Every so often someone asks me, “What was you’re all-time favorite meal?” Fortunately, it’s not an easy question to answer. I’ve eaten quite a few wonderful meals over the last 22 years, so I have trouble singling out the one experience that surpasses the rest. A transcendent meal is not just about the food; I have certain criteria that extend beyond the fare.
A perfect meal includes…
Most importantly, the tastes must be memorable. I don’t know until well after the meal if it’s going to make the list. Simply remembering that the food was spectacular is not enough; I need to be able to describe what was on each plate and recreate the flavors and sensations in my mind. Usually something jogs my memory and everything comes flooding back.
The setting and ambiance are also important, whether at a restaurant or at someone’s home. The perfect meal includes an atmosphere that I am reluctant to walk away from, an environment that is welcoming, comfortable, but also unique.
And finally, if I can’t remember who was at dinner (or lunch), if I can’t remember what we talked about and how I felt, I’m not likely to memorialize it.
The meaning of food
One of my favorite things about food is the different meanings it carries for different people. My criteria for a transcendent meal don’t necessarily apply to others. There are subtleties and nuances based on my tastes that are unique to me, that I can’t quite put into words. My perfect meal might be mediocre to someone else, either because the flavors were slightly off for his/her palate or the ambiance of the restaurant wasn’t quite right.
Take my father for instance. I was at one of his all-time favorite meals, yet I don’t remember it quite as fondly. I was 10 at the time and wasn’t a fan of eggplants and tomatoes, so I don’t remember that perfect taste of Uncle Gui’s aubergine and tomato tian. I remember everything else, particularly the cantaloupe with port and the huge cicadas flying around the terrace, but I don’t put that meal at the top of my list because I can’t recreate the taste of that tian.