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.

Reflecting on 9/11 and the Memorial Museum

If you ask any American who was alive and lucid on September 11, 2001, he or she can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing the moment they heard about the Twin Towers. I remember I was a sixth grader walking outside our classroom during morning recess when people started crowding the TVs in the classrooms. We were so confused, was this really happening?

There are significant moments in a nation's history that changes the course of the country just like when America won its independence from Great Britain and when the North won the Civil War. The 9/11 bombing was one of those moments. It's hard to explain to Americans born after 9/11, but almost overnight, it became harder to travel, the country went into a state of paranoia, and Congress decided they needed to defend the country by declaring war and sinking billions into a search for weapons of mass destruction that never existed.

Repercussions aside, 9/11 was a tragic and devastating incident on American soil. Many lives were lost and brave responders also put their lives on the line. That day, it didn't matter what color we were or what language we spoke, we came together as Americans to mourn and help each other recover.

The new One World Trade Center stands beautifully at Ground Zero. The two breathtaking reflecting pools give visitors a sense of how awesome the towers were. The whole site really does justly honor the victims. And then there is the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

I had heard the 9/11 Memorial Museum was a very emotional experience, especially for Americans who lived through it, so I really looked forward to the visit. As I walked through the exhibits, it was emotional indeed. Tears came when I watched a replay of the towers falling. I felt anguish when I heard the firsthand accounts. The artifacts and quotes were touching and powerful. The whole museum was very somber, but it's this last point that evoked an emotion inside me I didn't expect: anger.

Perhaps it's my personality. I'm not the kind of person who dwells on the past, and maybe that's why I avoid Holocaust museums. The Diary of Anne Frank and World War II was a notable part of my American schooling and that included visiting Holocaust museums. I'm not trying to be disrespectful because like 9/11, the Holocaust was an even greater tragedy, but so many museums and memorials curate the same stereotypical experience leaving patrons with the same depressing emotions with the message that the Holocaust was horrible. I get it, but can we move past it already? Am I cruel to say that?

The Holocaust and the study of the Holocaust is what’s occurring in the vast majority of other museums of Jewish history,” Tad Taube, the San Francisco-based real estate developer and major donor to the museum, told me this week. “We need to move beyond the Holocaust.
— Jewish History is Not Just About the Holocaust. Finally, a Museum Gets That.

To me, going through the 9/11 Memorial felt like going through a Holocaust museum. The lighting was dark, the topic was grave, and there were rare moments I felt uplifted. As a citizen living in post 9/11 America, its disheartening to leave a memorial and realize that our country is still wallowing in this pain. The ugliness from our current political landscape is proof enough, and we continue to live each day reminded by policies that supposedly protect us.

Perhaps it's also my personality to have hope. I think what makes Americans different from other citizens of the world is our optimism. We have hope in reaching our ambitions. We have hope for a brighter future. We have hope in the American Dream. Maybe it's naive, but it's inherent to who we are, and I wish the 9/11 Memorial Museum left me with a lot more hope than it did.

Being a Student of the Internet

Growing up, I was the pedantic and studious nerd. My Asian mother raised me to get good grades, and the modern school system trained me to use textbooks. When I got to college, I continued to strive for those grades on paper, but I knew I was an applied learner. I always valued hands-on or out-of-classroom experiences like internships.

I used to argue with Jonathan about the importance of school. He was always in the camp that school was useless, but I defended it with my honor, arguing that it taught students good work ethic, social skills, and laid a foundation for future learning. As I have progressed farther along in my career, however, I'm starting to see his philosophy. I still don't agree with him completely, but I can't say I’ve used much (or remember much) from my college stats course...

When I started my current marketing role, I had no prior experience developing a marketing program from scratch. I understood what I needed to accomplish and the strategy, but I was unsure of the right tools and tactics. Questions like how many characters are recommended in a subject line or simply how do I do “x” in this application came up all the time. So what did I do?

I Googled it.

Before the internet, I probably wouldn’t have been able to answer many of my questions without taking a class or talking to an expert. It's hard to imagine that age, but these days, so much free information is at our finger tips, and anyone can share an opinion! Yes, it does take time and experience to weed out bad information, but once you develop hound dog senses, the sky’s the limit.

My recent foray into video really got me thinking about how much I learned just by using the internet. With little to no professional video experience (besides operating a DSLR), I decided to take on producing a 24-video series instead of hiring a videographer, whose fees would have blown my budget. I turned to Google and the blogosphere for all the recommended equipment, setups, and techniques. I watched YouTube videos instructing me how to build a cheap DIY teleprompter; I read reviews on the best DSLR lenses for video; I continued to read and watch tons more videos, reviews, and tips for a whole week.

And then it was go time. After purchasing my equipment, I knew there was no turning back. I applied everything I learned (from the internet). And despite my consternation, it’s going really well!

My DIY iPad teleprompter! Made with black foam board, glue gun, a tripod, and geometry. Guess school did come in handy for the measurements...

My DIY iPad teleprompter! Made with black foam board, glue gun, a tripod, and geometry. Guess school did come in handy for the measurements...

Here's my DIY Down and Dirty Lighting Kit setup thanks to Wistia.

Here's my DIY Down and Dirty Lighting Kit setup thanks to Wistia.

I’m currently in the thick of the project – filming every opportunity I have and editing when I have desk time. It’s definitely an iterative learning process, but it’s hands on learning every day. This process has made me realize that unless I was a film major or took a paid course, I probably would not have had the knowledge or confidence to take on this project.

I will be forever grateful for school because there are still many intangible skills the internet can’t teach. I also appreciate and need the accountability that comes with taking a class. But the next time I get an email to attend a seminar I have to pay for, I’m sorry, it’s going straight to the trash.

To "Turn and Pull" -- Why I Volunteer As a Big Sister

Some days I wonder how I navigated through America's systems. I was the first in my family to travel through the public, private, and higher education system, the corporate business system, and even New York's public transit system. Luckily, I was able to get through them without relatively too much pain.

I got through my childhood and young adulthood by figuring things out on my own, through hard work, and a supportive mother, but there was always one resource I wish I had: a role model, an older sibling or an older cousin who had gone through the system before. My friends were able to study from their older sister's SAT books. I had to buy my own (#firstworldproblems, I know). Their siblings were free tutors, editors, and wisemen when it came to college applications and skin care routines. Heck, I had to do all the road tests for the longest lasting backpacks and the best feminine hygiene products. Thank God I was born in the era of Google, but it would have been so helpful to hear relevant advice from someone who could sympathize with what I was going through at the time. I'm sorry Mom, your Chinese herbal medicine was never going to help me ace a test...

That feeling of being lost and yearning to have someone by my side during those formative years really stuck with me. It pushed me to seek out mentors in the future, but also made me realize that there could be one less person without a role model in this world, and I could actually make that happen.

I've always been on the fence about kids. Some days they're angels and other days, they're straight up monsters (I'm sure parents can attest to that). So when I signed up to be a Big Sister, my immediate circle of friends gave me a serious talking to about the commitment I was about to make.

One of the first times I hung out with L was at her dance recital where she danced Michael Jackson's "Thriller"

One of the first times I hung out with L was at her dance recital where she danced Michael Jackson's "Thriller"

Being with L, my Little Sister, was super tough for the first five months. It was the first time I was dealing with a kid other than my kid sister (who I could yell and scream at), and our personalities could not be more different. There were days I was struggling to find common ground and days I wrestled with giving up. I decided to teach L how to ride a bike, but it became a bad day when she fell after I let go, promising that I would hold on. Trust fell to an all-time low.

The things I let L do to my face... I walked out in public like this, definitely got some looks.

The things I let L do to my face... I walked out in public like this, definitely got some looks.

Gradually with time, wounds heal, positive experiences and memories are created, trust is built back up again, and a relationship becomes stronger. L and I have reached a point where we feel comfortable being silent next to each other. We know each other's quirks and when someone is having a bad day. We've had conversations about expectations, disappointments, and the real world post-middle school. She's only 10. I try to be as honest and transparent with her (with sensitivity towards her age, of course) and give her the really reallies for her to digest.

We have been matched for 10 months now, and recently, I've been seeing a change in her. The girl who disliked doing homework or going to school asked me about what it was like to go to college. The girl that was too scared to get back on her bike asked to go biking this past Saturday. The girl who was too scared to swim the length of the pool without holding the wall every 3 seconds swam today, hands-free from end to end. Her courage does not come automatically without reservations, but the progress she's making is so clear that I can't help feeling proud.

What motivated me to write this was something I saw on our walk home today. I asked L if she was interested in taking swim classes so she could become a better swimmer. She replied with her usual response, "No, because I don't want to." I prodded her with more whys, she said she wanted to hang out with her friends instead, and ultimately said she just didn't want to learn.

I responded, "The moment you stop learning is the moment you turn dumb."

As I was explaining how learning keeps her mind elastic and expanding, I could see the cogs in her noggin churning. She was actively listening to what I was saying, not hearing. It was the first time I saw her seriously considering the argument I was making...

L's quite the bowler. Beat me in candle pin by a huge margin...

L's quite the bowler. Beat me in candle pin by a huge margin...

One thing I loved most about P&G was the mantra to "Turn and Pull" -- women "turning" to other women and "pulling" them in to higher positions; affinity group members making sure to recommend promotions for their deserving members. This mantra sticks with me because it applies to so many people in our lives -- someone like a Little Sister, a current student from our alma maters, or a fellow friend looking for a job.

Our country talks about income gaps, racial gaps, educational gaps... all these socioeconomic gaps and big empty words that become chicken and the egg debates or a round of pointing fingers. Instead, why don't we take action especially for those of us in a position to "turn and pull." I strongly believe that my time with L will impact her life in some way. I hope that I can help her overcome the obstacles and navigate the system that we as Americans have to swim through. I hope I can be that role model for her that I yearned for as a teen. And I hope after reading this, maybe you will consider being a role model for someone, too.