Screw Authenticity: Asian Food in America

Categories: Talking Points
Should Americans even be calling pad thai "Thai" at this point?
This week, Gilt Taste is running a fantastic series about Asian food in America -- or rather, Asian American food. The series led with an article by former SFoodie editor (and current East Bay Express critic) John Birdsall, who described how Bay Area chefs like Richie Nakano, Dennis Lee, and Danny Bowien have bulldozed over the artificiality of 1990s-style Asian fusion by cooking food that's creatively, intuitively both Asian and American. (Props to Lee for telling Birdsall, "You look at a restaurant like Nopa, or even Chez Panisse. Everybody calls them California-Mediterranean, but nobody ever calls them 'Mediterranean fusion.'")

Tuesday, Salon columnist and Berkeleyite Andrew Leonard wrote reconciling his passion for Sichuan food -- and his voracious appetite for Sichuan cookbooks -- with American ingredients. And yesterday, Thailand-born New Yorker Pitchaya Sudbanthad wrote about coming to terms with the sugared-up, altered flavors of Thai food in America.

Running through these articles is the problem (or illusion) of authenticity. Can you really make "authentic" Sichuan or Thai or Japanese food in a different country, where everything -- vegetables, condiments, stoves, spices -- is different? Why not celebrate about how a dish has evolved in a different country, or the creativity of the cooks who are putting their stamp on it? And why shouldn't cooks who grew up eating food from two, or three, or a dozen different cuisines feel free to combine them any which way?

In the end, who cares about whether it's authentic? We just want it to taste good.

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Here here! Good article!


"Authenticity" is only a problem word when used to hamstring cooks or denigrate creative cooking. The desire to reach "authenticity," which most of us understand now is either unreachable or never existed in the first place, comes from a time where mainstream Chinese and Mexican restaurants have traditionally cooked compromised food with processed ingredients because that's what they correctly assumed would sell better in the US. Regional and fresh (authentic for lack of a better word) Chinese and Mexican cooking have been a godsend for people who knew that there was something better out there than greasy chow mein and bland enchiladas.

So if striving for authenticity means you serve food that is vibrant and and interesting and honoring its country of origin, then it's a great thing. If it means you rag on what Mission Chinese is doing, then it's misguided and pretentious.


Senor Bauer pretty much asked the same question a few months ago regarding "authentic" Mexican food. ( To me, authenticity has a lot more to do with the cook's intent and vision than ingredients or location. Hapa Ramen is authentic because it is what Richie Nakano wants you to experience, and it has nothing to do with whether ramen shops in Japan use whipped lardo.

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