Thursday, August 30, 2007


People frequently praise particular ethnic restaurants as "authentic" and criticize others as "Americanized." I used to do this. No more. I have made an uncomfortable discovery: I often prefer the Americanized, inauthentic versions of cuisines to the authentic ones.

I've always suspected that I'd feel this way about Asian cuisines. Although I've probably never had truly authentic Japanese, Chinese, or Thai food, I would bet any amount of money that I would prefer Chicken Teriyaki, Beef with Broccoli, and Phad Thai over what I would actually be served in those countries. I always thought that was just because of my aversion to seafood and to animal parts not commonly eaten in the U.S.

But lately, I've been going to the authentic Mexican restaurants here (which use, at least in many dishes, ingredients I'm fine with), and I don't love them as much as I'm supposed to. They're good, but to be honest, I prefer mission-style burritos (think Chipotle) and taco salads to their enchiladas and tacos. The authentic Mexican dishes I've had are a little too meat-heavy for my taste, they tend not to have enough vegetables, and they favor corn tortillas instead of my preferred flour tortillas. But I am made to feel bad about my desire for burritos, which the Hispanic people in my office dismiss as "white people food." I don't see why I should feel bad.

Don't get me wrong-- I still think there is a benefit to authenticity. Just as I would enjoy visiting Tokyo once or twice to see how people live there, I would enjoy going to an authentic Japanese restaurant once or twice to see how people in Japan eat. But just as I would not want to live on a daily basis the way that people in Tokyo live, I don't want to eat on a weekly basis the way people in Japan eat. Bring on the burritos.


Yule said...

I think the reason Hispanics disdain Chipotle is the same reason New Yorkers disdain Dominoes: the inauthentic dishes become the only form of the food available since they are more popular among the majority (aka "white people").

For example, there might be a pizza cook who knows how to make an authentic brick oven, thin crust pizza, but because people are only exposed to Dominoes in suburbia, they won't try the brick oven. Thus, the pizza cook, in order to have a viable business, has to create pizzas that are more similar to Dominoes in taste and texture then an authentic thin crust pizza (i.e. sweetening the sauce, leaving out bitter herbs like basil, thickening the crust, etc.) in order to get more customers.

Thus, the use of traditional flavors, textures, and ingredients die out. I mean, that has happened to Chinese food in America. No one can find authentic Chinese outside of a city anymore because people refuse to even try it. Thus, Chinese cooks abandon traditional methods in order to stay economically viable, and in the process, subsequent generations of Chinese Americans cooks no longer learn how to make traditional foods, and most have no idea what authentic Chinese food even tastes like.

And that is a reason why many white people think all Asian food taste the same: Thai restaurants have to make their food taste more like inauthentic Chinese in order to get more white people to buy their food, and they do this by dumping corn syrup and ketchup on everything. Thus, the subtle balance of peppers and bitter herbs like basil and cilantro that are hallmarks of Thai cuisine are jettisoned. The same is also true of Korean restaurants (you can't find it on the East Coast unless you are in Flushing, Queens or Annandale, VA and don't even try to look for it anywhere else East of San Andreas fault) and is even beginning to influence Malay, Vietnamese, and other non-Cantonese branches of Chinese cuisine. Herbs and spices are replaced with molasses.

Furthermore, white people then begin to disdain Asian food as being vulgar. Real Chinese cuisine is just as complex and rich in tradition as French or Italian, with a system of mother sauces that are just as complex as the best French demi-glaces, but because white people are only exposed to the pre-fabricated crap that you find at some suburban strip mall, they assume that all Chinese food is as scuzzy. (and why white people think "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" is a real disease even though 1.5 billion human beings who eat Chinese food regularly have never contracted it).

And it isn't only Asian food. For example, when I visited France, I got hooked on authentic Camembert made from raw milk. It was oozy and creamy. But in America, because of "health concerns," Camembert can only be sold if it uses pasteurized milk, resulting in a cheese that is stiffer and milder in flavor. That is why the French farmer and activist Jose Bove vandalizes McDonald's restaurants: globalization, exporting the American "palate," is destroying traditional ethnic cuisine even in the countries of origins.

And let us not forget cuisine is a cornerstone of culture, and to insult the cuisine is to insult the culture. It is one thing to hate a particular dish (I don't like pickled herrings) but I would never generalize that by saying all
Scandanavian food is "weird" and "disgusting, which is what many Americans unfortunately do with ethnic foods. (which also conveniently allows Americans to view ethnic people as eaters of "weird and disgusting" food, and thus reaffirming their preconceived notions of superiority over people from other countries-- and trust me, I heard this trash from these people more times then I can care to remember).

Thus, the only means in which traditional cooking (and culture) can survive is to guilt the people of power (i.e. "white Americans") into giving it a shot, hope they like it, and keep these traditions alive. And quite often, guilting white Americans into trying authentic cuisine, has kept these traditions alive, and why sushi, curry, and pesto (even in their bastardized forms) can even be found in America.

And that is the reason why minorities try to make "white people" feel bad about eating inauthentic ethnic food.

Though Scarlet, I know you don't share the repugnant sentiments that I am talking about, but unless a colored person knows you, they wouldn't necessarily know that, and that is why they try to use white guilt-- it is the only defense we have.

arfanser said...

Here is some help for you. Southern Mexico eats corn tortillas. They believe that is the way to go, and the flour tortillas of the North are a bastardization of the culture. Northern Mexico has the flour tortillas. Northern Mexico actually eats corn usually as well, but the flour is for street food like burritos and tacos. Corn is for more formal food like mole (a southern dish) or carne asade (which is just like a really well done steak). I, like you, dont really like the corn tortillas that you get up here, mainly because they need so many preservatives to stay soft that it ruins the taste. I think you would like the fresh corn tortillas, they dont taste as much like cardboard.

As for the hispanics in your office, in my experience, they like to feel superior to nonhispanic americans in any way, so give them this, they will love you for it.

Fishfrog said...

Yule, why the hell don't you write for the New York Times or the New Yorker? That was beautiful.

beth said...

I agree with fishfrog that Yule's comment was beautiful, but the fact remains that a matter of taste is a matter of taste. There is no moral imperative to like a particular ethnic food. For example, I am a quarter Norwegian, and have an appreciation for some Scandinavian foods, but the pickled fish that my father adores is repugnant to me. It's not that I don't like "authentic Norwegian food" but that I don't like pickled herring. If you don't like it, don't eat it. Probably you shouldn't picket the restaurant, but (and here's the kicker) our tastes are formed by what we eat early in life, often, so you can't fight it that much. As long as you respect someone else's right to like that sort of food, I can see no reason to feel bad you don't like it.

Or you can just blame your parents.

Leo said...

In related news, the Human family went out to a Korean resturaunt last night. I don't really have any way of knowing, but it seemed pretty authentic to me. It was quite an experience and very good.