponent.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, myVinotype is "a tool for consumers to learn about their own preferences" as stated on the "About Us" section of their website.  This approach to wine selection is the crystallisation of the research done by Mr. Tim Hanni (MW) in his book Why You Like the Wines You Like (ISBN-10: 0615750885).

If you're interested in purchasing a copy of the book, they are sold at a famous online bookshop.  Simply click here to be led to the shop.

Now that all of the general notices are mentioned we can start the essay.  Here we go...

A quick explanation regarding the types of audience I had while hosting tasting events in Bangkok:
   10 people per each tasting session that I hosted
   Predominantly male;  most groups can be broken down to a 7:3 ratio of male:female
   >40 years old
   None were tradespeople, all practise a profession (doctor, pharmacist, business manager)
   The majority (around 60%) are educated in the United States (medical school or business school), so this sample group does not reflect the national average, as they command a much better understanding of English.  This is important to note, because many scientific words do not exist in Thai.
Based on my experiences of leading myVinotype-like tasting sessions in Bangkok, there are four main challenges in spreading this new wine philosophy in Thailand.

1.  Language
2.  Coffee/Tea
3.  Salt
4.  Spiciness

Let's discuss the first issue: language.

There are even fewer words in Thai that can be used to describe sensations perceived by an individual, in particular those that regard taste and smell.  In English, there are a myriad of words that are similes, but some imply a deeper meaning.  Take the word "sweet" for example.  You would most likely describe sugar as "sweet" but you wouldn't use "syrupy" to describe a fruit, because the latter implies a certain texture, and a certain process that transforms the product, despite the two sharing a similar taste.  That is only an example of an easy-to-comprehend flavour.  Things become much more challenging to convey - using only Thai - when it involves more complex subjects, such as umami.  

Even though this word has its roots in Japanese, another Asian country, it does not mean that all Asians automatically understand its definition.  To assume that all Thais must know what umami means would be as erroneous as stating that all Englishmen must intrinsically understand wild (the German word used to describe game meat flavour) without consulting a dictionary, simply because England and Germany are nations in the same continent. 

Many Thais may have experienced the taste before, but without a coined word in our language with a meaning on which everyone can agree, it is impossible to conjure the same understanding in different people's minds.  Therefore, we delve into the realm of metaphysics.  To understand what we are experiencing, we need to answer that essential question of this discipline of philosophy: "What is it like?"

Now we come to the issue of coffee/tea.

The Chinese form the majority of ethnic minorities in Thailand.  I myself am one, as all four of my grandparents came from China.  Other than many artisanal skills such as gold-smithing and jewellery-making, the Chinese have also contributed to Thai society in the areas of food and medicine.  Thai menus such as soup noodles and boat noodles (ก๋วยเตี๋ยว) are actually relatively recent developments of Chinese origins, as the etymology attests.  However, since the menus' introduction, they have been inducted into- and integrated well in the host country's dining culture.  So well, in fact, that street-side noodle stalls have become ubiquitous in all Thai towns and cities.

Medicine is the other area where the Chinese have left a positive mark in Thai society.  Chinese holistic food therapy, also known as in simplified Chinese (食療 in traditional Chinese characters), is practised on a daily basis by a large following, especially by Thai-Chinese women.  This interest in holistic alternatives is reflected in the establishment of a traditional Chinese medicine department in Hua Chiew Hospital (โรงพยาบาลหัวเฉียว), which is a government-funded institution that has been around since 1938.

It is this practice of eating healthily according to principles of traditional Chinese medicine, that some Thais drink neither tea nor coffee.  So, things become challenging when such a person is given a myVinotype survey that has several questions about how the questionnaire-taker consumes coffee or tea (with dairy, with sugar, with neither dairy nor sugar, and so on and so forth).

On the other hand, a typical Thai still prefers to drink instant coffee.  This is the result of decades of marketing and branding by a particular Swiss company whose logo depicts a family of birds.  The branding has been so aggressive that their product - famously contained in red mugs - has become ingrained in our culture to the point that Thais use this brand-name to synonymously mean all instant coffee.  And since Thais mostly drink instant coffee, it is then reasonable to extrapolate the assumption that this product's name means coffee in Thailand.  I find this to be a sickening side of consumerism.  However, this does not mean that I am a advocate of state-dictated economics; no not at all.  I still believe in free markets.  Nonetheless, based on a few of the University of San Francisco (my alma mater) print-ads: "Learn how to run a multinational corporation and still go to heaven," and "Wicked smart without the wicked part."  But I digress...

To make matters more complicated for a Thai myVinotype questionnaire-taker, that particular Swiss company understands local tastes and preferences so well that it was the first to produce a "3-in-1" instant coffee.  That means coffee flakes, sugar, and non-dairy creamer all come in tall, skinny sachets that contains exactly enough to make one cup of coffee.  As many Thais are lactose intolerant, adding milk or cream to coffee isn't an option.   This convenient product also means many Thais consume flavours that suppress the bitterness of coffee, but cannot define whether she or he would prefer just the "creamer" or just the sugar, and if so, in what amount.  After some discussions with him, I have learned that this topic about dairy and coffee is one element of the questionnaire, which Mr. Hanni will rephrase for different countries in Asia.  

Now we move on to the issue of salt.

Only a few Asian countries use salt as a condiment.  I have had individuals who handed me back the survey with "none" as their answer, but when I asked them if they enjoy adding soy sauce or fish sauce to food, they answer "Yes, a lot!"  Therefore, to ask about addition of salt at the dining table is not an accurate indicator of how inclined an Asian individual is at suppressing bitterness in- or enhancing the flavours of food.

Finally, we come to the discussion about spiciness.

Despite our world-renowned cuisine that favour bold flavours, we Thais are wary of other spices.  I've witnessed some who turn up their noses at cinnamon powder on crêpes.  What's more puzzling is there are plenty of Thais who avoid eating Indian food, even though many of our national dishes evolved from using ingredients and cooking methods that are common in South India.

On the other hand, chili peppers are the way of life for a Thai.  Finding a Thai who doesn't like chili peppers is as difficult as finding a Brazilian who doesn't like football (for my North American readers: "soccer").  This is the true form of football, because the majority of players on the field play with their feet for the majority of the playing time.  But once again, I digress.  Back to the topic at hand...  Such people can be found, but it's difficult.  In Thailand, a tolerance for chili is taken with nationalistic and macho pride by all genders.  "I'm Thai and I love my country.  To show this to my others, I have to add more chili to my food at lunch break, because a Thai who can't handle burns on the tongue ain't a real Thai.  Yep, that and drinking icy-cold water."  This confirms what Mr. Hanni stated in his book: that a chili preference does not equate to being a Tolerant in myVinotype.

As mentioned in his book, aromatic spices and spices that cause burning-sensations are different.  However, when you ask a Thai "Do you like spicy food?" the question is automatically interpreted as "Do you like chili peppers?"  For many of us, other spices are not at all considered when answering this question.  I find that rather odd, because spicy should not mean only chili  it should mean all spices!  Food served at the royal courts of medieval Europe had plenty of imported spices.  This was done to boast the host's wealth, as well as to enhance the flavour of dishes, in particular game meat that royalties and the nobility loved to hunt in their past-time.  Using that example for my Thai and other Asian readers, by that definition, medieval European food must also be considered spicy.

I hope that by writing this essay, I've provided you, dear reader, with more insight and new discoveries about myVinotype in the Southeast-Asian context.  The philosophy is still relatively new in the world of wine, so naturally, it has to continue to grow and adapt in order to fulfill its potential.

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