I’ll buy anything if it’s on sale for cheap enough, which is usually how I end up with a pantry full of canned sides and instant entrees that I never use. One of my recent acquisitions: a bottle of prepared Kung Pao sauce for stir-fry.
Despite my long and illustrious affair with fast food Chinese, I’ve never actually eaten Kung Pao anything. While it shares its name with a traditional Szechuan dish it’s most likely modeled off of, any affronted Yelp review of said fast food Chinese joints will tell you for sure that what you’re getting isn’t “real Chinese food.”
The separation between “real” and “fake” food fixates on authenticity – but authentic to what, to whom, by what definition? I’ve never really known for sure. And despite all the talk of real this and fake that floating around, I haven’t found the criteria laid out anywhere.
At first, I thought it might be a question of who cooks the food, but that gets dicey when you look at the employee make-up of any restaurant. Or maybe it was by the kind of dish cooked – though that doesn’t account for all those upscale “authentic” dishes that use the original dish as inspiration.
I didn’t know where to start. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. After all, what I understood as authentic was only authentic to me and my experiences, my personal history.
My personal culinary tour can tell you a lot about my family and the circumstances that raised me – start somewhere in Cantonese cuisine, add some flavors of South Vietnam – but that isn’t the whole picture. Dishes tend to have regional flair, building themselves around common available ingredients (think local, think seasonal) that develop similar flavor profiles, out of which generalizations emerge.
I’ve always found food and cooking to be deeply personal; after all, when someone cooks for you, they’re serving something of their care and consideration for you along with the food, but this takes it even further. Authentic food, particularly authentic “ethnic” food, carries expectations beyond your own cooking or your family’s cooking – it’s made to stand in for an entire swath of cultural experience.
After all, the goal of wandering outside the local and regional cuisines we know is to expand our palates and taste something of the world. No wonder it carries an air of exclusivity, secrecy, and mystery around it. People talk about finding authentic ethnic restaurants like they’re cracking some secret code – to know a place is to know someone, or to have the knowledge to be able to taste the difference between the real and the imposters. Like there’s truth beneath the seasoning.
But it’s this generalized idea of authenticity that I’ve always resisted and struggled against. Is the Chinese food that I grew up eating generalizable to a wider experience? Can I really say that because I ate my fish steamed with scallion oil, it can represent something larger than my own lived experience? The question is too big, too personal, to answer. What’s honest for me isn’t always going to hold true for someone else.
China is an enormous country with numerous ethnic groups, cultures, and cuisines within itself. Besides that, it forces me to speak on behalf of a history of food that lies beyond my own scope of knowledge. I’m not an expert on Chinese food; I’m only an expert on the Chinese food that I know.
To demand a singular authenticity is to demand flatness. This isn’t to say that foods of a particular country or region aren’t similar (they often share ingredients and flavors), but altogether, these parts don’t build a single coherent picture of a national cuisine. New York and Chicago-style pizza share roots but yield different products, and neither is more “American” than the other.
I understand the impulse to look for it. I’m guilty of doing it myself. For one thing, it’s easier to conflate everything into a single picture of what Chinese food looks or tastes like. But this isn’t fair to the food or to the people cooking for us. I try to avoid painting food with that brush of truth, as if it were something to be tested, verified, and measured.
Maybe being honest about food begins and ends with knowing that what we can know is limited, not just to the foods we’ve made and eaten ourselves but to the food cultures we’ve seen. Maybe it isn’t about whether our food is lying to us so much as what we’re looking to get from it. Sometimes a girl just wants Olive Garden, no matter how murky its culinary ancestry. To quote author KF Seetoh: “There are only two kinds of food: good food and bad food; everything else is bullshit.”
Maybe we can have good food that isn’t completely honest. Maybe we can have food that’s only honest to what we know. Either way, maybe there’s been enough bullshit.