What is “authentic”?
Chicken’s feet vs. Chicken Chop Suey?
MSG or “umami” flavors?
Mom’s recipe for stir fry…or Bobby Flay’s?
Folks often ask me where to find authentic Chinese food in Atlanta or whether a specific restaurant is authentic. It’s a funny question to me. The short answer is: It depends. Authentic to whom? I, myself, like to ask servers to give me their personal recommendations. If Shanghai-styled steamed buns are filled with a different combination of meat and vegetables grown locally in the South, are they less authentic? If the dish is delicious, is it unworthy because it’s not made that way in Beijing? Does authenticity trump quality?
Actually, I’ve tasted some authentically bad Chinese food while traveling in China and some of the best Asian meals I’ve had were in California and New Jersey…also in Chamblee and Duluth, Georgia. The Chicken Chow Mein and Pepper Steak served at our restaurant in Smyrna, Georgia was authentically Chinese American. Some non-Asian foodies search endlessly for products unavailable locally, or may actually be unfamiliar to American-born Asians. Some even undertake to cook “authentic” dishes that most Asians view as too laborious to make.
I happily smack my lips on both sides of the buffet line. There is nothing like hot-off-the-wok sizzling and glistening Pepper Steak, Kung Pao Chicken or Shrimp with Pepper Sauce. And there is nothing like my aunt’s braised pig knuckles. If you asked a Southerner to rank which barbeque is better—Memphis or Carolina style, you might start something you wish you hadn’t.
California Roll, Eggrolls, Pot Stickers, Fried Rice, Chow Mein, Lo Mein, Teriyaki, Tempura. Banh mi, Pho, Coconut Rice, Curry, Pad Thai, Sriracha, Chinese Hot Pot, Tofu, Bok choy, Ginger, Green tea, Sushi, Stir-fry, Sesame candy, Pocky sticks, Rice noodles, Korean BBQ…and the list goes on. Many of these dishes and products are familiar to American food lovers. Are these authentic? The authenticity question is as loaded as curry is with different spices!
I think to myself: Authentically what?
Chinese, American, Chinese American, Mainland China, Taiwan, Chinatown Chinese? In China, I ate dishes that were authentically bad. In America and elsewhere, I’ve had creative versions of Chinese food that were un-authentically amazing. I grew up in Smyrna, Georgia eating boiled peanuts alongside Five-Spice Rutabaga stew. Dad prefers a good hamburger over Chinese food and listens to Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. Mom rustles up an irresistible bacon bok choy stir fry in an iron skillet.
The conversation started about food but a little voice inside asks: Am I authentic?
Asian food and culture have moved from the exotic to the mainstream. Chinese-influenced dishes and recipes are all over the internet, restaurant menus, cooking shows and talk shows. Even though trendy foods, like, pork belly buns, Korean tacos and tapioca desserts were likely the creations of someone’s grandmothers, mothers, daughters, aunts, who passed down their recipes, Asians and Asian women, in particular, seem to be disproportionately underrepresented in the audience and in celebrity chef line-ups.
Women cooking in the home is the norm, but women cooking as paid professionals are still the minority. In the original Japanese version of Iron Chef, women were absent altogether. The most popular American food competition shows, except for desserts, feature predominantly Caucasian male participants, chefs, hosts and judges. In a recent newspaper article on chefs in Atlanta restaurants, all eight interviews (with photos) were white men. In many households, guys may pull out the grill or Big Green Egg to rustle up ribs or make pancakes on weekends, but women are still responsible for cooking every day meals for the family. New Age or retro trends often feel like a recycled, but more expensive version of the Old Age. Thrift store and second-hand clothing were a lot cheaper before “vintage” shops came into the picture. Chinese-styled dresses and silk beaded slippers were the domain of grandmas and concubines in China, not fashionistas.
It’s exciting that I (and my Oriental tops) can come out of the closet and be greeted by a brave new open-minded world. Asians have become trendy but my mom now uses a fork more than chopsticks and I am starting to forget some Chinese words. Epicurious.com food videos have non-Asian chefs from the Culinary Institute of America teaching How to Make Korean Bulgogi.
In 20 years, where will we be?
More good food for thought:
We Are What We Eat (Changing Face of America series)