Authentic or not, it is a question

During the holidays just passed, I took the cruise to west Carribean. Before it started, I searched the internet about the restaurants on the cruise ship. Shanghai Noodle, which was highly rated by the customers, caught my eyes. Looking at the menu alone, I was mouth-watered. “Steamed Shrimp Dumplings”, “Vegetable Spring Roll” … I cannot wait.

Shrimp dumping has been always my favorite. It’s a huge shrimp wrapped by the translucent rice dumpling skin, with the shrimp’s pink color and plump contour vaguely shown underneath, like a dream, too good to be true.

When the dishes finally arrived, my heart sank. Instead of my pink juicy dream, there were a few small, stuffed balls, barely resembling dumplings. The rice skins were all broken, the shrimps exposed were too small and pale like dead fish. Obviously they were not fresh.

I took a glance at the customer sitting next to me, an American middle-aged lady who also ordered shrimp dumplings. She elegantly put the dumpling in her mouth with chopsticks, and closed her eyes. Her husband sitting cross from her asked how it was, she opened eyes and said, “It’s pretty good, do you want to try?” Witnessing her genuine joy, I cannot even share my frustration with her.

The rest of the trip I went by the Shanghai Noodle bar quite a few times, it’s always full of customers, most of them are westerners. Their happiness is genuine.

I don’t doubt the 5-star ratings are made by honest customers, but I doubt they are customers who had experienced “authentic Asian food.”

In a similar situation, I told my Mexican co-workers that I love “El Nopal”, the chain Mexican restaurant on Tipton Street. I wanted to show them I appreciate the authentic Mexican cuisine and would not even look at Chili’s or Taco Bell.

But all of them chuckled or giggled when I mentioned “El Nopal.” They told me politely it’s better than Chili’s or Taco Bell, but all of them are American Mexican food. “We don’t use sour cream on Quesadilla,” one guy told me. Really? But I really love the sour cream on quesadilla , to me it’s the frosting on the cake! After I visited Mexico a few times, I was convinced that nothing served in a surviving Mexican restaurant in U.S. can be called “authentic.”

Coincidentally, in recent news, the travel channel host Andrew Zimmern is under fire for the same topic. He runs a Chinese restaurant in Minnesota. He claimed he only serves “authentic Chinese food”, and said that Chinese food in the Midwest is “horses-t”. A few days later he apologized in public for having said so.

I checked up on the pictures of the food on his menus, they seemed better than PF Chang, but not much, because he got too many deep fried dishes. In Chinese cuisine, deep fry is only a fraction of ways to cook. More often we use steam, boil and stir fry. Sweet and sour is an adopted taste from the west. So you see, the General Tsao’s chicken, lemon chicken or sesame chicken as well as crab rangoon are not authentic. Fried rice are not necessarily darkened by sprinkling a large amount of soy sauce.

There is no fortune cookies in China until recently that some young bourgeois Chinese had learnt from American sitcoms and made their restaurants more westernized.

I found there are contradictions between “Customize to local market” and “Keep the authentic, original flavor”, not limited to restaurant business. In order to maximize the market share and the sales revenue, one must adapt to the local customers’ preference. However the cultural essence will be largely diluted by this effort. A gain in economy is a loss in culture authenticity.

But it’s totally fine. It’s fine for Shanghai Noodle bar keeps getting 5 star reviews, fine for you to enjoy lemon chicken as I devour the sour cream on quesadilla with confidence that they are not horses-t. Only that we should bear this caution in mind: When the food is far away from its origin, it cannot be authentic. Therefore we need to travel. Travel to the land, the ocean and the forest to experience the authenticity. Try to get further away from those places polluted heavily by the travel industry.

Song Li is the resident of Seymour and member of Seymour Toastmasters Club. Send comments to [email protected].