1. Cuisine

Food reviews are inaccurate because taste is subjective. Discuss.

“Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow.”

It is one of the first sentences I memorized from Shakespeare’s plays. I memorized not because of any examination; I memorized because the line is beautiful. The line conjures an image of a flower, resplendent to the world, but deep within, under the earth, the roots are writhing with agony and suffering. The line conjures an image of a tiny plant, perhaps a small tree, so tiny you think you could easily uproot it and you try and you can’t–the sound of the word “pluck” suggests strength of uprooting and discordance from inability to fulfill the aim–because the roots go further than you think; You can’t even fathom the depth of your own sorrow. So sorrow may be a beautiful flower but has deep roots. Isn’t it an epic sentence?

When a professor asked why we study Shakespeare, I replied, “Because the lines are beautiful.”

He said, “But beauty is subjective. Different cultures have different notions of beauty.”

This was the moment I lost respect for him.

At a university level, you question and think about general assumptions and axioms. You cannot sprout platitudes because knowledge is found when you examine assumptions.

“Beauty is subjective” is an assumption but it cannot be always true. During two great catastrophes, 9/11 and Japan Tsunami, I was at a public setting with a bunch of strangers and we, gaping, stood in front of the public television to watch the tragedies unfold. It may be callous to say this but this is also the truth: The devastation is sublime; there is a terrible beauty in the destruction. The point is: if beauty is subjective, why was a group of strangers of different backgrounds fixated on the images? Another example: movies are shown across the world but why do audience from different countries find scenes beautiful if beauty is subjected to cultural influence? Surely there are some things we all find beautiful. Like we find kindness in a person beautiful.

From my analogy of beauty, “taste is subjective” is an assumption. If taste is subjective, then how do experts agree on books and movies that are classics? How do people judge art pieces or good/bad writing? If taste is subjective, then all art pieces should cost the same. Why do people collectively agree on liking one restaurant and hating the other?

What we are trying to say is although taste is subjective and individualized, there is an objective way to look at things. A movie, for example: you may hate the style but you can objectively state that the director has a unique style that pushes the boundaries of art (Blair Witch Project for example); you can hate and admire it at the same time. The same goes for food. You may dislike sweet food, but objectively you can see how well prepared, well thought-out and how well the ingredients complement each other. In other words, there is criteria for judging food objectively. Is it too oily? Too salty? Is it too jerlat? Is it complex or overly complicated? Does the cooking bring out the essence of the ingredients? The individual parts of the dish may fail but is the dish better as a whole than sum of its parts?

For any food writer, this is, ironically, the ultimate aim of food writing: to be able to maintain a distance from the food, to judge it objectively without bringing in one’s own prejudices, without saying “I like this because..”, without bringing in the ego. The ultimate aim of food writing is thus to efface the self, the “I,” fusing the food writer with the readers into one, making reviews as objective as possible, thus gaining as much accuracy as possible–it is impossible to be 100% accurate on taste–and allowing readers to pass judgement based on the objective reviews. Trust the readers.

So to answer the question if food reviews are reliable, you have to read into the style of writing of the food reviews. If the food reviewer uses many “I”s or writes in an overbearing way that tries to show off his/her personality more than the food, then the review can’t be very accurate because s/he is too subjective. But if the reviewer takes a back seat and presents the eatery as it is, then you can trust the review.

(That being said, we at RERG try but still find it it difficult to avoid saying “We like this because..”)

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Categories: 1. Cuisine

12 replies »

  1. The title of this post sounds like a topic coming up in this year’s A Level GP paper!

    Since its discuss, well, I will have to say some of the points I will disagree. Why? Well, although there are criteria for judging food, at the end of the day different people has different taste. Different people will like their food at different saltiness, different sweetness. e.g. What is salty for one maybe deem as not salty enough for another.

    Well, just my 2 cents.

    ps: you should go and join MOE and be a Literature or GP teacher. haha =)

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    • Point conceded. I think I understand what you mean. You mean different people have different range of capabilities. Such as some people can see colors very well but some are color blind. Like in the case of a designer or painter where being colorblind is a disadvantage, I think food reviewers should have extra sensitive tastebuds or at least above average tastebuds. That food-reviewers-should-have-tastebuds should be my caveat in this entry. My bad.

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  2. I disagree with the point that if a blogger uses the word “I” a lot in their review, they are not being objective about the food. It is a fact that everyone has different tastebuds, depending on their upbringing and familiarity with the particular cuisine.

    For example, most Singaporeans will say that they love durians, but Caucasians generally hate it. The Taiwanese love their stinky tofu (smell and all), while most Singaporeans hate it. By your definition of “objectivity” – in that the food must be something that most people can agree on, and “objectivity”, durian would be considered objectively nice by Singaporeans and objectively yucky by the Taiwanese, BUT objectively on an international level, nothing can be agreed upon as good food because for there are as many lovers of a particular food, you’ll find just as many detractors. It all boils down to what we grew up with calling food.

    For a Malay brought up with cuisine that’s has extremely complex flavors, they may think that
    Japanese food is way too simple and lacking in flavor. Conversely, Japanese may find Malay food too complex for them. It cannot be said that either of these people don’t have tastebuds. They simply have different tastebuds. Because taste IS subjective. Which is what I think FoodieFC is saying as well, and I think mistaken by yourself.

    Kindness is beautiful. True that everyone will agree on that objectively. But what constitutes as kind is a completely different creature, because what is kindness is subjective.

    That your professor said that beauty is subjective is always true. The Asians think that fair skin is beautiful, but the Caucasians think that tanned skin is the way to go. Different cultures and races have different notions of beauty.

    We watch, fixated by the destruction of 9/11, not because everyone sees that destruction as a form of terrible beauty, but because we all have our own reasons to be captivated by such destruction. Some are riveted by the drama, some are simply stunned by the shock of it all, some have a personal connection with loss, and of course, some are just sadists.

    Whether a movie’s cinematography is beautiful is subjective. Just look at the Academy Awards, the movie that wins best cinematography is decided merely by the academy, which consists of a limited number of judges. Just look at the next day’s news, there will be just as many critics slamming the awards.

    By the way, most don’t actually agree on whether a book is a classic, or whether someone’s writing is good or bad, or whether an art piece is good. Many people say that the Mark Twain or Jane Eyre are classics, but I can probably find just as many people who say that these books are irrelevant and pretentious. Many people think that Salman Rushdie’s writing is deep but I constantly find many who think his writing is way too complex, and incredibly pompous. The cost of an art piece is dependent on demand and supply. Even if an art piece is priced highly, it may not be in demand because art is subjective, the beauty of the piece is in the eye of the beholden buyer.

    I use the word “I” in my reviews a lot because I recognize that what I find delicious may not be a view shared by others. I like my food generally delicate, with clean and clear flavors. By using the word “I” and disclosing to my readers my peculiar preferences, I’m letting my readers know that a particular dish is nice, based on my particular tastebuds. They can then judge, using my preferences as a yardstick, whether that dish is something they will find likable. I’m using my subjectivity to assist my readers to objectively decide whether they’ll like something.

    A “reviewer takes a back seat and presents the eatery as it is” isn’t really helping the reader know whether the food will be to his/her liking because there is no point of reference. Yeah, I know you like it, but how will I know if I will?

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    • I’ve actually written a long response but there are some problems on the website. So in short, we could go on and banter and I could raise points that you’ve said and you will rebut but the point is–isn’t that the beauty of food writing? That we have different opinions and philosophies on how to write? In any case, I am always very careful of using “I” because why should “I” be the locus for the readers? Not using “I” is a way to decenter power. But again, my philosophy is not yours. So thank you for your thoughtful, intelligent and constructive comments. It is much appreciated and has given much food for thought.

      ps: By the way, this isn’t meant to be dismissive. It’s just too troublesome to type things out. If you want, we can meet for a meal and talk about it. Talking is faster and easier. :)

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