Top Chef Episode 5: Weird Food and Street Food

This week's episode had an overall theme of fusion cuisine...I think. The main elimination challenge was about making street food, but more on that later. Let's review the blind taste testing challenge first.

On the British food contest show MasterChef, they had a similar food identification test every week - it was the first test given to the quarterfinalists. The MasterChef tests were not done with blindfolds on: the contestants had to identify various foods by sight, taste, smell and touch. The tests included things like identifying various kinds of meat (is it venison, or is it aged beef?), herbs (coriander or chervil?), oils (walnut or olive? extra-virgin or not?) and so on. On the other hand, on this episode of Top Chef they lined up the oddest array of mostly esoteric Asian ingredients. No wonder the best anyone could do was to identify 4 out of 20. As Tom Colicchio points out in his Bravo TV blog, this was not a true test of the contestants' ability to taste ingredients. If you don't know what something is since you've never encountered it, how are you supposed to identify it? I grew up eating a lot of those food items, so I possibly would have done a bit better, but for these American contestants it was quite an unfair challenge. (However, Tom is quite wrong about Japanese chefs not being able to identify ketchup and marshmallows and the like - they are quite common in Japan!)

I think this food lineup and the ones presented on MasterChef point to one of the fundamental differences between the shows: MasterChef does have the mission of finding "Britain's Best Amateur Chef", and is a food show second, but Top Chef is at heart a rather gimmicky reality show first and foremost. That being said, I really missed seeing the scene where Miguel spit up whatever he tasted that we saw in the teaser last week. Darn.

In any case, Andrea won this challenge by identifying 4 out of 20 ingredients. This was a bit surprising to me at first, but in retrospect it makes sense: in her quest to find tasty yet nutritous 'natural foods', she must have tried quite a lot of different things, especially from Asian cuisines.

Later on the contestants made up their own "Junk Food Tasting Challenge", which was hilarious. I really admire both Miguel and Dave, in a sort of backhanded way, for being able to identify a Whopper. I don't think I could do that.

On to the street food elimination challenge. The task given to the contestants was to come up with a Latin/something fusion street food, to be distributed in the Mission District of San Francisco, the heart of the Latino community. I must say that the creations by 3 out of the 4 teams looked quite edible. The sopes (corn cakes) with char siu (roast pork) and Asian slaw produced by Lee Anne and Stephen looked the most appetizing to me, but I would have definitely gone for Tiffani and Dave's Cubanito sandwich-like thing with Moroccan flavors. And heck, Miguel and Andrea's Indian-influence burrito didn't look bad at all, though they got criticized for producing a street food that couldn't be eaten with one hand, or something. I think that was a bit harsh of the judges. There are plenty of street foods that are eaten with utensils, or at least with two hands. When's the last time you only needed one hand for a really good drippy Philly cheesesteak for example?

This challenge reminded me of the Epcot Food and Wine Festival held each year at Walt Disney World, where various nibbles are served up as 'street food'. One of the most delicious offerings I've had there has been a cool watermelon agua fresca from the Mexico food stall. It is so good that I've been known to go back there for several cups of the drink alone, but the sweet yet refreshing beverage makes a great accompaniment to the slightly spicy food offerings. Stephen/Lee Anne and Miguel/Andrea both served fruit drinks, and I think that was a great idea. The Stephen/Lee Anne lichee mojito in particular sounded nice, keeping the fusion theme going by using an Asian fruit for an agua fresca like drink. (If you've never had fresh lichees by the way, you are missing out on one the most delicious fruits on this earth.)

The only one that looked iffy was the Japanese-Latin combo thing that Harold and Lisa made. Even if they had remembered to pack the jicama and avocado salad, I'm not sure it would have made a difference. I don't know what they were thinking by serving half-raw tuna on the street, in the Mission. Lukewarm raw tuna that's been sitting around for a while? At best it's going to taste rather funny, I would think. It shows that neither Harold nor Lisa had much knowledge of Japanese food; if they had, they would have known that there are tons of Japanese street foods they could have drawn inspiration from. Tuna tataki is not one of them.

If I were to do such a task, I think I would have made sure to make something that smelled good from a distance. Grilled chicken skewers (yakitori) or something with a sweet and spicy sauce, perhaps? There used to be an amazing falafel and gyro cart near Rockefeller Center, from which wafted the most enticing smells...I could never resist stopping there whenever I passed. And who can resist the tantalizing aroma of hot roasted chestnuts? I think that Tiffani and Dave's Moroccan-mix may have had such enticing aromas wafting across from it.

Tiffani and Dave won the street food challenge, with Stephen and Lee Anne coming in a close second. Poor Lee Anne can't catch a break so far, but I'm rooting for her even more now. I was a bit surprised to see Miguel try to push all the blame for any failures their team had on Andrea, though he might have done it because she had immunity. Harold and Lisa were the losing team, and Lisa was eliminated. I think she was out of her depth on the show so her clock was ticking. Now we are getting down to just strong competitors, so it should get more interesting.

Some other notes:

  • Some of the Japanese foods I recognized in the blind tasting challenge included umeboshi (sour picked plums), natto (fermented sticky soy beans) and konnyaku (glucomannan, a totally calorie-free mass of gummy goo produced from starchy roots) - and I think I saw kanpyo (dried and re-constituted gourd). Kanpyo is commonly used in sushi rolls and is quite easy to eat, and konnyaku is basically a bland mass that takes on the flavors of anything it's cooked in. But umeboshi and natto are definitely acquired tastes!
  • I probably would have gotten tamarind, since I had an unforgettably bad encounter once with a Thai soup containing tamarind that was "off" and made me really sick. Since then I've been unable to even catch a whiff of tamarind without turning blue. But anyway...
  • Jicama is a nice salad vegetable that should be used more..I've never seen it sold here, though when I lived in New York I used it quite a lot. It's quite crispy, rather watery, and bland; it takes on the flavors around it while adding crunch. If you've never had it it is a bit like an Asian pear in texture, but without the sweetness.
  • Tataki is a Japanese cooking method, where a slab of fish or meat is quickly seared on the surface then cooled down. The inside remains rare. I made tuna tataki recently and turned it into an Asian-flavored pasta salad.
  • Funniest line: Lee Anne describing Stephen, "He's so white"! The mystery continues as to how a 24 year old can be so...odd. Wearing a suit and tie to sell street food? Is he nuts?
  • Gail Simmons mentions La Taqueria in her BravoTV blog. Mmm, carnitas. It's these kind of places I'd love to discover with the Food Destinations event!

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I like (and agree with) your perspectives on Masterchef - it's nice to see a comparison with similar shows elsewhere

... I watched as many episodes as I could - I was particularly impressed that the girl (whose name escapes me right) who identified all the game birds... I thought her food looked great and I'd like to have seen her win (or at least make the finals)...

... needless to say, I'm mortified that Peter won the title! ;-(

they seem to be repeating some of the heats on Saturday mornings on our BBC "Saturday Kitchen" program (about 2 hours of cookery show repeats and live cooking) - I hope they show all of them because there was another girl (Alison somebody) who cooked inspiring food but didn't make the Quarter Finals... hopefully they'll both go on to have successful careers and I will hear about them and can go eat in their restaurants! :-)

Giles, I actually recorded all the shows on my DVR, except for one that I missed because the beeb changed the air time for the Olympics.

I think a lot of people were upset that Peter won. No one I know that watched the show favored him at all.

One contestant that didn't make it past the quarterfinals that I would love to see back next season for the callback round is the Polish girl...her name escapes me now, but she made beautiful looking, simple food. She lost out to Becky I think...

Psst... the corn cakes are called sopes. Sopas, with an a, translates as "soups."

(Eek, my first post on your lovely website and it's in the form of a correction! I hope you don't mind, I know you like to be precise wherever possible. PS, I love your site!)

oops...thanks for catching that typo Emma! I've corrected it now. And thanks for the compliments! :)

We looked into growing jicama in the garden and were surprised to find out it's a tropical vegetable. It takes a few years to grow very large roots and it's killed by frost. Not that we don't see other stuff of that nature imported to Europe.

You do understanding that Miguel was identifying this kind of Whoppers, not this kind of Whopper, right?