What is Authentic Asian Food?

BY ANDREA NGUYEN
May 11, 2011

If you’re looking for the real deal, the best place to start may be the kitchen.

811 Spam Musubi. The popular Hawaiian snack is made in the tradition of Japanese onigiri, but topped with all-American Spam. Would foods like this dent notions of authenticity? (Photo by Simone Erasmus-Lam)

 

An important issue that plagues me – keeps me worried and up at nights, frankly: What is authenticity in the realm of food?

For example, every once in a while, I get an e-mail from a Vietnamese American asking me if my book, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, offers authentic Vietnamese recipes or Americanized Vietnamese recipes.

I don't know what "American Vietnamese" food is about. Do they want techniques and ingredients presented from the motherland? Am I inauthentic because I use a 4-burner gas stove instead of a single burner, propane fueled system or a charcoal brazier? Should I sit on a low stool on the floor to do all the prep work? What about the food processor – one of my favourite appliances? Is that modern convenience inauthentic?

Am I inauthentic because I use a 4-burner gas stove instead of a charcoal brazier?

I know what is good and what is bad food to my palate. I wouldn't put forth a recipe that I wouldn't eat or wouldn't proudly present to family and friends. As a food writer and recipe developer, I try to compromise as little as possible but I also balance that with the need to get people into the kitchen to cook.

I often ask these folks to elaborate a bit, and one of the responses has been that Americanized Vietnamese food is the overly sweet crud that is dished up in Viet restaurants. Well, my friends, plenty of Vietnamese people prepare and patronize those establishments and they say that the food is cheap but "it's just okay." Why eat it then? Why not demand better? Why not make it yourself. You'll have no one else but yourself to praise or blame.

I'm a stickler for learning the foundations of cooking and of a cuisine before fiddling with it. I'm working on a new book project (not Vietnamese) and in a conversation with a renowned Japanese food expert and author Elizabeth Andoh, she mentioned that she avoids the word classic because food is constantly changing. She instead goes for “typical” preparations – what people in the main prepare, how they prepare it. We didn't even touch on what authenticity is. However, at the end of the day, the food has to taste good and the techniques have to be solid.

Something else that Elizabeth said a few years back that always sticks with me is this (and I paraphrase): Mastering a cuisine is not a birthright. This means that just because you're of a certain ethnicity doesn't mean that you're genetically programmed to prepare it well. Saveur magazine has the tagline “Savor a world of authentic cuisine”. So what does that mean? How is authentic cuisine defined? At the end of the day, I always define authentic cuisine as one that captures the relationship between people and their food.

If any of you are philosophy types, Jean Paul Sartre was a proponent of something called the authentic self – meaning that you are a true, honest person. Though that authentic self includes the good, bad and ugly, I like to put a positive spin on things by defining authentic food as this: Good tasting food that's well-crafted from someone's heart and soul.

And now, it's your turn!

Some parting thoughts and I await your shots...

• What does authentic food mean to you?

• I just came back from Asia, where I did some serious eating with Robyn and her husband Dave in Kuala Lumpur, where the cuisine is a crazy combination of Asian cuisines that's evolved over centuries. How would you capture authenticity there?

• In Hong Kong, there are instant ramen noodles everywhere for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Is that authentic Hong Kong fare or merely a trend?

• In our post-modern, reality-TV based world of the Food Network and Top Chef, how authentic is the stuff presented on air?

 

The writer is contributing editor to Saveur magazine. Her debut cookbook Into the Vietnamese Kitchen was among the finalists for a James Beard Foundation Award.

 

This post was originally published on Viet World Kitchen in April 2008.