In Search of Authenticity
We read and hear this word constantly, especially in the food world. You see it even in my photographer’s bio. Needless to say, it's an important term to know and facet to follow.
It is really hard to believe or follow something that hasn’t been portrayed honestly. Just watch the news, do you cringe at something that has been given a false take or documentaries that aren’t true to the story? Being authentic is important especially to the subject matter.
But what does this mean for food? E V E R Y T H I N G.
How do you understand what it takes to make a meal from another culture? Or hear the stories that come from it? By actually going to the country of origin. But as that could be a feat for some, or most of us, though I do implore you to at least set time and money every year to travel abroad, it is more accessible to find the authentic cuisine in your local metropolitan city by you. For myself that would be Philadelphia or New York City.
I still remember, even though it has been close to three years, the smells, sights, and water splashing on my back as I ate my meals at a street stall in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Actually typing this makes me miss it and flights in October for Vietnam are really good! Eating my bowl of Bun Thit Ngon or pho or banh mi or bun bo hue or.. you get the idea, the added senses tingling from the experience makes the meal so much more amazing. It is pretty surreal to just write about it. So the US will most likely not have that kind of experience, especially with the mopeds buzzing a foot away from your back while eating, you can find well made meals from the cultures they came from. But be sure to realize that the people behind the scenes might not be.
While it is much more interesting and have a home-like feeling if the meals are made by the people, from origin, much of the staff behind the scenes aren’t. Maybe the wait staff are, but in the kitchen, the line chefs, sous chefs, preparers can be a mix of cultures preparing and making the meal that you will soon be dining on. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Part of sharing cuisine and stories is that they are very transmittable to others to make on their own.
But then there is fusion. The mixing of various cultural foods into one to make a unique twist to the meal. How authentic can that be? Actually I think at this point the thought of being authentic is tossed out and in its place, open minded eating comes in.
Some quoted reviews on some fusion restaurants and how people responded to the food:
“...unapologetically inauthentic ramen…”
“ I was with a friend from Japan and she didn't give it the nod either. I had the Soba noodles and they were very greasy. Her hubby told us afterwards that the Miso is supposed to be good but neither of us had it.”
“It had this weird sweet taste - presumably from the dates - which i did not enjoy in an Asian noodle dish.”
“I'm not really sure what this noodle house is trying to be. Supposed it is Asian food but a) there isn't a single Asian working there b) most of their very limited menu is "Asian inspired" with a lot of non Asian additives to it. Like matzo balls, really?”
Fusion based food throws out the notion of being authentic and in its place what the chef believes goes well. There are some really great fusion places and some pretty bad ones. If I had to give a ratio of hit or misses with fusion shops, I would say 1 out of 4 are hits. Or maybe it is just the ones I have visited. I consider myself as someone who prefers authentic cuisine, but also someone with an open mind. Actually there is a tweet from a chef who wrote this in response towards what his food is really going for:
“It’s boring,” Puchowitz says. “Any cook can go to a restaurant and learn authentic food and open their own spot by recreating that food. People will go. Veering away from that is where Cheu came from, being an alternative to those places. It’s not ramen, they’re right. That’s exactly what we’re not trying to do.”
Puchowitz isn’t trying to recreate something, but rather creating his own take on food . In those regards, in the quote, he is right, well not the boring part. If you want to find authentic food you will find authentic, if you are looking for non sequitur, fusion places, you will find those. The idea with the fusion food is trying to mix different ideas and flavors that normally wouldn’t be there. At this point, I know where I stand with food. As mentioned earlier, I definitely prefer authentic but having an open mind to food.
But here’s an interesting thought, tracing food to their specific origin leads you to fusion before it was cool. Vietnam’s bun xiao, for example, is basically fusion food. Taken from the French colonial past and using Vietnam’s ingredients created this massively popular street food. Or Banh Mi, again making baguettes using baking methods left over from the French colonial past. If you look at the cuisine of countries who have a colonial past you will see influences from the colonizing culture in the native food. So fusion is not a new concept. Therefore seeking out the truly "authentic" food might be a good food adventure to set yourself upon.
So where does this take us with searching for authenticity? If you remember the definition, I believe any chef or creator of food who is passionate in creating a wholesome meal are authentic to what they are making. Whether that is towards foods of origin or foods with fusion background.