Home - T Singapore

How So-Called ‘Ugly Food’ Is Challenging Notions of What We Crave

By Ligaya Mishan

A still life inspired by #darkcuisine, featuring (from left) Italian cavallucci cookies, black radish, turkey, octopus and makrut limes.
 
Esther Choi/Victoria Petro-Conroy
A still life inspired by #darkcuisine, featuring (from left) Italian cavallucci cookies, black radish, turkey, octopus and makrut limes.

The fish rear up from the pie, almost a school of them, whole silvery pilchards — a type of herring — half buried, half erupting from the crust. Only their heads, eyes entreating the heavens, are visible, although some versions of the dish let the frilly tails surface, too, as if the fish were trapped midswim by an avalanche of dough. The rest of their bodies lie in the depths of the pie, leaching their brine into a rich custard, larded with bacon and hard-boiled eggs and spiked with mustard.

Such is the surreal glory of stargazy pie — also known as starry-gazy-pie — so called because the fish’s eyes appear to be “studying the stars,” according to the English antiquarian James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps’s Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words (1846). Originally an English recipe from the cobblestone coastal village of Mousehole, Cornwall, the dish is believed to date to a season of famine in the 16th century, when (the story goes) one gutsy fisherman took to the stormy seas and hauled in enough marine life to feed the town. Its residents were so hungry that the bounty was baked all at once, in a single pie. Every year, on Dec. 23, locals celebrate the survival of their ancestors with a festival dedicated to the dish.

Beyond Cornwall, stargazy pie is largely unknown, even to many Brits. In China, however, this obscure regional specialty has become a subject of fascination, an exemplar of all that the Chinese find baffling about Western cooking. In 2012, an account on Douban — a social network focused on lifestyle and culture and whose reach as of September exceeds 300 million active monthly users — started sharing photographs from the British supper-club chef Kerstin Rodgers’s blog, including her version of stargazy pie. Commenters found the dish bizarre and suggested that the fish’s dignity had been compromised, although whether this was intended as criticism or comedy isn’t entirely clear. (Fish heads are featured without controversy in Chinese cooking, so perhaps the outrage was the dough.)

The Chinese have a name for food that challenges squeamish sensibilities: hei an liao li, roughly translated as “dark cuisine.” The term, of relatively recent vintage, is derived from “Chuuka Ichiban!” (“China’s Number One!”), a 1990s Japanese manga by Etsushi Ogawa, about a boy chef in 19th-century China who battles an underground crime syndicate called the Dark Cooking Society. Taken from this context, “dark” retains the sense of operating in the shadows and going beyond the bounds of what’s officially permitted. The term isn’t necessarily a pejorative; it’s used as an affectionate label for dishes that at first glance may seem off-putting, even downright alien, but whose very transgressiveness speaks to their charm.

“Dark cuisine” is a supple phrase, not confined to unfamiliar foreign delicacies. “It can refer to anything that’s particularly hard to swallow,” explained Jenny Gao, a Shanghai- and Los Angeles-based chef who was born in Chengdu, in southwestern China, and raised primarily in Canada. It applies to street food from stalls of suspect hygiene as well as “amateur disasters,” she said, but also, and more strikingly, to a trend of “deliberately made creative food that’s unexpected.” Under the flag of dark cuisine, home cooks and chefs alike have been experimenting with dubious combinations of ingredients: an omelet enclosing fresh kiwi wedges; granules of ban lan gen (isatis root), a bitter herbal medicine, dissolved into instant-noodle broth; a cloud of cotton candy melting into a bowl of zha jiang mian (a thick gravy of ground meat and soybean paste over noodles). This is public and performative, the results posted online for humor and shock value — although they’re also consumed, which is part of the joke: Look what I ate.

Some proponents of dark cuisine seek to maximize gruesomeness, as with cookies shaped into cut-off fingers and daubed with bloodlike jam. But others see the potential for achieving actual deliciousness: Gao first heard of dark cuisine last summer, when an employee at an ice cream shop in Chongqing was spotted spooning chile crisp — a scarlet oil heavy with crushed chiles, shallots fried into sweet shards and numbing Sichuan peppercorns — over vanilla soft serve. Once tasted, it wasn’t so outlandish: Hot and cold, crunch and cream, salt and sugar are natural partners. Gao was so taken by the juxtaposition of flavors and texture that she presented the same dessert at a launch party in Hollywood for her Fly by Jing brand of chile crisp.

The embrace of such unorthodox pairings may seem frivolous, a passing fancy rather than a sign of some cultural shift. It’s worth remembering, however, that historically, the average citizen in China has not been rewarded for going against the grain, and the government still patrols internet activity. So there’s something slightly rebellious and restive about making absurd, potentially inedible food out of a few carelessly slapped-together ingredients, defying the strictures of centuries of elaborate Chinese cooking.

Esther Choi/Victoria Petro-ConroyA still life of (from left) black radishes, a peach-and-condensed-milk Jell-O mold crowned with whipped cream and a pig’s foot, two lime Jell-O molds — one studded with green olives and celery (background), the other with sardines and cheddar cheese (foreground) — and walnuts.
A still life of (from left) black radishes, a peach-and-condensed-milk Jell-O mold crowned with whipped cream and a pig’s foot, two lime Jell-O molds — one studded with green olives and celery (background), the other with sardines and cheddar cheese (foreground) — and walnuts.

In the West, there’s no true correlative to dark cuisine. Gao suggested a link to the towering milkshakes that briefly dominated Instagram a few years ago, with cupcakes sprouting from the froth like Athena from the head of Zeus. But for Westerners and particularly Americans, reared on individualism and the myth of the maverick who wins by breaking the rules, such oddball creations don’t carry much cultural freight. They’re just stoner food, thrown together at midnight or invented by amateur cooks out of desperation on food-competition shows such as MTV’s defunct “Snack-Off,” which earlier this decade encouraged the creation of intentionally yucky snacks, perhaps worst among them a creation that was cake filled with a Twinkie’s marshmallowy guts, then topped with candied apple and beef.

More subversive are the minimalist and impeccably haute plates designed for Instagram by Chef Jacques La Merde (@chefjacqueslamerde, the alias of the Toronto-based chef Christine Flynn) made up almost entirely of junk food, such as Velveeta foam, spherified Gatorade and Doritos crushed into a decorative “soil.” At the opposite end of the spectrum are the “struggle plates” highlighted by the account @cookingforbae, memorializing the failures of home cooks: plasticky processed cheese slices wilted over French fries, perhaps, or octopus tentacles swarming from the cavity of a chicken (a picture that was, indeed, reposted by a Chinese Instagrammer with the hashtag #darkcuisine). While the satire of these accounts isn’t particularly profound — you get the point after a few posts — they share the same mission as dark cuisine, gleefully undermining the idea of conventionally beautiful (and therefore worthy) food.

A similar interrogation takes place at the Disgusting Food Museum, which opened in October 2018 in Malmo, Sweden, and recently mounted a two-month exhibition in Los Angeles. The collection of 80 items from 41 countries includes the likes of salty licorice from Scandinavia, sticky natto (fermented soybeans) from Japan and funky huitlacoche (a fungus that feeds on corn) from Mexico. Viewers are invited to sample certain dishes, with a complimentary barf bag in hand, just in case. “I want people to question what they find disgusting,” the lead curator, Samuel West, a Swedish clinical and organizational psychologist, has said.

Still, the museum’s self-proclaimed “disgusting” holdings cite China more than any other country. Among the delights attributed to the nation are an anemic-pink coil of bull penis and rice wine infused with the corpses of baby mice, neither of which is actually consumed on a regular basis, and hardly the equivalent of the museum’s American contributions: root beer and Pop-Tarts. Even within China, some diners might look skeptically at mouse wine and call it dark cuisine; as Gao pointed out, China is so vast, what’s happily eaten in one province might be shunned as strange in another.

Rodgers, the maker of the stargazy pie that won fame in China, wondered, in a 2017 conversation on her blog with the Chinese-cookbook author Fuchsia Dunlop, why her dish had caused such a fuss. Dunlop replied, “You are just getting a taste of what it’s like the other way round” — the way the West routinely levies mockery at Eastern dishes. Earlier this decade, an online report on CNN placed pidan, or century egg, a snack and ingredient beloved in China and throughout Southeast Asia — the egg preserved in slaked lime until the whites brown and the yolks turn green — on a list of the world’s “most ‘revolting’ ” foods. Pidan is enshrined at the Disgusting Food Museum, too. The American chef David Chang addresses such prejudice directly in the title of his Netflix series “Ugly Delicious” (2018). In sampling regional delicacies from Japan, China, Mexico and the American South, he argues not simply that seemingly ugly dishes can, in fact, taste good, but that ugliness itself is a sham: a cultural construct. When Chang, who is of Korean descent, was growing up in Virginia in the 1980s, his peers thought the food he ate at home and brought for school lunches was “gross,” as he’s recalled. Now, they clamor for similar dishes at his 12 restaurants worldwide. Eating, one of the most basic human acts, can separate as much as connect us.

But consider again the stargazy pie. For diners from both East and West, whole sardines on a plate, however beady-eyed, would be unlikely to inspire dread; nor would a pie with an untroubled crust, seafood tidily tucked beneath. It’s the sight of the fish gasping to escape their pastry tomb that startles and thrills. The dish belongs to a category of food that compels us in part by repelling us — and draws us now perhaps more than ever, in an age when we’re relentlessly inundated with images of gorgeous food, when social media’s fantasy record of the way we eat is a ceaseless slide show of ingredients arrayed and lit down to the last centimeter.

Stargazy pie makes no accommodation for contemporary notions of what looks delicious or makes a dish an object of status or desire. It’s liberatingly unbeautiful; it doesn’t hide what it is. Instead, it offers the starkest, simplest, most comforting vision of how to live: Here is fish, here is pie. Let’s eat.