Growing up, my family taught me one simple lesson when we were looking for a Chinese restaurant to eat at. It’s something that most people looking for a good Chinese restaurant learn: go where the Chinese people are eating. They know where the real Chinese food is.
The search for authentic food makes sense for a migrant family: my parents were looking for food that reminded them of home. When I was a kid, we had a favourite Chinese restaurant: the manager would come out holding a live lobster for us to inspect before it was cooked for us; the kids would get bored and run around the lobby examining the fish crowded in the tanks, also soon to become food; the parents never looked at the menus but always knew exactly what to order. It was always delicious.
I’m an adult now, and that favourite restaurant changed management and my parents don’t like going there anymore. Finding a new favourite has been harder than I thought, not because I have lofty standards, but because I don’t really know what I’m looking for, apart from a confluence of Chinese diners.
As a child of Chinese migrants, I have supposedly been imbued with an inherent understanding of what authentic Chinese food is. I am the one who can grant the mantle of authenticity, my friends deferring to me on all things relating to Chinese food and culture.
“It’s not really authentic, is it?” they’ll say, examining a bao sandwich, fried chicken spilling out, or a dessert spring roll bursting with Nutella. Well no, probably not, but who the hell cares?
I’ve only been to China twice. My parents never taught me recipes passed down through generations of peasants, only how to steam rice and stir-fry vegetables and fry tofu (in olive oil until crispy, and then a pinch of salt). I don’t know if any of that is truly authentic. But I do know that I have absolutely no right to judge what is and isn’t authentic when it comes to food.
I have absolutely no right to judge what is and isn’t authentic when it comes to food.
Everyone is in search of authenticity these days, and I understand why. We want to feel like we’re experiencing something real, something with history and meaning. We’re also much more conscious of the fact that ethnic food has sometimes had to adapt itself for a Western palate and thus sometimes lose some of its essence.
The documentary The Search for General Tso explores this concept eloquently, following the history of Chinese restaurants in America, from the laws forcing Chinese people into ghettos which later became known as Chinatowns, to the Asian Exclusion Act which forced many Chinese people into self-employment, to the present, casting the resulting, Westernised dishes as noble (and delicious) efforts worth of respect.
Still, it’s considered gauche to enjoy ‘ethnic’ food tainted by other cultures; give us a cook fresh off the boat, who makes noodles the way her mother, and her mother’s mother, and her mother’s mother’s mother did.
I think that there’s something beautiful about preserving and passing down a recipe through the generations, and having a specific taste, texture, smell throw you back to another time. Food is an integral part of culture and I don’t want that to change. I’m not out there burning down restaurants that pride themselves on authenticity and tradition.
But let’s please throw away the concept of an authentic food canon that must be rigidly adhered to forever, lest a dish or restaurant be marked inauthentic and therefore inferior. In Hong Kong, young chefs don’t stick to traditional dishes, and the premiere Chinese culinary competition weights creativity heavily. So why should Chinese people, and anyone else, feel obligated to be authentic, whatever that means? Like David Chang argues in his Netflix show Ugly Delicious, an obsession with authenticity means that food can’t evolve and be better.
But let’s please throw away the concept of an authentic food canon that must be rigidly adhered to forever, lest a dish or restaurant be marked inauthentic and therefore inferior
I don’t think we should put any culture’s food up on a pedestal, frozen in time, to be faithfully reproduced and never changed. No culture is static, so why should its food be?
Give me experimentation and change and collisions of cultures. Give me cheeseburger spring rolls and deep-fried ice cream drizzled in Nutella. Give me burgers with bao for buns and fries loaded with roast duck and plum sauce. Give me fusion, or give me death (as long as the afterlife has my mum’s authentic crispy tofu).