Chiobu has nagged me repeatedly to churn out lists, lists, lists: “Best Korean BBQ in Singapore,” “Best Dim Sum in Singapore,” “Best Affordable French Food,” etc. She said lists are easy to write, and people like lists, and forward lists on facebook, so our little blog can have a higher readership.
In an information-saturated society, it makes sense that people refer and defer to lists because lists make information digestible.
But I’ve weighed the pro against the con of making lists and I can’t in good conscience write any. Reliability is at stake: I’d rather own a reliable, responsible blog than a popular one.
Recently on Straits Times, food writer Wong Ah Yoke riled against the unreliability of Asia’s Best 50 Restaurants List. If experts can be unreliable, what hope bloggers, who are doing for passion and not as a career?
One of the best Japanese restaurants I had last year, Ezoca, has already closed down.
When experts write lists, I expect them to try everything. But eating is so long, and life is so short, and money even shorter. The only person who qualifies to write a “Best Japanese Restaurants in Singapore” list is one who has tried all 800 Japanese restaurants.
One reason why it is impossible to be reliable is that it’s almost impossible eat at 800 restaurants in a short time. Restaurants open and close so frequently that time makes lists irrelevant the moment lists are published. Suppose a blogger eats at a restaurant three months ago and comes up with a list. Within three months, the restaurant would have undergone many changes: the chef may change, for instance. F&B is a realm as volatile as Game of Thrones.
Besides the problem of time, there is the problem of taste. Although I’ve argued that there are some food so umami that it transcends culture and background, the truth is most food isn’t orgasmic; how delicious food is depends on our cultural background and individual tastes. I’ve a huge expat following, because, in general, expats can’t eat spice and so can’t I; my recommendations suit most expats’ palate. Singaporeans prefer sweet food (all our hawker food is sweet, fried carrot cake, all forms of noodles, etc), while Malaysians prefer theirs salty. So whom do the lists belong to? “Best Italian Food For [Whom], According to [Whom]”?
What is a best pasta? To whom? According to whom?
It is impossible to be 100% reliable because of time, culture and individual preferences but one can try to be as reliable as possible. And some responsible journalists try, like Mandy (Gourmet Adventures) whom I followed when she was researching for Her World for “Best Handmade Pastas in Singapore.” Journalists can write lists because they research, they have resources and time, it is their job: they can approach restaurants and tell them to give free food. Journalists research (somewhat) objectively, bloggers conjure lists based on their own subjective leanings. But if a blogger asks for free food like a journalist, s/he will be bitch-slapped till their own mothers won’t recognize them.
Besides researching, a second condition for reliability of lists, is character of the list-maker. How would one know if a list is made by a responsible or irresponsible journalist? A journalist once lamented to me that all he did was coin lists at his desk based on press releases because he didn’t have time to go to tastings. You’ll have to know the journalist and philosophy of the media company personally–does the company pile so much work on journalists to prevent them from researching?–to trust him/her but most of us don’t have that privilege.
One other exception I make for reliability of lists, besides responsible journalism, is, for niche markets. It is impossible to make a Best Waffles list because there are infinite places selling waffles. Below my block, there are already three shops selling waffles, among which, the nameless bakery has best waffles ever at $2. But lists on niche markets, like Hungry Ang Mo’s “Best Vegetarian Food in Singapore”, can be accurate and reliable insofar as reliability can go. (Besides, he has satisfied the two conditions for reliability of lists: (a) research: he has eaten at all vegetarian restaurants in Singapore; and (b) responsibility: I’ve met him and he is kind and honest, making him an excellent arbiter.)
That said, I don’t want to appear sanctimonious and have to confess our little blog has some lists, but with good reasons. We usually have a Best Food in Singapore list at the end of every year to reminisce our food adventures. Our “Best of” lists always come with an important disclaimer that we haven’t tried all the food in that category. See Best Mooncakes in Singapore and Best Cafes in Singapore, for examples. We don’t pretend to be know-it-all.
One last disclaimer of this article is that it is not aimed at anyone. The motivation for this piece comes from my inability to keep my opinions to myself. Inspired by Ah Yoke’s piece, I suddenly woke up at 5am, and words started flowing.
To bloggers who are writing lists and reading this, please don’t be offended. I’m not saying lists are unreliable, I’m saying I want to be as trustworthy as my flawed and compromised nature allows. It’s not about you, it’s about me. Live long and prosper.
Written by A. Nathanael Ho.