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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 searching...it 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."

                  2. Outside of where the dish originated, it's not going to taste exactly the same. However, as other people have said, you can get some great approximations that satisfy even people from those places.
                    By the way, some countries aren't even in the position to feed people the way people eat here. I have had the most amazing Dominican food in New York, whereas in the Dominican Republic it was pretty hard to get something as good.

                    1. I've been to a Chinese-Cuban restaurant in NYC that seemed pretty darn authentic to me ;) Exotic ingredients included.

                      And I've had "Chinese" food in rural Georgia that was swimming in ketchup that I literally couldn't eat. My hosts were distressed that I would offend the restaurant owner (!), but I just could not choke down more than a bite or two. My friends, whatever you do, keep driving past the signpost for Commerce, GA.

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: foiegras

                        Actually, Chinese-Cuban cuisine is not at strange or un-authentic as it sounds. There was a quite a large migration, proportionally speaking, from China to Cuba during the pre-Castro era. Naturally, a cuisine developed that blends aspects of each culture.

                        1. re: Darren72

                          Yes, understand that ... my example was of an authentic and blended cuisine. I guess my perspective is that a cuisine doesn't have to be puro to be authentic. The blended cuisine I eat most often is Tex-Mex, which people often contrast with "authentic" Mexican food. My view is that Tex-Mex is equally authentic Tejano cuisine.

                          1. re: foiegras

                            tex-mex is an authentic style of mexican cuisine. it is also an authentic style of american cuisine.

                            at least that's how i think about any direct borderland foods.

                            being an immigrant blend between countries and cultures w/ no natural borders cuisines like chino-latino or chinese-american are another animal altogether.

                            my problem is how to catagorize standardized fast food adaptations like no mustard avaialable on nyc burgers at mcdonalds or mayo offered with fries in european mcdonalds - wait a sec, i'm not sure fast food is a cuisine - heh!

                            1. re: mrnyc

                              I believe the correct term there is regional McCrap ;)

                              Your thoughts about borders made me think about how there are cuisines (for example, Prussian or Bavarian in Germany) that don't correspond to any modern borders. I have a friend who's half German and when I mention that I made xyz German cookies, she corrects me with the name of the regional cuisine ;)

                      2. The worst Chinese food I've ever eaten was in China. I was told that during the Cultural Revolution, traditional Chinese cuisine was regarded as bourgeois so cooks were banished to the countryside. Some of the best Chinese food I've eaten has been in private homes in the US. I usually celebrate Chinese New Year with friends who make the dishes they miss most since leaving Asia. They all have a little stash of dried foods or spices they keep for these special occasions.

                        1. That's simply not true!

                          One example: Korean food in the Annandale section of Fairfax County, Va. There are dozens of Korean restaurants in that area and there is no question that the food at many of them is utterly authentic. They don't Americanize their food in the slightest, because they don't seek non-Korean customers at all.

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: Bob W

                            Some of the best Korean food I've had has been in LA, and I grew up in Seoul. I've always thought Korean food in southern California is the uber-Korean food of Korean food--what Korean food in Korea would be with access to cheap, high-quality produce and meat, even if it's sometimes over-the-top because it's so gluttonous. How does that affect one's definition of "authenticity"?

                            1. re: AppleSister

                              i would say exactly that about any ethnic food in california. i also hate how cali chefs often fool around with the food under the guise of inserting their "creative individuality" into the mix. bah. i don't consider any of that authentic, i consider it california-ized! always reminds me of what the french do to non-french food. ie., hamburgers cooked in olive oil anyone? oui, vive le france.

                            2. re: Bob W

                              The food is definitely authentic and I am very fortunate that I can take advantage of Annandale. However, if you are comparing the best examples of any given dish, no doubt that better examples on every dish can be found in korea vs. annandale.

                              I however, do not hold that to be true when comparing korean food as it exists between LA and Korea. There are items I've had and other koreans (including my parents) have told me they have had that were better than the stuff in korea.

                            3. Mpls/St. Paul has many, many ethnic communities where authentic ethnic food is available. There is a chinese restaurant in the Univ. of MN area that is always crowded with chinese students, and a hispanic grocer in St. Paul whose food counter is swarming with hispanic people. Look at who is sitting at the tables, where the restaurant is located etc.....Larger metropolitan areas often have ethnic enclaves. We have many, it's quite nice. Good luck in your search!

                              1. I think 'authentic' should be defined. Authentic is different than home cooking. As a first generation South Indian, the food in Indian restaurants, no matter how good, is completely different than the food my mom made at home. Was it authentic? maybe. But it was't home cooking.

                                5 Replies
                                1. re: brooklynmasala

                                  Why can't home cooking be authentic? Don't understand your point.

                                  1. re: cheryl_h

                                    He/She isn't saying that. He/She is saying that "home cooking" doesn't mean the same thing as "authentic"; that they are different concepts.

                                    1. re: Darren72

                                      Authentic doesn't have to mean home cooked, but home cooked can be authentic. There isn't a conceptual difference, it's bad logic.

                                        1. re: cheryl_h

                                          I think brooklynmasala is simply saying that restaurant food is different than home cooking, and we talk about "authenticity" based on our experience of restaurant food that has no relationship (no matter where it's made) to the real home-cooked heart of the cuisine.

                                          Whether we agree with this is another issue. Many cuisines have strong traditions of restaurant as well as home cooking. There's nothing wrong with comparing the restaurant food we get in a French restaurant here to the restaurant food we got, say, in Paris.

                                  2. I think defining the term authentic is a great idea. It means so much to so many people. Thats the interesting part of this topic if I dont say so myself.

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: The Blissful Glutton

                                      I don't know. It never occured to me that one could confuse the terms "authentic" with "home cooking". They are clearly different concepts.

                                      1. re: The Blissful Glutton

                                        i agree.
                                        take italian food, for example - is everything cooked by an italian in italy automatically authentic italian food? it should be. but in reality, maybe not. and besides, there are so many mutually exclusive regional variations...

                                        1. re: piccola

                                          I think you hit the nail on the head, and Italy is a great example. You would be hard pressed to find two Italians who agree on the "authenticity" of any food: the right way to cook it, the right type of pasta, the right combination of ingredients, etc. There, the only "authentic" food is the food cooked by your mother and nobody else's.

                                          So we can all define "authentic" for ourselves and go with it. But we shouldn't look down our noses at people whose definitions are different from our own. Better yet, maybe we should just enjoy the variety available to us and not worry about whether some guy in China would approve of what we're eating.

                                      2. I still don't feel like there is an answer aside from it is all subjective.

                                        1. well, it would not be ethnic if it were cooked in it's country of origin (as the above poster points out with the joke about chinese food in china being just food). So, are you saying that ethnic food is possible in other countries like good Vietnamese food in Congo or are you saying that ethnic food is an artifical construct and in fact does not exist and that anything cooked in america by virtue of where it is prepaired is now American and isn't this a little semantic for a food board? I guess my question is, are you asking a question about food or the higher meaning of the phrase "ethnic food"?

                                          1. When I go into a Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian, etc. restaurant...I ask which item is the most "authentic" to that region. The last time I had Vietnamese food...the server was born there and spent a good share of her life there. She talked about the regional differences in Vietnam and brought me a fantastic soup that she said was native to her region..and told me that her grandfather devised the recipe.

                                            1. This could have been a very good thread, but instead it has devolved into an esoteric philosophical debate.

                                              I'm sure it is very difficult to find a food vendor where every item they produce is exactly as you would find it in another country. This is due to several prominent factors: expense and difficulty of obtaining all the correct ingredients, the people and techniques to prepare them that way, and the expectations of the public.

                                              The Chowhound tries to find out which items are both authentic and delicious. Put enough of them together in one spot, and you have yourself a four-star Chowhound delight.

                                              My sincerect hope is that the best Thai food can be found
                                              Thailand, the best French food can be found in France, etc., despite the fact that individual items here can be thoroughly
                                              authentic and supremely enjoyable.

                                              1. Not sure. As a Canadian who has lived half his 42 years in the US (I'm back home now, came back right after 9/11) I know, for certain, that Canada has true ethnic food. One visit to my city - Toronto - and that will be clear.

                                                Yes, my old city Phoenix has true ethnic food. The waves of Mexican immigrants have brought amazingly good Sonoran food to the city, both fast and slow food varieties.

                                                Last time I checked, there is some amazing Asian food in San Francisco...