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Jul 25, 2006 06:01 PM

Is authentic ethnic food possible in the States?

I have this argument with my friend all the time. I complain something was not authentic and he says it is impossible to get an authentic meal in the States because everything gets Americanized. Thoughts?

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  1. Your friend is wrong! There is validity in his thinking, he just takes it too far when he says "everything." Keep searching, that's what Chowhound is great for!

    1. It depends on where in the states you are. You can get quite authentic meals in immigrant communities within the states. Having said that, sometimes the exact same ingredients are available here so the dishes won't necessarily match exactly.

      1. Ask your friend if he really wants "authentic" ethnic cuisine.

        Consider for example that "authentic" fried rice as it is made in rural suburbs of China would make most carb-loving eaters cringe at its blandness and utter lack of culinary panache. Whereas, fried rice in the uber-metropolis of Shanghai is more akin to what you'll find in the States, and will both look and taste 10x better than the aforementioned "authentic" version. Take your pick ...

        1 Reply
        1. I really think it depends on the cuisine. Also, it depends on where you live. A Cantonese restaurant in Iowa is likely to be Americanized, but one in New York's Chinatown will not be. I think the bigger issue is: are the ingredients available here the same? This issue impacts restaurants as well as home cooks.

          Take Thai - I've never been to Thailand, but I studied Thai cooking, and my teacher used to mention all the things that weren't available here (or if they were, they tasted different in Thailand) - the garlic here has a thick skin and isn't as tender - maengdana (extract of some sort of female flying insect) is not allowed in by the U.S. Government - shrimps there have a very thin shell that can be eaten, limes are different there, even the chilies are different than the same variety that's grown here, etc, etc, etc. On the other hand, so many Japanese food items are imported and available here (though at a higher cost), so I feel I can cook authentic Japanese food without sacrificing any significant measure of authentic taste.

          I think there are in some cases certain portions of a foreign cusine that aren't offered to us here - but that doesn't make the rest of it inauthentic - it's just that we get that portion of the repertoire that appeals the most to Americans.

          1. I won't ever stop is not in the cards. :)

            I complain often (probably more often than I should) that certain dishes just don't hold a candle to my experiences with said dish in its native country. Like, shanghai soup buns just never taste better than when I had them in Hong Kong.

            7 Replies
            1. re: The Blissful Glutton

              Wouldn't Shanghai soup buns stand a chance of being better in Shanghai? I'd think the HK version would be less "authentic"...

              1. re: Scrapironchef

                Well, that is teh first place I had them so that first taste will always be my personal gold standard.

                1. re: The Blissful Glutton

                  That's part of the complexity, isn't it? One foundation of the dining experience has little to do with ingredients or technique, and lots to do with setting, companions, newness, immersion.

                  If we taste something for the first time in a foreign setting, the dining experience and the traveling experience are fused together. Back home, an exact copy of the same dish -- same ingredients, same technique, even the same strengths or flaws -- will not taste the same because the context has been sliced away.

                  Likewise, the same food prepared better may not taste as "good" or as "authentic" because it has lost the resonance of time & place. Everyone who has tried to duplicate their mother-in-law's Sunday potroast learns this on some level.

                  It's like a first kiss: others may be better but they'll always be missing that critical detail. Nothing else can come up to your gold standard because nothing else can be your first taste.

                    1. re: KTFoley

                      Very true. I also am aware that the very first time I have a dish and love it, it "imprints" itself on me, and becomes the Platonic ideal of that dish - whether it was 100% authentic or not. Subsequent versions may well be more authentic, but I judge them "not as good," because they don't conform to my ideal.

                      1. re: KTFoley

                        somewhat true but a pitfall that can be controlled for by any seasoned food fan. it just takes informed and tasteful discretion and a lot of constant sampling work. for example, i have eaten a lot of pizza in many permutations. i can tell honest differences even in similar styles. i bet you can too. yet i couldn't tell you my very first slice was. ditto for soup buns, cassoulet, etc.

                  1. re: The Blissful Glutton

                    I suppose the old joke is true about chinese food in china--where they just call it "food."