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Mar 27, 2007 06:12 PM

Authentic ethnic food, your opinion for my research paper?

I am writing a paper for my writing professor on the homogenization of ethnic cuisine in the United States, with a particular focus on Italian food. I am exploring if this homogenization is creating subsets of ethnic cuisine (ex: Italian-American food) or a new, blended American cuisine. ****Also, info on other cusines (particularly Mexican or Chinese as they are widely available throughout the country) would be greatly appreciated.****Can anyone give me their opinion on the following:

-What foods try to pass off as Italian but are really fake? (ex: Chef Boyarde, overly cheesy pizza, etc.)

-What authentic Italian foods do you think are not represented in restaurants in America? (ex: pizza with potatoes on top)

-Are there any regions of Italy whose food you feel is particularly underrepresented in America?

-Are there any ethnic eating customs that you think are being warped by American culture?

I would like to explore more how this trend affects the majority of America, not only trendy Manhattan restaurants.

Thanks everyone!!!

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  1. A food that's not really Italian is most commonly, the "lasagna". As most know, real Italian lasagne uses a bechamel, the red sauce and even mushroom lasagna we have is delicious but not really Italian.

    I haven't really seen any Tuscan Italian restaurants, but I'm not really an expert.

    And eating customs? I'm not really sure what you mean but like in Italy they don't eat bread before their entree, they use it to sop up leftover sauce. And they don't use a spoon when eating pasta, that spoon on the side thing is just a way we invented to keep the oversauced pastas from flinging.

    Good luck on your paper.

    4 Replies
    1. re: digkv

      digkv, I have to address some of your claims.

      Lasagna alla napoletana does indeed use tomato sauce, ricotta, and fior di latte (etc.), NOT bechamel, which is used up north.

      I don't know where you are, but there are indeed Tuscan restaurants in New York.

      I have indeed seen Italians in Italy use spoon and fork to eat pasta.

      One interesting thing I did learn in the Chianti country is that Italians do not automatically add cheese to pasta, even when the option to add cheese is perfectly acceptable. A friend of mine taught me to try the pasta first, because if the sauce is perfect, it can only be damaged by adding anything further to it.

      1. re: Pan

        Oh, thanks for that. All this time people have been telling me that non-bechamel lasagne is not real and I believed them. I'm in So Cal so no Tuscan restaurants here but you are very lucky that you get Tuscan restuarants in NY. And that's interesting about the spoon and the cheese. I guess I would never survive living in Italy.

        1. re: digkv

          Sure you would! You'd just discover that the way people do things in one part of Italy is different from the way they do it in another, and that they consider the way the forestieri (out-of-towners) do things to be "wrong"!

          1. re: Pan

            From my experience living in Italy, lasagne alla bolognese (with bechamel) is considered the "classic" lasagne by most Italians, the way pizza in Naples is considered the only "real" pizza. This doesn't mean that other lasagne recipes aren't legit, they're just not the classic recipe.

    2. One of my favorite tacos is 'al pastor', consisting of slices of pork that has been marinated in spices and citrus and roasted on a vertical spit. Not too hard to find in areas with a large mexican population, but not yet available in the chains.

      Another favorite dish is fish Veracruz style, with tomatos and olives and capers as well as chiles.

      And who doesn't like mole poblano, that deep dark sauce with undertones of chocolate and cinnamon. Or Mexican chocolate with cinnamon flavoring.

      None of these is pure indigenous pre-colombian cooking. The al pastor refers to shepherds from Lebanon who brought their shwarma technique with them. Citrus is not native either. The olives and capers in the veracruzana style of cooking are Mediterranean ingredients. And of course cinnamon is imported from Asia. So what is authentic anyway? Pre-colombian Italian cooking, by the way, did not have tomatos or hot peppers, because they are New World vegetables. No corn, so no polenta. Even sugar was introducet to Italy and the rest of Europe from India and the middle east.

      People have always adapted new foods to their likes and available resources, so maybe your paper should look at the good things that these chains do, like introduce people to new tastes in a palatable way. I don't mean that those dishes are always my preference, but authentic is a tough term to pin down, and subject to lots of qualifiers. Some of my favorite authors refer to their recipes as 'traditional' instead. Or maybe you could trace a single food from its origin to main street USA. Lettuce or watermelon, oranges or chiles, take your pick.

      Good luck on your paper.

      17 Replies
      1. re: Leucadian

        Excellent reply! Cuisines, languages, and cultures are dynamic, not static. Everything we revere may have intially been criticized as a sign that the barbarians are at the gate.

        1. re: Sam Fujisaka

          Indeed. Very good post. FWIW, the Italians got pasta from Asia a long time ago.

          1. re: uptown jimmy

            Like many of you, I have heard this story numerous times. I have also heard people argue that this story is a myth and needs to be debunked. I'm not certain what to believe for sure, though I tend to take the skeptical route.

            What I _do_ know for certain is that our histories of food and stories about where foods came from (pasta from Asia or Caesar Salad from Tijuana, for instance) are as dynamic as the food itself.

            1. re: alanstotle

              The historical record is clear that pasta came from Asia.

              1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                Oh, Sam! History is written by fallible people with biases.
                It is entirely possible that Chinese with flour and water and/or eggs created pasta and Italians, who had no contact with those Chinese, had flour and water and/or eggs and also created pasta.
                Ask the Patent or Copyright Offices how often people come up with identical or nearly identical ideas even though they've had no contact with each other.
                Flour and eggs/water are not rare ingredients and combining them is hardly complex.

                1. re: MakingSense

                  Actually, I think the historical record is pretty clear. Any food historians out there?

                  1. re: uptown jimmy

                    I think that the only agreement among food historians on the issue is that no evidence exists for a single hearth of origin of pasta. Multiple, independent innovations is the prevailing theory these days.

                    1. re: Hungry Celeste

                      Once you've invented farinaceous dough, you're at least 90% of the way towards any food you can make from it. An Italian invention, I believe late Roman, was the "chitarra", an open-top box with a lot of wires laid closely together across the opening. You lay a rolled-out sheet of dough on that and press it through, and Voila! - noodles! As this was quite a few hundred years before Marco Polo, I assume that the only thing that surprised him about finding noodles in China was that they ate'em with chopsticks. Oh, and there are plenty of published Italian pasta recipes dating from Roman times through the Middle Ages...

                      There's still a variety of pasta made with the chitarra. The Atlas machines, of course, came a bit later...

                    2. re: uptown jimmy

                      Apicius, an Ancient Roman gourmand and cook book author had a recipe that resembled lasagne.

                    3. re: MakingSense

                      Good history like good food is cooked up by those who really care and is judged by many, many more who really know. A chef "biased" that his/her food is the best will soon be smoked out.

                      Actually, when I was a more academic anthropologist (at the dawn of time in grad school) we worked with the complex statistics having to do with "Galton's Problem." GP has to do with determining cases of independent invention vs. diffusion. While pasta "could have" easily been invented anywhere wheat (or other staples) was grown and flour was produced, lots of wheat eaters eat only bread--even in the center of origin of wheat. Noodles were clearly consumed in Asia for a long time before they became popular elsewhere. One of the points of one of McCullough's (my favorite historian because he is always making sense) books is that the lack of physical barriers between Europe and the far East allowed for huge interchanges--i.e., argue for diffusion.

                      Yes, independent invention was more than possible. Historians seem to think it was a case of diffusion.

                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                        There was trade between China and the Roman empire back in the day. It was all done by intermediaries. So Chinese noodles could have come to Rome and for all I know Roman fish sauce could have made it to Asia. Here's something I wrote about this trade last year:

                        Sometime around the year 160, a troupe of strange, disheveled jugglers showed up at the Chinese capital, Chang'an. They were Romans, they announced, and had journeyed overland from Rome. No one knows if their claim was true, or mere carny boasting to attract curious customers. But, if true, they were the only Romans ever to visit China. There was a fair bit of trade in ancient times between the two empires. Roman ladies loved silk. But it was done throuigh intermediaries.

                        The primary reason for this is Parthia. This is that once-mighty empire's only claim to fame. They left very little behind in the way of artwork or anything else. As Will Durant said, the Parthians preferred the art of living to the life of art. They came from just south of the Caspian Sea and, about the time that Brutus was steeling himself to betray his friend Julius, they ruled an empire that included Persia and Syria. They wouldn't let trade through their realm.

                        Now there was a roaring trade between Rome and India in those days. Those Roman aristocrats needed those Indian spices, perfumes and textiles, and no day at the colosseum would be complete without a few savage tigers from India. The Parthians threatened this trade, and their presence in Syria was too close to Roman territory for comfort. When Caesar died, he was planning an invasion of Parthia. Augustus carried out the plans (one reason he romanced Cleopatra was to get financing) but they failed. A century later, the emperor Trajan succeeded in conquering Parthia, and became the only Roman general ever to stand on the shores of the Indian ocean. But under Hadrian, who was more of a philosopher than a general (not unlike his Indian counterpart Ashoka a few centuries before), the Parthians reconquered Syria. They were driven back, and trade with India resumed. But there was never any direct contact between Rome and China. Had there been, and had the routes stayed open, history might have been much different. T'ang dynasty armies might have swept through a weak, barbarian Europe.

                        1. re: Brian S

                          I heard noodles/pasta came from the Middle East/Central Asia. If I can find the article, I'll post a link.

                          Re: the statement about culture. language being dymanic -- exactly. One could make an argument that "dead" or dying cultures push change away and stagnate while thriving and emerging cultures (with trade) embrace changes and newness but good comes w/ bad.

                          I'd say the US embarces change on its own terms...hence you get Taco Bell and Olive Garden. (harhar) On that note, I'd also consider how food is produced and prepared...if you've ever read or know anything about the Taco Bell distribution'd NEVER eat there again.

                          1. re: ML8000

                            But noodles and pasta in Central Asia (the center of origin of wheat) are now largely consumed in east Asian-type dishes. They are big bread eaters!

                            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                              There have been murals discovered in the Etruscan tombs NE of Rome of these forerunners of the Romans eating pasta.

                        2. re: Sam Fujisaka

                          All good posts, but this one fits my understanding. It's considered pretty solid fact, I thought. Asians were doing all kinds of fancy stuff long before Western Europeans, who then "discovered" such things upon their military/trade excursions Eastward....spices, noodles, metallurgy, etc. Just my impression....

                          1. re: uptown jimmy

                            I believe people agree that the Chinese invented noodles first. 4000 year old noodles have been discovered in China... not unlike the hand-pulled noodles you can get on Eldridge Street in NYC.


                            1. re: Brian S

                              I think the current consensus is that noodles in east Asia and pasta in south Europe developed independently of each other.

            2. try to catch mario batali's episode of "chefography" on food network...should be in re-run hell right now. alot of the episode is of the difference between italian and italian-american food, and how it is changing, slowly. this is new york, imagine how long it will take america's heartland to figure out italian food.

              re: underrepresented italian foods, fish!

              re: eating customs being warped, grilled korean short-ribs, or kalbi, has morphed by using a different cut of the same meat. traditionally, the meat is butterflied away from the bone of the shortrib, but since shortribs were more often sold in supermarkets cut perpendicular to the bone(creating a flat piece of meat w/3 rib cross-section), they were used instead. So prevalent was this cut, that it is called L.A. kalbi, and can even be found in korea, labeled as such. i'm sure there're hundreds of such stories of how availability of ingredients have changed ethnic recipes.

              good luck w/the paper!

              2 Replies
                1. re: PotatoPuff

                  If you can catch Rick Bayless' "Mexico: One Plate at a Time" show on PBS, you'll learn a lot about the various kinds of authentic Mexican cooking, not the Tex-Mex stuff served all over the place in America. I strongly suggest checking one of his cookbooks out of the library for you paper because he packs a lot of information in them.

                  Mexican cooking, like Indian and Chinese, varies from region to region, and he thankfully takes the time to explain that. My family is from the Yucatan and I've been very impressed with his coverage of Yucatan food. It's so fun to see dishes that my grandfather cooked for me on a TV food show!

              1. Some of the changes in ethnic foods as they changed in America weren't evil bastardizations at all. More Creolizations. Honest attempts to reproduce the tastes of the Home Country with what was at hand.
                An Italian woman who married an American GI after WWII and found herself in Kansas couldn't find ricotta or the varieties of pasta and meats that she was used to in Italy. She used what was at hand and everyone grew to love Mom's and then Grandma's "real Italian food." After all, she was a "real Italian," wasn't she?
                It has only been in the past few years that we have been able to buy the wide variety of specialty foodstuffs in the US that we now think are commonplace. Most of our ideas of ethnic food had already been established so many of us have some "un-learning" to do. Most Americans still don't travel abroad and don't have the chance to taste the real thing.
                Of course, it's equally surprising to travel overseas and eat their versions of American food. They do a far worse job than we do. Perhaps because we seem to take so little pride in our own fabulous food culture.

                4 Replies
                  1. re: PotatoPuff

                    Eating pizza in Padua was a revelation -- thin, blistered crust with a few very fresh ingredients (grilled eggplant in olive oil was my favorite), instead of typical American pizzas where each slice is as big as my face and is laden with tons of cheese. I think most Italians would be horrified at many of the things that are called pizza here, like "stuffed crust" (more dough! more cheese!) and "stuffed pizza" (like a giant calzone, with the dough on the top and bottom of the pie and the rest of the ingredients baked inside it.

                    Burritos are an example of an American food that people think of as Mexican but really is more of a Tex-Mex border invention. And again the size of a typical burrito distinguishes it from what you'd likely find in a Mexican restaurant that serves Mexicans.

                    It's my understanding that dishes like Chop Suey and crab-and-cream cheese wontons served with red sauce don't come from China, either. This is a rich topic!

                    1. re: vanillagrrl

                      try fortune cookies, they are an american invention. chop suey is an american term and different cantonese restaurants have different versions, but it is usually some type of stir fried veggie/s.

                  2. re: MakingSense

                    Apologies in advance for the long response.

                    This is one of the most interesting threads I've read on CH, and I particularly like the thinking here, especially Making Sense's comment above.

                    Cuisine evolves, sometimes by happenstance, as in the case of the Italian GI wife above, who essentially improvised without authentic Italian ingredients. She inadvertently created a hybrid cuisine to keep her family fed. What Mrs. GI did was common, and to those who didn’t know any better, her hybrid cuisine was thought to be "authentic" Italian food. When more accurately, it should have been called Italian-American.

                    That improvised "Italian-American" cuisine first invented by Mrs. GI is absolutely authentic and genuine, organically arising out of a particular culture, time and situation. It's not fake. What it's not is authentic Italian. There's a subtle difference.

                    Yet another hybrid under the Italian-American banner was developed when national restaurant chains entered the American dining scene. This might be called a “manufactured,” mass-marketed version of Italian-American cuisine. In this case, the cuisine was standardized (not homogenized) so that it could be reproduced identically in each of chain’s national stores (Olive Garden, for example). Also, the “ingredients” or “raw” materials to prepare the food were often factory-manufactured and then delivered to the chains. This is yet another evolution of Italian-American food, one that evolved from of our nation’s restaurant chain culture, the advent of manufactured food, and the country’s existing affection for Italian-American cuisine. It’s just like Chef Boy-r-dee. Once again, not fake anything, but not authentic Italian.

                    Yet another subset of Italian-American would be Cal-Ital, or Californian-Italian.

                    You could do this kind of “family tree” with any assimilated cuisine in the US.

                    I’d also like to ask you to please watch the words homogenization and fake. These words have judgment attached to them, and hint that there may be nefarious underpinnings to the way that cuisines have evolved here in the US. As mentioned, usually cuisines evolve organically, on their own.

                    Yes, chains are motivated by money, and deception runs rampant in advertising that shows Mama in Italy stirring a pot of red sauce and then cuts to a red-and-white tablecloth inside the restaurant (chain) and a plate of steaming pasta and red sauce – all with the goal to have you believe this food was “authentic Italian,” “like Mama used to make.”

                    Further, your questions almost indicate that you are looking for information to support a premise or an opinion that you already have in your head. Instead, I’d like to ask you to be a little more open to any insights or conclusions that may come out of the information you accumulate.

                    With almost every cuisine in the US, you will find an "authentic" (historical) cuisine hiding under the "marketed" or popularized cuisine. Southwestern cooking is another example of this.

                    Change, in cuisine as in everything else, always occurs with one foot in the camp of the familiar and one food in the camp of the unknown. There are many food trend studies on how cuisine changes with an influx of workers from other countries (Silicon Valley, for example) as well as studies on how a native cuisine changes as more of is population travels.

                    In fact, the US is full of these hybrid cuisines, like Italian-American, Cal-Ital, Tex-Mex, and
                    Cal-Asian. Cajun and Creole are hybrid cuisines, and they keep evolving and changing. Southern cuisine, one of the most unchanged regional US cuisines, is yes, changing
                    slightly to accommodate a healthier lifestyle. Cuisines are not static.

                    This is all fascinating stuff. I’ve pondered this question a lot and some of what I've written here is paraphrased from my own previous, copyrighted work, Potato Puff. Write again. It’d be great to read a new post from you about all you learned.

                  3. And remember- that quintessential American-Italian menu staple, the Caesar Salad..... invented in Mexico by Caesar Cardini, who was an Italian restranteur in Tijuana. The salad gained prominence because celebs used to eat there- and the Julia Child herself "discovered" it there.