The quest for authentic ethnic cuisine and some food for thought.

Szechuan Pork at Chuancai Fang

People frequently want to know where they can find authentic ethnic cuisine or restaurants, but this is a problematic quest. To begin with, who determines what is authentic?

Is authentic food cooked only by people from the country of origin? For example, can an American chef trained in Italian cooking by an Italian woman in Italy, who herself has cooked for her whole life, be considered a chef who cooks authentic Italian food? Is the woman who taught her how to cook an authentic ethnic Italian cook? Or, is it possible that neither one of them cooks authentic Italian food because the teacher was not a classically trained chef in her country of origin?

How about the region of the country that the cooking occurred? A dish in northern Italy can be extremely different than the same dish in southern Italy or Sicily. Does this mean that only the people in northern Italy cook authentic cuisine and the people in the south are just cooking a bastardized version of it, or vice versa?

Szechuan Pork at Beijing Kitchen
Szechuan Pork at Beijing Kitchen

Another problem created by the concept of authenticity is ingredient availability.

Thai food cooked in the United States invariably cannot be the same as though it were cooked Thailand. The availability of fresh seafood, spices, and even “in season” peppers and other crucial ingredients in Thailand will be different than it is in America. A chef from Thailand cooking the same dishes in the states will likely produce different tasting food over here. Is the food that he cooks stateside now less authentic, or not authentic it all, because it’s not exactly like it was when he lived in Thailand?

How about the tools used to prepare food?

In my travels in Mexico and Guatemala it was apparent to me that the average citizen didn’t have high end cutlery with which to prepare food. Food is often rough cut and varying in size and quality because of the lack of precision equipment with which to cook. This can lead to interesting things like bone an sinew ending up in everyday “authentic cuisine” which would be widely excepted in country, but in the United States might even be viewed as offensive or lacking preparation.

Authentic Mexican Tacos at 7 Mares
Authentic Mexican Tacos at 7 Mares

What about pieces parts and other strangeness?

As we have evolved as a society in this country, a large segment of the population has come to frown upon things like intestines, eyeballs, brains, and organ food. Even things like horse, insects, reptiles, and dog are not so strange as food items in other parts of the world. If we substitute or exclude those items from the meal offerings, are we also now not eating a less authentic meal?

Look, I confess my guilt. I am one of the first people I know who demands an authentic Mexican taco. To me, that means meat, cilantro and onion served on two corn tortillas. As sure as I say that, I can assure you that both tomatoes and avocado are normal in different states of Mexico. In some places only serve it on one tortilla. My version of an authentic Mexican taco is only as authentic as the part of Mexico that I am visiting.

Americanized tacos at Nick Finks
Americanized tacos at Nick Finks

It is true that there will always be some basic features in common amongst ethnic cuisine of a certain genre, but there will also be differences for the reasons listed above. I find that many people who claim to have authentic ethnic cuisine are generally in the ballpark with some local variations. I also take a look at who is eating at a restaurant. If the clientele seems to be primarily of that ethnic background, I feel pretty confident that the food is it least reminiscent enough of their homeland that they are eating at that restaurant.

If you are looking for that perfect dish just like the one you had in Morocco, you are always likely to be disappointed.  The more important question is that when you find that ethnic dish and it is pretty similar  to the one you have eaten before, but not exactly the same……did it taste good?


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