Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Authenticity Debate

Big Night is a brilliant film that chronicles the fortunes of a pair of brothers who leave their native Italy to run a restaurant in New Jersey. One of the themes of the film is the paradox that, despite serving high quality authentic Italian food, the brothers' restaurant isn't as popular as a rival that peddles inferior Americanised fare.

Although the film is set in the 1950's, its theme of exploring the conflict between sticking to one's culinary principles and compromising those principles in order to earn a decent living is one that still resonates today, even in a city as cosmopolitan as London. After all these years, the capital still has scores of Chinese and Indian restaurants that serve a formulaic anglicised version of their respective cuisines. They are what they are, and most places don't bother to disguise the fact that their food isn't what one might find in Shanghai or Delhi.

At the other end of the spectrum are those restaurants that are renowned for offering authentic food. Yet there's still suspicion that even in some of these places, it can be hard work to get to the true heart of the cuisine unless you're familiar with it through your family upbringing, extensive travel or obsessive-compulsive food nerdiness.

So how do you make sure what you're eating is authentic? And does it matter if it isn't? And what is authentic anyway?

Mixed Starters - not 100% authentic
Navigating The Menu
The first obstacle is the menu. For example, many Chinese restaurants have a second menu, featuring more interesting dishes, written solely in Chinese. I've written about this practice before, and I disagree with it, as non-Chinese readers shouldn't be disenfranchised. However, I do understand why many restaurants don't bother. Many restaurant owners would argue that the hard work in translating the menu into English would be a wasted effort given its limited interest to many non-Chinese customers.

That may have been true in the past but I like to think that diners nowadays are more adventurous. So whilst the practice of dual menus does persist, increasing numbers of Chinese restaurants have a comprehensive bilingual menu that encompasses all their specialities. These places deserve kudos for doing this, not least because I can't really read Chinese despite being able to speak it!

But that doesn't necessarily help one sort the wheat out from the chaff if even the better Chinese, and for that matter, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants pad out their menu with westernised crowd pleasers. Take for example, Mien Tay, one of London's best-regarded Vietnamese restaurants, where the menu includes crispy aromatic duck and Singapore noodles. That said, I am assuming that more discerning diners can filter out the take-away standards and home in on more authentic dishes, which brings us to our next challenge.

Turning Down The Heat
Congratulations. You've managed to track down that special dish you tried on holiday in Bangkok at your local Thai. When it comes out, it looks like the real deal but there's something that isn't quite right. That's because the flavours have been compromised. You wonder whether the restaurant has played it safe, or worse, profiled you as a customer who can't handle the spicy stuff.

Yes, you read right. Profiling. There is anecdotal evidence that customers are profiled in many Asian restaurants, but the only place that I know for sure it happens is Red N Hot, a mini-chain of Sichuan restaurants, where they rather unsubtly detail your ethnicity and associated spice tolerance on the bill.

Needless to say, turning down the spice levels whether as a default, or after profiling is something that annoys me. A better approach would be if diners were told that a certain dish is traditionally spicy, and be offered the option to tone it down.

Very authentic sushi
Cultural Ambassadors
Whilst it's all very well banging on about authenticity, most restaurateurs are businesspeople first, cultural ambassadors second. Returning to the point about menus, that's why they tend to be so bloody long in many Asian restaurants so as to attract the widest possible clientele.

But is it actually worth the aggravation to do things properly? Look at Yashin Sushi, a restaurant in London where the chefs, just like they do in Japan, season each piece of sushi individually. It should go without saying that these works of art shouldn't then be doused in copious amounts of soy. However, just to make sure, management put up a humorous neon sign that reads: 'without soy sauce… but if you want to'.

Now I accept that this message could've been conveyed in a subtler fashion, but nonetheless some of the outcry was a bit OTT. I'm not even sure what some people were angry about. Was it the bad grammar? Was it because it was a neon sign? Or was it because some just like to take offence when none is meant? All told, it makes me wonder why Yashin Sushi bother to do things the right way.

What Is Authentic Anyway?
In all cultures, there is a fair bit of mixing and matching when it comes to ingredients, which begs the question: what is authentic anyway? After all, ramen and udon are considered to be authentically Japanese yet these noodles both have Chinese origins. And then there's the Chinese love of Worcestershire sauce (喼汁 gip jap) which is used as a dip for dim sum and other snacks.

So why are some 'inauthentic' ingredients considered acceptable while others aren't? For example, wasabi (Japanese in origin) is very popular amongst Chinese chefs at the moment. Dishes such as wasabi prawn dumplings and gai lan with wasabi soy dip are genius. While not authentic, there is no doubt that the presence of this Japanese interloper is a good thing. However, when ketchup is used in pad Thai, this is considered bad. Why? It's because ketchup is being used as a shortcut, and doesn't add anything to the dish.

Does It Matter?
Authenticity does matter, for those dishes that are sold as such, and where it is essential to use the correct ingredients and seasoning. I hate it when dishes aren't done properly, like the time I ordered a piss poor Thai green curry that was too sweet, had minimal heat and where courgettes had replaced the pea aubergines. Complete rubbish.

However, that's not to say the use of 'inauthentic' ingredients is necessarily a bad thing. Food shouldn't stand still; experimentation should be encouraged just as long as the fusion of flavours work, and ingredients aren't being added as a gimmick, or worse, as an expedient short cut.

At this point, I think I've worked it out. But have I? The thing is who am I to judge what is right or wrong? Others might well regard what I consider is a genius combination as being total dross. And who knows, there might be people out there who think that pad Thai is enhanced by ketchup! So after writing over a thousand words on this subject, I still don't have the answers. Do you?


  1. There is an interesting debate going on about this issue on Melbourne blogs at the moment - you might find this post interesting - (be sure to read the update as well)

  2. I don't have the answers either. I do appreciate the sometimes 'turning down the heat' as while my recent stint in India was great, I doubt that I would have been able to take the heat as much as the locals. and when you have anglo-saxon people in your dining party and it was already hard work by itself to get them to go to a local cuisine place rather than to Italian or american joint, the only way to please them is also to turn down the heat much to my disliking.

    I think food requires innovation as we move into the future and the pleasure and how you feel eating any food is the ultimate test for me. While some classics cannot and should not be messed with, that seems to me is only because the authentic recipe is still the best and gives the most satisfying feeling when you eat it.

    If a modern twist actually gets you excited and joy from eating it, then the authenticity factor shouldn't be the ultimate factor.

    But I do hate it when places advertised that it is authentic and it isn't. I am happy to accept a place that serves fusion food if they don't mislead people.

    I think this might be my longest comment yet on your blog. =)

  3. Gourmet Chick - what a great link and it's so heartening to see a restaurant engage and take on board constructive criticism in the spirit in which it's meant. BTW - I'm also willing to act as a consultant to any restaurant that wants to serve authentic food!

    Kay - thank you for your considered opinion. In particular, you raise an excellent point about places that market themselves as authentic and then serve up dishes that are anything but. This in itself isn't necessarily a problem if the food tastes good, but the kind of place that takes liberties with the provenance of its food is just as likely to take liberties with its cooking.

  4. Good post, and interesting questions. I really don't like the word "authentic", partly because it's hard to work out what people mean by it. In some of the, shall we say, less polished restaurant reviews one finds on the internet, it seems to be used very carelessly.

    The question of whether "authenticity" matters: this depends on context. There is more than one reason for going to a restaurant.

    If I want to learn about, say, Vietnamese food, then I'm not going to learn much by going to one of those "Vietnamese" restaurants that actually serves the generic Anglo-Canto stuff (the "Vietnamese" takeaway that opened in the town where I grew up after much advance advertising remains one of the bitterest disappointments of my life). You might argue that Vietnamese food can never taste the same outside Vietnam, but I would rather learn a little about a subject I'm interested in than nothing.

    Conversely, if I just want to eat some good food, then no, it doesn't matter. I think your point about "those dishes that are sold as such" is important here though; menu descriptions should be accurate, or customers risk disappointment.

    (I recognise that many people don't have "learning something" as a motivator to go to a restaurant. That's OK!)

    I think you've also hit the nail on the head re why some ingredients/substitutions are acceptable and others aren't. Ketchup is a great ingredient, and I wouldn't eat a fishfinger sandwich without it (incidentally, I had an excellent fishfinger sandwich for dinner yesterday). It's very useful when you want to add tomato flavour and sweetness to a dish at the same time. But for something like pad Thai, where the flavours are adjusted on multiple axes to individual taste, I feel ketchup is too blunt an instrument.

    It's like you say - if the cook is using an ingredient because they want the specific effect of that ingredient, the result can be very good; whereas if they're just using it as a shortcut, the dish often ends up inferior.

  5. I agree with Kay and Kake - if the restaurant has set out claiming to be authentic, then it bloody well should serve up something like what is served in the country. If they claim to be modern or fusion, then by all means, go ahead and serve whatever you like.

    (That said, yes, as Kake says, lots of Thai food is tweaked for a person's preference - I know Thai people who don't like great amounts of heat!)

    Bah, I'm not very articulate today. Everything I'm typing is just blah blah blah. Sorry. Something about education too. Yup. Education is good and whatnot.

  6. It is a very interesting debate. As a general rule I don't really mind when restaurants have separate menus provided that they are willing to help out when you want to order from the non-English menu.

    It's a little frustrating but I can understand why they do it from a business perspective. I have friends who like to experiment but I also know plenty of people who would turn up to a Thai restaurant expecting to see exactly the same menu items that they are familiar with from every other Anglo-Thai (or Indian or Cantonese etc) menu in the country.

    What does annoy me are claims to authenticity that are complete cobblers. I've just checked the websites for three of the most well known Thai restaurants here in Leeds, and every one claims to serve authentic Thai food. This is just completely untrue.

    The same thing extends to descriptions or names of dishes. Restaurants are often at fault here, but going off topic slightly the supermarkets are far worse. In the last couple of years they've really started extending the range of Asian foods, particularly ready meals, and seemingly without bothering to find out what the dishes should actually consist of.

    I'm not expecting the meals to actually be much good, just a passable attempt would do for starters. You'd expect to recognise a supermarket Shepherd's pie as such, even if it was rubbish, but for some reason they'll happily call something a laksa that's nothing of the sort. I don't suppose it's really that important, but it winds me up because people get a false first impression of amazing dishes.

    Sorry about the lengthy comment/rant!

  7. Interesting debate. For me if it tastes good, it tastes good. I agree with the marketing front, if you advertise authentic - it better at least reflect what you can get locally. I think sometimes people are confused between traditional and authentic, for example, if a new dim sum dish is served in HK then served in London - it's an authentic HK dish but not necessarily traditional. Does authenticity have to imply history as well?

  8. We all know that when a restaurant says its food is "authentic", it is 99% purely marketing, just to get bums on seats and money in the till. It angers me so much that i normally just give those places a wide berth.

    I think Thai food is the most abused in London. Not everyone wants a lot of heat in their food. But please at least get the other bits right as well, then at least you have a mildly good plate of food. Not changing the ingredients because they feel its what the customers want.

    Mexican food or what is called Mexican food here in London is another that really gets my goat. What we have here which is burritos, tacos and the like are Tex-Mex (Southern US and Northern Mexico) which really has nothing to do with the wonderful food that comes from this diverse country, and to call what they sell as authentic makes my blood boil. Grrrrrrrr.......

    The word authentic should be stricken off menus as well as rustic. I wonder if someone should take a restaurant to court over the misuse of the word authentic.

  9. kake - you're spot on in that 'authentic' is used very carelessly in the foodie world, and it's a word I don't like to use unless I'm absolutely sure that I'm right in using it.

    Su-Lin - perhaps 'heat' is the wrong example to use re:authenticity, as it's very subjective. That said, I think there ought to be better communication between restaurant and diner in terms of the spice level.

    Dave - don't get me started on foodie-illiteracy in supermarkets. Siu mai dim sum that aren't open topped, cha siu being applied to non-pork products and, as you point out, laksa that isn't! That's a another blog post that I can start working on!

    Ning - that's a good point in terms of authentic vs traditional. When does a dish have enough 'history' to be deemed authentic? It's like the use of wasabi, which is very much in vogue in Cantonese cooking in HK, China and even here in London. Is this now authentic because 'proper' Cantonese restaurants use it? Or is it disqualified because it isn't traditional. I guess this goes back to my question: what is authentic?

    Mzungu - I don't mind Thai places toning down the heat if that's what specific customers request. What gets me is the poor substitution of ingredients. I can sympathise that some ingredients can be hard to source, but some of the substitutions are shocking. And yes, the use of rustic (authentic's country cousin) is another bugbear.

    In terms of authenticity, I think the lack of a significant Mexican population in the UK means that it is hard to find places that do the real deal in the same way that some Chinese places do.

  10. I think you are probably one of the most 'traditionalist' people I know in food. That said, as I understand more about Asian food... well I agree.

  11. I like to try a dish how it should be first (the authentic dish if you will). Then if it is changed I can decide myself if I approve of the changes people have made to it.
    My big bug bear is with Thai food also, but not hotness (although I it could be dialled up) it is sweetness. Every curry is sweet, every dish is sweet.People put sweet chilli sauce with everything. Argh - I love the sour and salty notes in thai food and they are almost always missing.

  12. Tom - ha ha! I have been described as a 'foodie fundamentalist' before! Thing is compared to the olds, I'm not very trad at all.

    Frank - Thai food is definitely afflicted by being too sweet in the UK. It annoys me too.