A friend called the other night, panicked. "Help! I'm having some people from our Tokyo office over for dinner tomorrow night and I don't know a thing about Japanese food!" My response? "Great. Don't make Japanese food."
For some reason, we have this funny notion that when we have guests from another country over to dinner, we need to serve them food from their homeland. On one hand, this is kind of nice, since we want to feel comfortable and familiar with the food they are eating. On the other hand, it's not very smart unless you are very well-versed in that cuisine. And even then, it might not be the best move.
When I travel to other countries or even to other regions of the US, I don't want to eat the kind of food I can get in California. When in India, I want to eat the dhal and parathas, when in New Orleans I want étouffée. This is especially true if I have the chance to eat some home cooking. I would be very disappointed if I went to someone's home in the French Alps and was served a burger and fries, for example.
When you have out-of-town guests over, it's a fun exercise to think about what you can serve them that reflects the food and culture of your region. What are you most proud of, what dishes most define your area? Of course, you may want to make adjustments for regional palates and customs. Are your guests Hindu? Then find out if they are vegetarian (not all are.) Are they Japanese? Then you may want to avoid a dairy-laden meal.
In general, when we have people over for dinner, we should cook the food we are most comfortable with. This eliminates some of the stress of putting on a dinner party and helps make you a more charming and available host. Your dinner party is not the time to test that new recipe or go for wild ingredient swaps. Always remember that as a host, your most important task is to help your guests to feel relaxed, welcomed and well-fed.
Related: Sense of Place: The Flavors of New England
(Image: Emma Christensen)