The ongoing conversation: authenticity in ethnic cuisine

Erin and I went out to eat tonight at Thai Basil, a very popular restaurant in southeast Denver. We had eaten there a couple of weeks ago with friends and enjoyed the food, so we decided to give it a shot on our own. The food was fine once again — we had chicken coconut soup for starters, and Thai curry lime beef and sesame tofu for entrees.

But during the meal, it occurred to us that aside from one woman at a nearby table, we were the only Asians dining in the packed room. The servers were mostly Asian, but on the way in this time, I noted that the owner and much of the staff is Chinese, not Thai. These observations maybe are unimportant if the food is great, but I started wondering about the importance of authenticity in ethnic cuisine.

First of all, does it matter what ethnicity the staff, owners and even maybe the chefs are, if they can make great Thai food, or Chinese, or Japanese or Korean? Shouldn’t the end quality of the food be the measure of a restaurant’s quality? Yes. And… I’ve had various ethnic cuisines served up by people not of the ethnicity and had the food fail the taste test. Even years ago in New York City, when I was in college, I was so desperate for Mexican food that I went into a Mexican restaurant in Greenwich Village, only to be served enchiladas with spaghetti sauce — no lie — poured over them. That’s why that Pace Picante tagline works so well: “…from where? NEW YORK CITY?”

And (I’ve written about this before), at the risk of skirting racial prejudice, I’ve been judgmental about Japanese restaurants when the staff and chefs are either Chinese or Korean, or even Latino. White people are not left out either — we were greeted by a phalanx of white sushi chefs at a popular west Denver hotspot a couple of months ago, yelling out “irrashaimasse!” the normal Japanese greeting, and it felt phony to me. When the sushi turned out to be terrible, with no vinegar in the rice (a common mistake that most Americans don’t seem to notice) and the rolls rolled sloppily and the taste bland and mealy, we weren’t surprised and wrote the place off.

Am I a snob? You bet. I pride myself on loving ethnic foods of all types, and go out of my way to have papaya salad made by Cambodians and Hmong, or black rice pudding (our favorite) at the only Thai restaurant in the state that serves it, or the many wonderful individual tapas-like plates served at a real izakaya, or Japanese bar in Boulder, where the staff can speak English to customers, but they only speak Japanese to each other.

We love food, and take our dining seriously. Would you blame a music fan for being disappointed at a blues concert that turned out to be performed by a German opera singer who played sloppy slide guitar?

Anyway, back to Thai Basil. The fact that it was 99% packed with eager, hip white folks was a good thing — Asian culture continues to make inroads into mainstream American pop culture. And the fact that Chinese entrepreneurs had the good sense to open a Thai restaurant that serves some Chinese and Vietnamese dishes as well, is just damned good business. Who needs another Chinese take-out joint in the neighborhood? They’re not necessarily trying to come off all like, they’re the most authentic Thai food this side of Bangkok. Hell, their servers even wear t-shirts that proclaim “Asian Fusion.” I kind of hate that phrase, but accept it as a fact of life in a shrinking global cultural economy.

As a music critic, a fan of pop culture, AND a technology fanatic, I’m all about the mashup. And fusion food is nothing if not a mashup.

See, we have this conversation all the time, and food has so much to talk about.

For instance, Erin had been hankering chop suey, which to many Americans is Chinese food, but to most Chinese and Chinese Americans is abhorrent and ridiculed as a freaky fake invention of some hack Chinese chef in the 1800s who wanted to use all his leftover crap and serve it to his white railroad bosses. Chop suey came to be a standard dish in all American Chinese restaurants, even though it doesn’t exist in China (neither do Chinese laundries, by the way, ancient Chinese secret or not).

Chop suey is practically a traditional dish of Japanese Americans, a favorite fare among favorite fare (JAs love to eat “China-meshi,” or Chinese food, after funerals and memorial services, graduations — all family milestones). When we were in LA a couple of weekends ago, and stayed in Little Tokyo, Erin kept seeing the historic sign that said “Chop Suey” on a restored building, but friends kept telling us the chop suey served in the renovated restaurant wasn’t very good.

So Erin’s been hankering the stuff ever since. The other night, we finally drove to a Chinese restaurant very close to our house, Tea Garden, to chow down on chop suey. To the server’s credit, he didn’t flinch when Erin ordered it, but we felt compelled to explain that we know it’s not “real” Chinese food but that Erin grew up eating it at area restaurants that are now long gone. He smiled when we asked, “Besides, there’s nothing on your menu that’s REAL Chinese food, right?” and nodded in agreement.

Yes folks, General Tso’s Chicken (whomever General Tso was), Sesame Beef, Sweet and Sour Pork, Buddha’s Delight — all American inventions. Or at the least Americanized to the point of being American dishes, not something that would be served in China.

Who knows, though, maybe even that’s changing. With the world shrinking and all, maybe these things are making their way homeward. I think avocado in sushi, or sushi with the the rice on the outside of a roll, are ridiculous and stupid American inventions. But I’ll be damned, you can find “California Rolls” in Japan these days. Call me a traditionalist, I guess. Or a food luddite.

Anyway, our server gave us his blessing and allowed us to eat the American-style “Chinese” food at Tea Garden.

But you know what, we like Tea Garden. We like a lot of fake ethnic food. We like a lot of real ethnic food too, and jump at the chance to have jellyfish at dim sum, or dishes not on the menu (at least, not in English) at our favorite “real” Chinese restaurants.

And there lies the core of my point: Authenticity is great and should be sought and applauded when achieved, but the mashup is good too. You just have to know when you want which. It’s the poor dummies who go to eat fake food and don’t even know it that deserve the scorn of foodies everywhere. You gotta be conscious while you eat.

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2 Responses to The ongoing conversation: authenticity in ethnic cuisine

  1. yoko says:

    I can go on and on about this subject as well, but I’ll cut it short: I’m all for the creativity and the mashups– but one has to know what is authentic before one can be appreciative of the creative fusion. And that’s hard to do with ethnic cuisine when things are mostly not labeled as authentic or otherwise.

    On the opposite extreme, maybe you’ve read about how there are authenticity inspectors for Japanese cuisine now. I’m not sure how I feel about this. On one hand– yes, I’m a total sushi snob, and will not go to restaurants that don’t properly make them. On the other hand, would Morimoto’s innovative style prove to be inauthentic?

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Yoko, I’ve been following you on twitter and realized I never responded to your comment, although I did visit your blog and posted a comment there.

    I’m still struggling with the authenticity-vs-creativity (fusion) meme in Asian cuisine. I’ve written about the topic a lot, including when the WashPost reported on the Japanese Cuisine Cops (https://www.nikkeiview.com/blog/2006/12/03/the-japanese-dining-cops-are-coming/).

    My wife Erin and I just recently ate at a popular place in a Denver suburb, Junz, that had Japanese and French food. The food was very good, and the staff mostly Japanese (I always am comforted by that). But they charged $1 for each extra bowl of white rice (and these were small chawan bowls too), and it pissed us off. So we probably won’t be going back to try the rest of the creative fare.

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