The culinary world is a strange one, where money works strangely.
Why does one restaurant get to charge S$60 for a steak, while another down the road charges S$18, and still have as many customers? Why do many Michelin star restaurants make less than fast food outlets, despite S$300 per head meals? But the oddest thing is how food can go from “cheap junk” to “exquisite luxury”, like how these five did.
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1. Foie Gras
Foie gras has come under fire for animal cruelty lately, but it’s long been a staple of fine dining. Market prices can be as high as S$60 per kilo, but as a customer you’ll probably get a tiny sliver for that price (small enough to hide under two salad leaves). Foie gras was known to the ancient Egyptians and Romans, because it comes from geese (which has been a food source since, well, forever). But it wasn’t considered anything fancy – it was no more “high end” to them than, say, a piece of liver in your bak chor mee today.
Foie gras only gained prominence during the Renaissance in Europe. At the time, it had been used as a kosher source of fat for Jewish people, since the Middle Ages. It was also, again, cheap. Now the Renaissance was a culinary explosion: food went from a being simple chore of sticking spoiled meat in fire so you could tolerate it (the Middle Ages after the fall of Rome was a terrible time), to being an actual art form. That’s when people realised the possibilities in the exquisite taste of foie gras, and it gradually moved to the plates of aristocrats.
Have you ever seen a monkfish? It’s one of the most hideous looking things you can pull out of the ocean. You usually have to run over a fish four or five times with a truck to get it to look that way. Right up to the 1980s, monkfish were considered a junk fish. In New England, when they got caught in the net, fishermen would just toss them back. In France, they were banned from being sold with the head still attached (we weren’t kidding about how hideous it looks).
Then a few years later, some experimental chefs noticed something important: monkfish liver tastes kind of like foie gras. An appreciation for monkfish meat soon followed, and today it’s become a staple on many a fine dining menu. Prices can go as high as S$80 per kilo.
3. Sushi (Specifically Nigiri Sushi)
One of the most traditional forms of sushi is nigiri sushi. It’s just a slice of fish on rice. And as you probably know, it’s not going to be the cheapest thing on the menu; there are sushi restaurants that charge more than S$800 for a meal (Masa in New York, for example).
But in the past, nigiri sushi was just a way to preserve fish. There was no refrigeration, so the fish was wrapped in vinegar soaked rice. This would preserve it for a few months, after which the rice was thrown out and the fish eaten (it was only much later when the rice was eaten as well). In the 18th and 19th centuries, sushi was a “street food” in Japan. It wasn’t especially expensive. However, sushi started to capture international interest between the 1950s and 1960s, after which prices climbed considerably.
Expensive sushi exploded onto the market in the 1980s, the era of Wall Street decadence, when it became the food of choice among high powered executives and the cultural elite.
Oysters were considered food for poor people, back in the early 19th century. It was the kind of thing fed to prisoners, the homeless, and orphaned children. In England, people could buy them by the barrel when they got desperate. So: cheap, not very nutritious, and capable of sending you to the toilet for hours if they were spoiled. Oysters were the streetside burger of the Industrial era.
Then disaster struck: toward the late 19th century, pollution of the waterways in England began to kill off oysters in droves. Since no one really understood ecologies back then, the solution was to grab oysters from other countries, and just chuck them in the water. The foreign oysters mostly didn’t survive (because, again, water pollution), and instead spread all kinds of diseases to the local sea life. This killed off even more local oysters, and made them even rarer.
Eventually, because human beings don’t make sense but economics sort of do, rarity value drove up the price of the oyster. Rich people began to eat them, because it really showed how much money you could afford to waste when you ate something rare. Oyster prices climbed, and while oysters are not endangered (we farm them, so the supply long ago recovered), they can still fetch anywhere from S$6 to S$12 per oyster.
These used to be considered the cockroaches of the ocean. That’s not to far off; they’re arthropods, so they’re literally insects related to scorpions and such. Lobsters were considered so gross, there was a revolt in Maine where indentured servants were forced to eat them (they demanded lobster be served no more than three times a week, which would be a hilarious definition of “abuse” in today’s context).
Two things happened to change this. First, people started to boil lobsters alive; or at the very least, they would do it while the lobster was still fresh. Previously, many were eating dead lobsters washed up on the beach, which were probably quite, errr, ripe by the time they went in the pot. The second thing was the ignorance of people living inland. When trains made cargo delivery from the coast easier, the people living far from the sea saw lobsters for the first time.
Cunning merchants conned them into believing lobsters were exotic, a ruse that was only revealed…well never, we’re still conned into thinking they’re exotic. Today, lobsters can be bought for around S$30 per kilo at wholesale prices; but the price varies significantly based on season and supply.
This article was first published at Singsaver, 23 August 2017.