Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What is "authentic?"

Punk Says the Darndest Things:
"You know what's weird about computers? They're just bits of metal and plastic, and how can you program metal and plastic to not do something? Sometimes I think computers only work because I think they do in my mind."

So I was browsing Yelp and I keep noticing that such a common point to be made (and a concept I have indeed discussed myself in my reviews) when discussing some variety of "ethnic" food is how "authentic" it is. People get all up in arms about authenticity of the food served at X restaurant and don't leave much room to critique the taste and quality of the food itself, or the service of the restaurant, or any number of other things that could be discussed in a review.

Now, don't get me wrong right off the bat, I think it is important to acknowledge that certain cultures have long standing food traditions that are important to continue. I absolutely think that "authentic" cuisine from these cultures should be available. But I'm just starting to wonder what "authentic" is, who is the best judge of what it is, and why it is so important that every single "ethnic" restaurant subscribes to the highest level of authenticity?

In LA, I see this kind of scrutiny particularly over sushi restaurants and Mexican restaurants. One star - "This is not authentic Japanese food! Try XX restaurant instead!" The thing is... that doesn't actually tell me anything. Is it good? Are the servers nice? Is it clean? Two stars - "The burrito was tasty but REAL Mexicans laugh at this place. This isn't real Mexican food." At least I know the burrito is good. But I mean, I get that you're Mexican and have the right to be picky, but the owner and head chef of the restaurant is also Mexican. And he's serving family recipes. They're sure authentic to him - maybe your parents just served different styles and kinds of Mexican food?

It gets especially confusing when you have some people complaining about the authenticity and others boasting about how all of the hole-in-the-wall Mexican joints or sushi cafes in LA that they've tried, this is by far one of the most authentic experiences around. Then inevitably someone comes in and makes the "The people saying this place is authentic are obviously white people who have never been to Japan and therefore have no idea what real sushi is like" comment.

Which brings me to my next point. Isn't it kind of maybe ok that when your [insert culture here] family brings your culture's food to America and opens a restaurant, that it adapts? Isn't that kind of the point of a country filled with so many ethnicities? I understand that people don't like seeing their food being bastardized, and maybe I just don't understand because the food of my heritage isn't ubiquitous enough to have been bastardized -- deep fried pierogi? bacon-wrapped kielbasa? (Actually sounds pretty good, but whatever.) But I do kind of feel like it's ok for these places to cater to their customers, which in this case are multi-cultural Americans. And if I want REAL Mexican food, I can go eat at my Mexican friend's parents' house; if I want REAL sushi, I can go to Japan someday and try it out.

Which even then, I need to acknowledge that there is no universal "Mexican" standard, and my friend's parents being from a certain part of Mexico won't cook the same food as someone's parents from another part of Mexico. The same goes for Japan, I'm sure. I mean, just look at the difference between Southern cooking and "California" cuisine. Which of these styles is more "authentic" American when you're eating it in another country? I couldn't tell you.



  1. Agreed!

    Though, I will admit that I'm not exactly a huge fan of "non-authentic" Chinese food. Orange chicken? Sweet and sour pork? Puh-leeze, no real Chinese family is going to serve that up. At the same time, I realize that those sorts of dishes were created to cater to an American palate. I seriously doubt that some of my favorite Chinese dishes of duck tounge and tripe would appeal to the American masses. Even authentic fob Chinese restaurants are going to serve up some Americanized dishes up because people like them. And sometimes, even I, a real (ha!) Chinese person can admit that orange chicken is pretty tasty. People really just need to realize that we are in America, so of course it's not going to be super authentic!

    These people need to get off their high horses because I'm sure that they have cooked up a non-authentic dish or too. Take for instance my mother, who is a big fan of making chow mein with spaghetti noodles. Not exactly the same as the real thing, but still pretty damn delicious.