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|
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|
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?