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.

Making Indian Food At Home

Back in April, Andrew and I attempted to make Indian food for the first time… and it turned out awesome! Much better than we expected, haha.

Andrew made Chicken Tikka Masala and I made Palak Paneer. Interesting fact I learned along the way: the difference between palak vs. saag paneer are the greens that are used. “Saag” can be cooked with multiple types of greens, while “palak” is only puréed spinach.

We were nervous how the curries would come out because most of the recipes online seemed… inauthentic? But the most difficult thing about Indian food is that there really are no “true” recipes. When I ask any of my Indian friends how they cook Indian food, it’s always “Oh, a little bit of this spice, add a little bit of that. My mom never wrote it down… Just grab a whole bunch of stuff, throw it together, and usually it’s awesome.”

Thanks Indian friends, that’s really helpful for those of us who did not grow up cooking or eating Indian food.

As I was following the online recipe for palak paneer, I realized what my friends meant. Sometimes, you just had to go off-recipe by adding more cream because the texture did not turn out creamy enough or the spinach needed more spices because the purée was bland. I suppose there’s just so many regional differences or taste preferences that it makes it hard to write down an exact recipe to follow. Just like everyday cooking, I had to make it my own.

The thought of making Indian at home is intimidating for many of us when you can buy a jar of pre-made curry from your local Whole Foods or frozen palak paneer from Trader Joe’s (which is SO yummy), but if you’re feeling adventurous, it’s definitely one of the more challenging (and fun!) cuisines to make at home. Definitely have a lot of respect for Indian chefs who know these recipes inside and out.

Oh, your clothes might smell like Indian food for a while, haha.

Fava Beans: The Neglected Legume

When I stand in the aisle of the grocery store looking for canned beans, I always see the usual suspects: kidney beans, red beans, pinto beans, black beans, navy beans, and garbanzo beans. Based on a study by the Can Manufacturers Institute, Americans consume more than five cans of fruits and vegetables in an average week, so naturally, these legumes are always top of mind in the legume consideration set.

Let me preface this post by saying: I love all legumes and do not discriminate. Canned garbanzo beans have saved me on many quick-meal nights (great add for vegetable curries), and I will never refuse a bowl of Boston baked beans. Unfortunately, I feel that there are a lot of foods, though they may be foreign or do not come in a can, that deserve to be in an American consumer’s consideration set… like the fava bean!

Also known as “broad beans,” these legumes are popular in Mediterranean and South American cuisines and are high in plant protein like other legumes. They are also full of nutrients including vitamin B, iron, and manganese. Interestingly, these little beans also contain L-dopa, which is a pre-cursor amino acid in producing dopamine in your brain, making you feel happy!

As with anything beneficial or rewarding, there is always some work involved. These little nuggets take some time to prepare because I have never seen them in a can, but I could be wrong. Fava beans come in long green pods and need to be shelled twice to get to the good stuff.

How To Pick Fava Beans

Only the beans inside the long pods are edible, so it’s unfortunate that these beans are purchased by the pound and most of the pod gets discarded (we do live in a capitalist country…). Pick green pods that are full, firm, and bright green. This indicates that the beans inside are ripe and full.

How to Prepare Fava Beans

As I mentioned before, fava beans require two shellings. Open the outer green pod and set the beans aside.

  • I find that the easiest way to open the whole pod in one fell swoop is by pinching the top stem and pulling the seam down the middle of the pod. Or if you’re not always about perfection, efficiency, or want to get messy (this is a great kid’s activity), I also like to stick my fingers through the spongy pod and pop them out one-by-one.

The light green shells (the ectoderm) also need to be removed. Steam or blanche the beans, and once they are cool enough to be touched, remove the light green outer shell as shown below.

If the beans are not tender yet, you can cook them a little longer, steam, blanche, incorporate into a dish… but there you have it, your fava beans are ready to be eaten!

How To Use Fava Beans

What I love most about fava beans is their creaminess. Mash them up, add some tahini, olive oil, garlic, and lemon, and you’ve made yourself some delicious fava bean hummus. Add them to a stir fry, salad, or pasta and it will give your dish an added layer of texture.

My favorite way to cook fava beans is with a little bit of bacon or pancetta. Because of the fava beans’ creamy texture, I like to pair it with a little bit of crunch, and crispy pork does just that. On that particular day, I used the fava beans and bacon in a curried couscous appetizer, which incorporated texture and flavor to create a well-rounded and dynamic dish. My guests thoroughly enjoyed it and thought it was the best dish of the night!

The average diner may run into the fava bean once in a while at a high-end restaurant from a tasting menu, but that is not enough exposure to bring the bean mainstream and in to kitchens. Fava beans are so delicious and deserve to be in the spotlight more often, especially since they’re so nutritious! I encourage you to take the time to explore your local grocery store and buy something you haven’t seen before (maybe even some fava beans!). With the internet, you can learn almost everything and anything about an ingredient.

I wholeheartedly hope that one day, the fava bean will gain enough fame to rival the pinto bean and have a place on the bean aisle. Until then, I will continue to be its ambassador and cook them more often in my kitchen!

Are there ingredients you wished more consumers knew about or enjoyed?