The Problem With Food Authenticity

What if we should just accept that authentic cuisine cannot be achieved outside the motherland, and instead, we as foodies should be seeking something else?

Having spent most of my life in America, there are specific cuisines that I have only had in America. For instance, I’ve never had Vietnamese or Thai outside of the States. Everything I know about those flavors and textures are strictly based on my dining experiences in America. It’s not that I don’t eat certain cuisines outside of the country. It just seems silly to seek out Thai food in Germany.

I’m sure there are many immigrant expat communities in all pockets of the world. Heck, I grew up in one in LA. But when it comes to food authenticity, how do you know it’s the real thing?

We foodies parade around saying, “This place is authentic because my friend who’s from that country said so," or we gaze into the window and check that the majority of diners are a certain ethnicity. (Is that being racist? Haha.) But what if that’s a pointless endeavor? What if we should just accept that authentic cuisine cannot be achieved outside the motherland, and instead, we as foodies should be seeking something else?

I recently thought about this seriously. I lived in Footscray, a western suburb of Melbourne, where there's a huge Vietnamese and Ethiopian community. Naturally, there are many Vietnamese and Ethiopian businesses and restaurants, and I have frequented a few Vietnamese places. I remember the first time I had a bowl of pho at a random Vietnamese joint. Oh my goodness, it was better than any pho I’ve ever had in America. The noodles were wider and smoother. The broth was clearer and richer in flavor, all without the MSG saltiness. And the Vietnamese mint was so fresh and bright. After eating that, I told myself, this has to be the authentic stuff. Right?

On another day, I went to a Thai restaurant and ordered Pad Sew Ew, a popular wide noodle dish stir fried in soy sauce. In America, the dish is typically sweet and savory, but the version I got was a salty oyster sauce punch. It challenged everything I knew about Pad Sew Ew. Was it supposed to be more on the sweet side or more on the savory side? The egg scramble was more chopped up than the usual pieces I was used to. Was this the true Pad Sew Ew? Is this even a dish in Thailand?!

In America, the dish is typically sweet and savory, but the version I got was a salty oyster sauce punch. It challenged everything I knew about Pad Sew Ew.

When people mention burritos, they automatically think it’s Mexican, but the truth is, it’s actually Tex-Mex (Mexican American food). No one really eats burritos in Mexico! These food misconceptions, however, may be the reason why foodies attempt to seek out authenticity. Personally as a foodie, I seek out authentic cuisine because it’s a window into a different culture. A shared meal potentially implies a communal culture. A seafood-heavy cuisine characterizes a seafaring culture. Soupy and carb rich foods tell of a society that weathers cold temperatures.

Yet, the more I eat in Australia, the more I’m beginning to question the need to seek authenticity. Restaurants are businesses at the end of the day, and they have to do what they need to do to please their customers to keep them coming. Sometimes that means tweaking the food to be sweeter, saltier, or spicier. When these changes are made, the cuisine is technically no longer authentic. Sourcing authentic ingredients can also be expensive or almost impossible, so restaurants have to adjust. Should we as foodies fault the restaurant for doing that? Should we fault the restaurant for trying to please their customers? If you’re a reasonable human being, then you would agree, of course not!

The Chinese food in Bulgaria (supposedly the best in the world according to my girlfriend’s dad) and the Chinese food in China will always be different, but it shouldn’t matter if it’s "authentic” or not because the key question is: is it good? Does it have good flavor? Is it cooked well? Do YOU like it?

Instead of judging a restaurant based on authenticity, I’m coming around to the idea of judging a restaurant on whether the food is good. Sure, a non-authentic restaurant will give me a difficult time learning about the culture, but that’s why I am traveling to the motherlands. I’m going to visit these countries to find out if the pho is usually clearer and richer and if the Pad Sew Ew is usually sweeter or saltier. And once I know, I know. I’m not going to expect American Thai restaurants to replicate what I had in Thailand. They’re obviously in America, and cuisine is regional. Besides, I prefer a sweet Pad Sew Ew anyway!

A clean bowl... that's how you know it was good.

A clean bowl... that's how you know it was good.

So as foodies, let’s stop berating restaurants that are not “authentic” enough. Let’s judge places for the food they serve and whether it’s delicious or not. If you’re nervous about trying a new place, don’t rely on the Yelp reviews. Find people you trust with similar food tastes and get their opinion. Who knows, you may learn you prefer a sweeter Pad Sew Ew too.

Hawaiian Night: Making Lau Lau and Malasadas

Last weekend, Jonathan and I had some friends over, so we decided to make some Hawaiian food! Even though Jonathan is from Hawaii, he’s never actually cooked Hawaiian before…

I had thought about making Lau Lau a while back, but couldn’t find taro leaves in Boston, so at some point, I had flown home to LA to pick up the closest thing I could find: dry lotus leaves. I packed them back in a hanging suit case just to keep them flat… so finally putting them to good use was not a bad idea at all.

Jonathan tackled making the Lau Lau, which is pork and butterfish steamed in taro leaves (in this case lotus leaves), the Lomi Lomi Salmon, and tuna poke, while I handled the MALASADAS!

As you recall, I had made malasadas once before, and I was not prepared. But this time, I knew exactly what I was getting myself in to, and lo and behold, they turned out to be beautiful, golden, round donuts!

We’re booked to return to Hawaii this coming January, and I will have a chance to go back to Leonard’s again. One day, I will become a malasada master just like him, but for now, I gotta learn how he injects that coconut cream…

Bulgaria Day 7: The Best Fruit In the World

While in Melnik, we stayed at Mili’s place in Kapatovo inherited from her grandfather. In Bulgarian villages, it’s normal for each house to have fresh fruit and vegetable gardens, and so early in the morning, Mili’s dad took me through the neighborhood to pick produce from approved gardens.

I’ll be honest, walking through Melnik made me a little jealous of Mili’s childhood. It must have been so nice to be able to retreat to a summer house outside the city where you can pick figs from the trees in the backyard, have fresh grapes from the Villa Melnik vines, or know everyone in the small town because your family has lived in the area for many years. I am who I am because of my past, but one day I hope to have a summer house and garden of my own.

After eating the most amazing figs in my life (it really was a foodgasm), we hiked up to the monastery and sand pyramids. Like everything else I have seen, the landscapes were breathtaking. We hiked back down to the village, enjoyed some lunch, and walked through a 200-something year old merchant house. All the ornaments and details of the house were preserved to reflect the lives of that time. I loved the mosaics on the ceilings and the beautiful carpets and tapestries that lined the floors and walls. Though it’s not exactly my taste in interior design, I deeply appreciated the time it took for each piece of that house to be put together.

All in all, it was a good day. Had good food, of course, and stayed up having late night conversations over tea. Tomorrow, it’s back to Sofia, and soon, back to Boston.