Monday, May 24, 2021

Rant: What Is Authentic Food? Consider Brandon Jew

What is "authentic" cuisine? 

This is an area of controversy, with some holding strong positions as to what dishes are and are not considered authentic. However, authenticity is a complex issue, and much of their arguments often depend on arbitrary lines and definitions. 

For example is chop suey an authentic Chinese dish? The answer will vary, dependent on your own personal definitions. This isn't a question with a clear and definitive answer. 

Cuisine changes with time, with the interaction of different cultures, the introduction of new ingredients, and the innovations of different individuals. So, where do you draw the line as to what is authentic? 

Recently, I've been reading Mister Jiu's in Chinatown: Recipes and Stories From the Birthplace of American Chinese Food, by Brandon Jew & Tienlon Ho (2021). Brandon is the chef/owner of Mister Jiu's in San Francisco, a Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant which opened in 2016. This cookbook provides a wide variety of intriguing recipes, but it was the Introduction that really captured by mind. 

Brandon discussed some of his thoughts on authenticity, and they struck an accord with some of my own thoughts. The following four quotes may encourage you to rethink your own ideas of authenticity, to be more open in your definitions. So, read these quotes and take some time to ponder over what they say, and see how they compare to your own thoughts on authenticity.

"To me, authentic food isn’t about a moment in time. People change and move and so does what they eat. China didn’t even have chiles until about three hundred years ago, but they are essential to mapo doufu, a now classic Sichuan dish. I also don’t believe authenticity has to be dependent on location. The same ingredients will taste different depending on where they’re grown. Cooking is about adapting to what’s around you."

"You don’t have to be a specific person in a particular place to make food that captures something we all instinctively know has Chinese roots." 

There’s also a very personal sense of authenticity you feel when you eat something that tastes just how you remember it. My childhood was not identical to yours, so our nostalgia takes us to different places.” 

"To me, a more communal way to look at authenticity is in the way a dish embodies cultural traditions; not necessarily in one specific way, but in details that show intention and knowledge. When you cook food that means something to a lot of people, you don’t have to look a certain way or have the culture in your blood. (I was, after all, a Chinese American cooking Italian food.) You just have to care."

These quotes aren't definitive or the end of the conversation of authenticity. However, they offer a fascinating viewpoint, and an excellent starting point for further discussion. Don't be so draconian in your own authenticity definitions, but be more willing to consider all of the potential factors that contribute to the issue. 

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