You see this all the time in restaurant reviews:
“I’m from [country], so I know [country-ese food], and this place [does/doesn’t] measure up.”
“I took a trip to [country] last year and this place’s [specific regional dish] is [exactly/nothing] like what I had in [specific region].”
“This place is the best [country-ese food] in town, aside from my grandmother’s cooking, of course!”
It also crops up in how people automatically discount Chinese restaurants full of white people. (I’m not judging; even as a white person, I do this.) Also in the tendency to disparagingly remark that one’s sushi or luleh kabob or panang curry or whatever is being made/assembled by Mexicans. (I AM judging this. I think it’s racist. Don’t extend your judgment of the authenticity of food to a judgment of the authenticity of a person.)
Why are we so obsessed with authenticity, even sometimes over flavor?
I started considering this question way back in 2012, when I had mì quảng in Huế, Vietnam, for the first time. This was not the first time I’d had mì quảng; I was introduced to it in Orange County. So for me, I found myself in the odd position of comparing my Vietnamese (Huế-ian) mì quảng served right off a local family’s back porch, to the ‘ideal’ of Ngự Bình Restaurant’s mi quang. Obviously, the mì quảng from the source - Huế - was more authentic, and should have served as the anchor of reference.
Here’s the thing, though, and this is where cognitive dissonance started creeping in - I didn’t like the Huế version as much. It was just not as flavorful or complex. The noodles were white, rather than the turmeric-sunny yellow I was used to, and the shrimps were tiny, red, and a little mealy. The crackers, usually sesame filled, were airy and tasted like puffed rice, and the pork meat was tougher and seemed unmarinated.
But in terms of authenticity, it scored an A+. I was nowhere near the tourist areas of Huế. I was in a field, actually down an alley, having followed a handwritten cardboard sign that said ‘My Quảng’. I was on a Vietnamese family’s porch while women crouched nearby peeling and chopping vegetables and pounding fish into paste. It was a hundred degrees and my whole body was dripping with sweat. The only sounds were the sounds of peeling, pounding, motorcycle horns, and bugs buzzing. And of course, I was squatting on a miniscule plastic stool.
But Ngự Bình's mi quang tasted better.
Do we then discriminate against versions that have improved upon the original, as measured by terms as simple (and yet unmeasurable and indescribable) as ‘tastiness’?
I’m not talking about fusion cuisine here, which is alive and kicking and maybe even dominating and spreading, so it’s clear that combining ‘the original’ with ingredients and twists from wholly different areas of the globe is totally fine with foodies. I’m talking more about the ability to source a wider variety of vegetables and herbs in California and thus being able to combine fresh mint and banana flower and cilantro and lettuce and green onions and turmeric and chilies in one bowl. Even if that’s not always possible in mì quảng’s home country, should California do it? It may be making it less authentic by carrying it further away from the source, but it’s sure tasty.
My opinion? I’m glad we do it. I’m glad cooks take advantage of their location and connections to make their dishes taste even better than the version they grew up with or remember. I’m as guilty as anyone of comparing local versions of foreign dishes to their ‘home’ counterpart, but that’s usually because I’m trying to paint an evocative picture of what the dish is like when you order it where it ‘lives’. Putting taste aside, it’s an utterly different experience eating, say, lamb hand-pulled noodle soup in a scorching, noisy, side street of the Muslim Quarter of Xi’an and eating lamb hand-pulled noodle soup in a sterile, almost banquet-hall-like second-floor restaurant above a grocery store in suburban Los Angeles. The second setting isn’t interesting. We all know what that’s like, and even though that is what the reader will be literally experience should s/he choose to heed the reviewer’s call and go to the restaurant, s’he’d rather hear about what it WOULD be like if s’he were in Xi’an.
Sometimes I think authenticity is so highly prized because we’re all trying to turn our backyards into mini-vacations. We want to feel, even though we just drove a little way up the 405, like we’re ‘there’, wherever ‘there’ is. We want to close our eyes and have traveled thousands of miles. And we’re willing to fool ourselves a little to do it.