Tuesday, July 30, 2013

America Wins the Mustard War

Growing up, four or five days a week my school lunch entree was a single slice of chopped ham between two slices of white bread slathered with yellow mustard. Even after college, I continued packing this same lunch for work almost every day except, as a wage-earner in control of my own destiny, I boldly expanded my sandwich repertoire to include two slices of chopped ham and sometimes (gasp!) cheese. I never realized lunch could be so much more, but on to my point: after eating literally thousands of boring ham sandwiches cemented with yellow mustard, I've had enough yellow mustard to last me a lifetime.

I remember the first time I had real (American) Chinese food with Chinese hot mustard. (Of course back in the 70's my mom occasionally made chop suey from a can and mixed it with ground beef, but that qualifies for Chinese food about as much as Spagettio's qualifies as Italian--but we never had hot mustard with it that version of chop suey.) Early in my career, I went with some co-workers to a Chinese restaurant where we started lunch with some eggrolls. Following everyone else's lead, I unwittingly dipped my eggroll into a generous portion of Chinese mustard. Seconds later, a volcano rolled through my sinuses and I grabbed my water to douse the flames. But what I found really amazing was that I immediately wanted more!

And so began my love affair with hot Chinese mustard and its cousin, wasabi. In fact, wasabi became the real reason I love sushi. I love the rush and the feeling of risk that maybe this time I might have taken too much... then “Ahhhhhhh!” the sweet release as it flushes out my sinuses. In much the same way that you should never eat at a barbecue restaurant tif you can't smell it from a mile away--if you didn't have a runny nose when you leave a Chinese restaurant, you should cross it off your list.

Way back then, when I first came to love hot mustard, I didn't even care about the eggrolls; I just needed a vehicle for dipping into that awesome, gratifying, sinus-clearing hot stuff. You could have given me a plate of cardboard toilet paper rolls and I probably would have declared them "fantastico!" if the mustard was good.

Flash forward to the present. Because of our recent long, drawn out moving process and having to take care of two houses for a while, we spent a lot of time on the road which meant we didn't feel much like cooking. And so we have had more pizza and Chinese food delivered in the past year than in all previous years combined. This has made us experts on eggrolls and Chinese hot mustard. But after a few deliveries, I began to notice that the "mustard effect" wasn't quite what it used to be; it was taking more and more mustard to get a decent fix. Had I developed a tolerance, like a meth addict?

We switched to a different Chinese restaurant for delivery but nothing changed, the mustard didn't seem hot at all. In fact, upon close examination I realized that the mustard looked and tasted more like the yellow mustard I had eaten growing up than it did the Chinese mustard I had come to love. In desperation we bought a dry hot mustard mix from the grocery store, but this too tasted bland and heatless.

Where oh where had my hot mustard gone?

Sadly, it appears to have undergone the slow but inevitable Americanization process that many original foods and flavors fall victim to. We don't appreciate cultural or regional differences when it comes to food. You can find the same chain restaurants, in virtually any city in any state. PopEyes is considered authentic New Orleans fare to many of us. And Taco Bell is "Mexican" food. But we don't want surprises in our food. And we want a Taco Bell bean burrito to taste exactly the same wherever we go whether we're in Anchorage or Albany. With this homogenization, some foods slowly morph together, and the masses get what they want. Thus, Chinese restaurant owners have undoubtedly, over time, catered to the non-adventurous American tongue by subbing familiar mild yellow mustard for their authentic, fume-inducing Chinese one.

I suppose it's democracy at its best but the victory of plain, banal yellow mustard over Chinese mustard makes me weep, the way a good dose of Chinese mustard used to. Guess I'll go make myself a chopped ham sandwich.


  1. You are right about how Americanized most ethnic foofs have become and how people percieve Taco Bell to be Mexican etc. BUT as much as I like ethnic foods, HOT doesn't work for me. While I might manage a small litte, itty bitty dab of hot mustard, wasabi would prove lethal.

    Have you gone to an Asian Market. Surely Asians seeking authentic food aren't settling for Americanized versions.

    As for the other possibilty, You might of burned off your taste buds.

    1. Good point about the taste buds. Yes, we have found some decent mustard at the local Asian market. Guess we'll need to keep a batch in the fridge. Ironically St. Pauli Girl can't handle a lot of hot mustard but she can handle the hottest peppers imaginable while I can't handle hot peppers. Thanks for the comment.

  2. I love wasabi and the sinus flushing...nom! I love spicy in general. You have probably built up some tolerance, but you can always go online and order the real thing and find out ;)

    1. Good point about ordering online. I'm sure you can find a lot of interesting hot sauces online. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Sad, isn't it, that simple things like a proper hot mustard has to change through the course of time? But it happens to so many food products. Sometimes I think it's me who has lost her taste buds...but it's not me at all.

    I doubt it is you who is to blame...but the food producers of today. Everything is coming out "plastic" with little taste.

    That ham sandwich sounds a good idea...if I felt like shooting out to the store to grab some ham and a loaf of the freshest bread around...I'd join you! But I don't feel like going out...so it's a salmon salad with some feta tossed through it instead - that will have to do me today!

    1. Actually the thought of that old ham sandwich turns my stomach. I'd vote for the salmon salad as well. Thanks for the comment