Is it possible to be an “authenticity nazi” in the States and survive? How does one not die of hunger while avoiding Crab Rangoons, California Rolls, and syrupy-sweet Tom Yum Goong? The Japanese Agriculture Ministry has plans to crack down on “fake” Japanese restaurants worldwide. Will having sushi police mean better food?
Thursday, November 16, 2006 –Volume 53 Issue 11
Arts & Entertainment Page 12
“Someone once asked me if my gnocchi was ‘authentic’. I told them it had real potatoes in it.” – Anonymous
There was a time when seeing Crab Rangoon on a Chinese restaurant’s menu made me all huffy-puffy indignant. “Oh, of course it’s here, because cream cheese is such a staple ingredient in Chinese kitchens!” (Mutter, mutter, growl.)
And if I couldn’t convince my dining companions to heave themselves out of the restaurant’s greasy warmth to venture into the winter chill, in search of a more “serviceable” eatery, I would proceed to paw my way bad-temperedly through the rest of the menu – serves me right for wanting to eat Asian in a white man’s land anyway, humph – and eventually settle on rice and a leafy vegetable stir-fry (because even a block of wood could not mess that up…WRONG).
In the mossy verdance of youth, and with the spurious arrogance of the world-weary traveler, I had anointed myself as one “in the know” of “authentic” cuisine. I would thumb my nose at all laughably poor imitations of ethnic fare, and force everyone in earshot to endure my lectures on why and how it’s WRONG WRONG WRONG.
God, was I annoying.
This lack of “authenticity” was easy enough to overlook when the restaurant had hieroglyphic scribblings on wall menus and a special insert for their “own people” – a menu a world apart from the chink-chonk Chinaman-chopsuey-chowmein nonsense they routinely gave “others.” If they’re only fleecing “others” of their money by dishing up what they want (read: bastardized, Americanized, barely edible, gloopy corn starch brown sauce on everything), then it’s ok.
I would routinely bitchwhinemoan about how it’s the Chinese that are always “selling out” – that we’re so willing to throw away our culture for cash. Until I realized that it’s no longer just Chinese food that we’re bartering any more.
The next time you dine at the neighborhood sushi joint or Korean BBQ place, go peek in the kitchen. Odds are you’ll find the cook’s line overwhelmingly dominated by – you guessed it – Chinese. You know why? Because to the “uneducated” palate, Japanese and Korean food utilize pretty much the same ingredients that Chinese food does, only you can sell it for more.
That’s right, folks. The Chinese entrepreneur has it all figured out: teriyaki grilled salmon atop a bowl of short-grain rice is not easily distinguishable from soy sauce, sugar, and rice wine-marinated salmon atop long-grain rice. Sure, I would know. Hiroko Shimbo would know. But would you know?
Cue the sushi police. The Japanese Agriculture Ministry recently announced plans to crack down on Japanese restaurants overseas that proclaim themselves “authentic” but fail to measure up. Apparently, a certification system is in the works, and represents the international arm of a nationwide “food education” movement, or “Shokuiku.”
How they would enforce something like this is beyond me, not to mention my sneaking suspicion that it’s yet another government-sponsored plan to give Japanese-made (and Shokuiku-approved) shoyu, nori, etc. a leg up over the (cheaper) competition.
Anyway, back to my pet peeve. I like to think I’ve seen the error of my ways and outgrown my hoity-toity preoccupation with “authenticity.” Because, seriously, food – just like language and a culture’s values – is in constant evolution. And the same native dish is interpreted differently by every family, in every city, in every region of a country.
Still, I could not help but wince when my order of Pad Thai arrived on a recent excursion to Newport. Did it not fall into my neatly-packaged notion of what Thai food ought to be? Or did the chef’s version at this chi-chi new restaurant just not taste like the ones I’m used to?
Nope and nope. It was worse. Seated right on the water, with the salt in the air and on my lips, the prawns in my dish were perfectly large, perfectly peeled, and perfectly stale. There was no sweetness, only a faint crunch and a limp falling away. The overcooked-to-sogginess egg noodles only served to catalyze my epiphany: all those years of huffing and puffing about “authenticity”? I was mistaken. It wasn’t a lack of “authenticity” that galled, but a lack of QUALITY.
These days, I look for one thing and one thing only: is my tummy happy? And if not, I focus on the one other thing that can save the day: are my dining companions delectable? More often than not, they are swoon-worthy.