Current affairs

PPFF #171: Hawaiian pizza

Good morning,

On the 10th of June, as many of you might have already been aware, Sam Panopoulos, a Canadian restaurateur passed away. It was a sad day, not just for his family and friends but also for all those who appreciate the ingenious pineapple-and-ham combination on oven-baked, tomato sauce covered circular flatbread, served all over the world. Yes, that controversial invention of his which polarised the first world, already plagued by many other devastating questions such as ‘ios or Android?’, and set it ablaze with what we commonly refer to as Hawaiian ‘pizza’.

There are plenty of half-wit semi-entertaining articles on this issue out there (obviously including this very piece but also this, this , this and this – to get you started). But as trivial and frivolous as this pseudo-controversy might seem, this debate is probably not confined to pineapple as a pizza topping (I’m sure there is a sociological angle one can approach this from too, but I’m not qualified to go there). There is a slightly more substantial culinary issue here if, for analytical purposes, we deconstruct the pineapple and ham to the fundamentals; mixing savoury and sweet tastes.

The five basic tastes (sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and savoury – ignore ‘umami’ – it’s contestable) we’re hardwired with, apparently provide our taste-buds with crucial information about the food we’re about to swallow e.g. sweetness signals high density of energy/calories, and saltiness, minerals and nutrients, while bitterness/sourness signals potential toxicity.

Whilst I understand that culinary masochists would condition themselves to like all things bitter and sour, most of our tongues favour salty and sweet over bitter and sour especially if each taste is to be experienced on its own. So, when sweet is combined with salty, that’s a double-whammy of what our body is programmed to prefer; at this point smug Hawaiian pizza lovers are probably thinking ‘exactly!’.

Well, not so fast.

The thing is we all know salt is pretty special, in that not only does it taste salty but it is a flavour enhancer in low doses (with ‘low doses’ being the key phrase in this sentence). In fact in high doses (relatively speaking) salt is a ‘bitterness/sourness taste-bud activator’.

Now to finally bring you to the Hawaiian pizza abhorrence, I surmise that (amongst other reasons), maybe it’s not so much the sweet-and-savoury combination per se that offends people’s taste-buds as the poor imbalance between the two tastes and/or the (wrong) amount of salt in the ham, relative to that of pineapple in the first place. Yes. That’s right. It’s the ham!

Have a sweet and savoury Friday.


PPFF #138: Fish and Chips

Good morning,

I know Friday fish and chips as a topic have been written about to death, but as they are one of those quintessentially definitive features of British life, I’ll repeat the same information others have already disseminated. And also someone asked me at the end of last week what was the reason behind the peculiar practice of eating fish and chips on Friday in Britain. At first I thought it was obvious; because the combination of crispy golden batter and soft, succulent white meat of fish, the joy of which is only multiplied by accompaniment of steaming hot, crisp chips, is basically perfect and irresistible, duh – and if we ate these gastronomical wonders every day, first of all we would make everything else unbearably boring hence end up killing ourselves, or we would probably die of heart attack in the 10th week of eating them every day, double duh!

Well, neither of them is actually the reason. Here are the facts. As with most things British, in their origin they weren’t British at all, though they have been successfully appropriated and integrated into the collective British cultural fabric (which also reminds me to mention that Fabric got shut down this week). There are more than a few articles about them online and reading any number of them would reveal the following in common:

  • Eating fried fish on Friday was practised by 16th century Jewish refugees from Portugal who came to Britain.
  • Chips (fried potatoes) came to Britain from 17th century Belgium or France; maybe that’s why they call them French fries in the US
  • Fish and chips were very rarely (if at all) sold together until apparently first sold together by a shop that opened in Bow, East London in 1860, by a Jewish immigrant named Joseph Malin.
  • These were later ‘exported’ from England to Scotland and Wales by Italian immigrants.

It’s also claimed that the reason behind fish and chips on Friday in Britain (or at least the fish part) might be the old Christian tradition of meatless Friday meals in commemoration of the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday. This does sort of tie in with the Jewish thing mentioned earlier, as a lot of Christian things have been borrowed from Judaism and it’s possible that they have been post-rationalised for legitimacy.

Enjoy your fish and chips. Have a good Friday


PPFF #133: Taste

Good morning,

I remember many years ago, having the TV on and mindlessly flicking through the five channels on offer in the UK, probably on a Saturday afternoon, lazing around and/or trying to cure a hangover when I stumbled upon a re-run of a short programme where the presenter took to the streets and invited random passersby to come and taste different wines or ice cream (or any other edible products) from different brands of varying perceived qualities. Being mischievous, I guess ultimately to be entertaining to a wider audience, the presenter would either swap or give out the exact same wine in different packaging to the unsuspecting participants and ask them to give a rating on each. As expected (or not), most people rated the wine generally perceived to be the most expensive the highest and so on and so forth. It was quite a devious stitch-up, of course, and when the presenter revealed that what they had just tasted were exactly the same, these poor, miserable sods were either in disbelief or dead embarrassed (or both) – all the while I was chuckling at their stupidity of not being discerned enough to be able to tell the difference and their pretentiousness for wanting to appear to have better taste that they actually did, with a good dose of ridicule and judgment on my part, which in my mind they obviously deserved.

Little did I know the joke was on me (and other viewers who adopted the same view); a number of researches in the recent few years (e.g. Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response) have proved that perception alone actually changes our body’s response to external sensory stimuli, and in the case of that TV progeamme, perception changes the taste that we experience.

Take this study for example, titled “The Role of Auditory Cues in Modulating the Perceived Crispness and Staleness of Potato Chips“, which published the results of this experiment where research subjects were invited to taste Pringles crisps (the blandest crisp/cake/chip imaginable) and spit out to give a rating on how crisp/fresh they were. The twist here was that the participants wore a headset to which their own crunching sound was fed from a nearby microphone. Whilst all the crisps were of exactly the same freshness/crispness (as consistent as quality-control of the then-owner, Procter and Gamble could have them), the volume and pitch of the crunch were carefully controlled and varied from one participant to another. They were then asked if all the crisps were the same; nearly all of them reported that they were different in their freshness. The research conclusion was that the Pringles with the loudest or highest pitched crunches were perceived to be fifteen percent fresher than those with the softest crunches.

And here’s a non-lab-based example, instead of sound, of colour affecting taste. Apparently in 2011, the Coca-Cola Company (or CCC) released in the US special edition white-coloured Coke cans to raise funds for endangered polar bears. Soon after the release the cans were recalled, however, when consumers complained that the CCC had also changed its formula. The CCC later claimed they did no such thing.

Being a little carried away, I managed to dig up this anecdotal evidence in someone’s blog, mainly about racism but I thought the following was pertinent to this whole perception thing:

“I once had a voice-over job offer rescinded because when the director saw me in person, she suddenly claimed my speech had a Chinese accent — despite having heard my tape and claiming my American voice was exactly what she needed only a few minutes earlier.”

This was from an ethnically Chinese, American traveller.

I know this is a lot to read/digest on a Friday but take this away if nothing else; if you happen to be serving a wine of a universally accepted inferior quality to your guests tonight, pour the content into a fancy looking carafe, preferably with lots of bends and curves, which would add a perception of exquisiteness. The wine will actually taste better as long as the guests don’t see the cheap bottle from which the wine was poured. But if you’re serving a decent enough wine, leave the wine in the bottle and make sure your guests see it.

Have a good Friday – believe/perceive that it is a good one, it will be.


PPFF #132: Tiesday

Good morning,

Yes I know. It’s Friday. You didn’t just wake up on a Tuesday, four days after a crazy amnesia-inducing Thursday night-out, and no, it’s not a typo; granted, it may be a bad pun but I meant Tiesday, as in, a day when one would sport a tie as part of one’s work attire.

This Tuesday gone, four of us in our office participated in a Tiesday. I’m happy to report that it was gender-neutral and inclusive with a female colleague willingly participating in this event. If you’ve had the time to google tiesday, you would know that this somewhat trite happening is nothing new and has been done before; for good causes; for charity events etc.

We didn’t have any of those good causes, however; it was as random as some guy with a head full of loose screws deciding that one day he would wear a tie and convince 3 others to do the same in a feeble attempt to manufacture a sense of event in an otherwise mundane work environment. Whatever the motive, in trying to find out the origin of neckties, I found in the past few days, that the subject of necktie, this relatively small piece of garment, is so unexpectedly multi-faceted, complex and politically charged that I had a hard time keeping up; I’d even argue G-strings and bikinis are the only other two things in the western sartorial history that come anywhere near being as controversial as neckties (no, mankinis are not even comparable). I was only trying to find out who invented or popularised it and/or where it came from but in the process I came across the following wide range of ‘related’ topics; interpretation of a tie as an antiquated phallic symbol, wearing a tie and its positive effect on work productivity , Iran’s necktie ban claiming them as a symbol of western decadence,  gender politics crying foul for its sexist nature, implication of the (male) wearer’s aspirations and ambition (equivalent to female power-dressing) – and I can’t find the source now but someone might have even described them as a morbid thing or essentially a noose around one’s neck, ready for that hanging action if required, like a convenient ‘self-destruct’ button after a particularly stressful day at work.

Far from all this misplaced sociopolitical aggression and gender politics, the modern origin of the necktie was nothing like that and it wasn’t merely symbolic at all and it was highly functional (I have to say ‘modern’ because as with everything else, neck ties included of course, irritatingly go back to the Romans and/or the Chinese):

The legend has it during The Thirty Years’ War (17th Century. Very messy. Involved over a dozen countries in Europe) the French King Louis the 13th hired Croatian mercenaries to fight for France. These Croats used to wear a ‘scarf’ around their neck as part of their uniform, which tied either the collar of their shirt and/or the top of their jackets. Not only did these Croats win battles for France but also their fashion sense impressed King Louis to the extent that his majesty made this garment part of the dress code for French court appearances. Indeed the French name for neckties ‘cravates’, comes from German Krabate, which comes from Serbo-Croatian Hrvat, meaning ‘Croat’ or ‘Croatian’.

Going back to the insanity that surrounds neckties, I’d say, even at the risk of being misinterpreted and misconstrued, I’m still going to wear my tie next Tiesday, and the whiteness of the shirt I’ll be wearing will not represent the general mundanity of the work I do and the vivid colour(s) of the necktie I’ll be wearing will not symbolise my desperate attempt to contrive excitement and eventfulness.

Have a good Friesday

Yup, today’s a day you have fries.