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What's authentic?

  • Lina May 6, 2007 01:23 PM

I recently moved to Dublin, Ireland from the Bay Area. Since being in Dublin, I have had very few meals that were both good and what I consider to be appropriately priced. (Meals that are just pretty good are at Chez Panisse prices.)

One of the things I've been annoyed by is the lack of "authenticity" in the food here, particularly Asian food. The more thinking I do, though, makes me wonder if I have the right to gripe about this.

One of the things that bothers me here is the Indian food--it's not spicy, the color of tikka masala is a color that couldn't possibly have been created by nature alone, the vegetables are so mushed/overcooked that they are unidentifiable, and the yogurt used in raita is just *different.*

Every Asian restaurant offers french fries on the menu, and generally has some sort of curry, regardless of whether it originates in their culture. The Chinese food I've had has been bland, boring and overpriced (once I paid nearly 50 euro for 1 starter and 2 mediocre entrees that would have been no more than $15 in the States).

But I know (at least, I've heard) that the Asian food in the US is not actually authentic to what is actually eaten in these countries. So is my assumption that the food in the Bay Area is more authentic than the food in Dublin wrong? Is it just as authentic but adjusted to fit the taste of the population (ie not spicy, etc)?

And assuming that the food is made by natives of the country they are representing (which generally appears to be the case), why would the food here be any less authentic or tasty?

I've been rolling this around in my head for a while, and would love any feedback you have.

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  1. Lina, when I first visited San Francisco, in the '80's, my mind was blown by the Chinese Food. I could hardly believe it!

    Now, I live in New Orleans and have all my life. Wonderfully great food is important to me (and most everyone else here) and is part of the culture. But we really do not have many Chinese families here. So, our Chinese food tastes okay.

    Likewise, our Indian community has shrunk recently and our Indian food sources seem to be preparing substandard Indian fare. I do not even bother anymore & just make Indian food at home. Yet still, these 2 Indian restaurants still draw crowds because that is all there is.

    And there's my 2 cents.

    1. Most individuals who own restaurants do so to make a living, not to 'represent' a culture. If there is a large enough customer base of fellow 'natives' (plus a few knowledgeable locals), they can make a living with food that is typical of their home culture. But without that base, they will have to adapted to local tastes and expectations, or go out of business.

      Who patronizes these non-authentic Asian places?

      On the issue of non-Indian curries, most of the other Asian countries have some adaptation of that English dish. Back in San Francisco, you could easily buy a Japanese curry mix, or a Chinese curry sauce base.

      Speaking of authenticity, are you using the authentic name for the 'french fries'? Aren't they called something like chips, or pome frits, or some Irish word?

      paulj

      5 Replies
      1. re: paulj

        Paul, they're called chips over here. Didn't use the term as I'm an American, and this is an American-centric board. I'm very sorry if that offended you.

        I understand that the goal of a restaurant is to make a living. That being said, I know that a lot of restaurants are very proud of the fact that they do, indeed, represent their respective country/area's culinary culture.

        Even if their goal is not to be representative and is to make a living, in general, the best way to do this is to serve tasty food. Around here, that's not happening at most of these places. I think the point that they are adapting to local tastes is a good one. In general, it seems that spicy foods are not particularly appreciated around here, which is why I assume the Asian food is not as spicy as I'm used to.

        However, Chinese is the second most spoken language in Dublin, and there's a large Chinese population here. So I wonder why the Chinese food isn't better. I just may not be going to the right places.

        1. re: Lina

          My theory is that the Chinese population in Dublin may not be affluent/established enough to support restaurants of a certain caliber. I had a hard time finding a decent Chinese eatery in Paris and in Madrid while traveling, and it's probably because of the same reason. London's and to some extent Amsterdam's Chinese immigrant populations have been established relatively earlier than the other European cities (evident by the actual Chinatowns vs just a cluster of Asian restaurants/shops). The Hong Kongers that migrated to London have generally been more affluent than the recent Mainland Chinese arrivals. When I visited a supermarket in London's Chinatown, the range of produce and products stocked was comparable to that of 99 Ranches of the US. When I went to a Chinese grocer in Paris, the variety of goods carried was definitely sub-par.

          1. re: dty

            Expanding on the theory of less affluence, immigrants probably eat at home more then at restaurants. If this is true, it could also feed into what I call the "slop theory".

            Basically unless an ethnic group (if there is one) goes to an ethnic restaurant -- these restros can serve slop and no one can tell otherwise. Also without competition to raise the bar, the bar will stay low.

            I've heard this from a friend whose family had a Chinese restaurant in Iowa and I've witnessed with my Uncle who owned a Chinese restaurant in suburban Chicago.

            When I visited my uncle's place I remember looking at the steam table and he told me straight out - don't eat any of that, wait until the chef cooks the staff meal. I asked him about the whole thing and he said he put items on the menu and no one orders it.

            People either wanted value at buffet/steam table or ordered from the set menus or familiar items like cashew chicken, etc. When I ate the staff meal it was as good as anything in SF because the chef was from HK, so it wasn't the skill level...it was what people wanted and expected.

            Also, lets be frank, when an ethnic group eats at restaurant, by them being there an educational process involved. Other diners will look at what they're being served and often want some too. I see it all the time in Chinese restaurants and I do the same in places I'm not familiar with, like if I went to a Turkish restro I look around or ask..and if other diners are speaking Turkish, I pay more attention.

          2. re: Lina

            A friend of my mom who emigrated to Ireland from Hong Kong lived there for a number of years before moving to LA back in the mid-80s. While in Dublin, she did also have a "Hong Kong-Style" cafe and did serve chips, curry (which alot of Chinese eat with relish back home), and various standard Chinese restaurant-type menu items.

            I don't know the number or percentage of Chinese that lived in Ireland back then, but my impression would be that the majority of this immigrant community probably weren't too well off financially, and probably ate out rarely. This might partially explain the lack of "authentic" Chinese cuisine there. Without a supporting market base (in this case Chinese immigrants who can afford to eat out and demand a more authentic cuisine on a regular basis), One must cater to the local consumer who has different tastes.

            This scenario was played out in California during the Gold Rush days. When the Chinese were excluded from making claims on land for mining gold, they had to figure out some way - any way - to make money. The three types of businesses that seemed to be most popular amongst Chinese immigrants were merchant-related, services (like laundry), and of course, and making food that appealed to the varied bunch of gold miners from all over the world. Many Chinese had the skills and time to cook - unlike their non-Chinese counterparts - and they took full advantage of their skills, making dishes that would translate well with those seeking a hot meal but didn't have the taste for something so exotic to them as "real" Chinese cuisine; thus, the "dumbing down" of their cuisine.

            Conversely, in the San Gabriel Valley here in So Cal, there is an enormous Chinese community that has all financial levels of society. This alone seems to drive the majority of eateries that offer more "authentic" versions of dishes. It seems that once a local community reaches a certain tipping point in terms of financial success, the demand is created for more authentic food which the local community can perpetuate in terms of demand, which then creates more providers of a similar ilk and more demand as even non-Chinese begin to enjoy this type of fare. In essence, the momentum created by a large and upwardly mobile community provides opportunitied for more migrants to come into a country because of the demand for cheap labor, while the migrants choose these communities because they feel alot more culturally comfortable being around their own. Many will arrive with culinary skills from their homeland and the momentum is continued. I think this phemomenon of momentum has alot to do with what level of "authenticity" is eventually offered.

            1. re: bulavinaka

              This is an excellent answer, bulavinaka. Thanks.

        2. A lot of the Asian food in the US is authentic, but a lot is adapted.

          Generally speaking however, for good food (authentic or adapted) from the old country, you need a population base large enough for both the talent to produce it, but also to support it economically and culturally. Competition and cross-fertilization then occurs and things get better and then the wider population hooks in and all is good. There's also the question of food supply -- a lot of Asian produce is now grown in California and of course dry goods are shipped in large quantities.

          Generally speaking, if there's not a group of that population to consume it, there's little incentive for an owner to produce good or authentic food, i.e., there's no demand and people just don't know the difference. There aren't a lot of Asians or Latinos in many midwestern states and that food tends not to be as good. Same with Mexican food in NYC.

          There are of course exceptions where a small population of an ethnic group thrives and produces good food but this happens mostly in places where it can be appreciated and supported by the wider population. An example that comes to mind is Middle Eastern food in the Bay Area. There's several really great places and yet the population isn't large. I think it's a combo of the food environment and a strong culinary tradition.

          2 Replies
          1. re: ML8000

            The funny thing about "authentic" food is that, sometimes, when you get it, you don't like it as much as the inauthentic variety.

            A case in point - for years I have been told that the sour cream we get in Canadian/U.S. stores is an inaccurate substitute for the stuff used in Mexico for ethnic food pre[arations. The implication was that to use the local variety in preparing a Mexican dish was tantamount to heresy.

            So, during a recent stay in Mexico, I want to a local supermarket and found both what we know as sour cream, and the local "acidifed milk". I bought some of the latter and used it for cooking, along with sampling some of it plain. Not bad - but I prefer the Canadian/U.S. variety (the brands without preservatives, gelatin and gums) to the Mexican one.

            1. re: ekammin

              It's true--I love burritos and from what I've heard, they are basically American, not Mexican at all.

          2. It can get tricky to try to qualify foods as "authentic". For example, I've always loved the Mexican food in California, but it's obviously very different from the Mexican food in Mexico. Even within the borders of California, the food varies from region to region...San Diego taquerias are different from LA taquerias, which in turn are different from the SF variety. This would suggest that the Mexican food in CA is "inauthentic" since over the years it changed to match the particular tastes of the local population. However, at some point, this evolution of flavors came into its own and was eventually considered a regional cuisine. The same can be said for Italian American cooking. The sauces and flavors are very different from what one would find in Italy, but eventually it became its own unique (and authentic) cuisine. Likewise, Indian food in London is considered by many to be the best Indian food in the world outside of India (it's certainly better than much of the Indian food here in New York), but I'm sure it's quite different from Inidan food in India. I also think any given immigrant culture not only tailors its food to local tastes in order to sell more food, but it also undergoes a change in its own preferences as it assimilates into the host culture. The fact is that all cuisines and popular preferences are in a constant state of evolution as cultures interact; we just don't usually notice it because it can happen so gradually.
            That said, I haven't been to Dubliin, but it sounds like maybe the Asian food there never experienced the fortunate synthesis that we see in California Mexican, London Indian, or Italian American cuisine....

            1 Reply
            1. re: chowzdown

              I have spent the better part of the last 25 years trying to convince friends that "authentic" Chinese cuisine is a treasure they should be more open to. I learned the truth of this during 20 years of business travel to Taiwan and Hong Kong. Maybe it's like so many things in life in that people are creatures of habit and of their environments, which often results in rather parochial tastes in food. When I eat at most "Americanized" Chinese restaurants (in South Orange County, CA) I am usually disappointed in the quality of the ingredients, the lack of simple things like 'real' Chinese broccoli (gai lan) and, mostly, the limited sauce variations that make so many dishes taste the same. But it's most likely as simple as one of the posts here says: people just don't order the 'real thing', so the resto doesn't offer it.

              Many people I find think much of truly authentic Chinese is unappetizing. I usually attempt to explain to them that in other cultures people can't generally afford to use only those choice parts of animals that we do, so 'authentic' dishes often include parts we're not used to and that more complex heavier sauces are often a product of both climate and (in my opinion) the need to make rather bland things taste good. But to many friends of mine the discomfort comes from such simple things as bite-size pieces of chicken with bones in them that require some extra navigation.

              Over the years I've gotten my wife to broaden her perspective somewhat, but just yesterday I stopped at Hsin Hsin Shao May Deli in Irvine (based on a recent post) and brought home a 3-entree combo of eggplant, porkballs w/cabbage and some dark-sauced chicken. The wife passed and made herself a large salad. Maybe next time?

              My point? It's something of a stretch for many people to embrace cuisines that are significantly off their standard menu preferences, so the only way restaurants offering such cuisine can be successful is via a base of population to whom the food is NOT off-standard. You can only do so much to get square pegs into round holes.

            2. OK...there are so many great answers here. So I have a different suggestion. Make some new friends of various ethnic backgrouds. Have them over and do a potluck. Tell them that you want their favorite authentic food or something like that. Have fun and hope you find some good stuff soon.

              1. How about this? “Authentic” Chinese cooking can only be found in small, isolated villages in China. And as outside influences occur, that “authentic” cooking changes to a slightly different “authentic” cooking. In the big cities in China, more outside influences occur and the cooking is less “authentic.” And as you move to villages east to west or north to south, “authentic” is different. It is still “authentic”, because it is in China. But that’s the only “authentic” Chinese cooking there is.

                When Chinese come to California, they adapt to what’s available. I like to think they find better ingredients than they likely had in China. So they make Californi-ized Chinese food. They may very well not think it’s an improvement, but those of us who have never had Chinese food in China like it fine.

                When Chinese go to Dublin, they adapt to what’s available. But the British Isles are notorious for their bad food. So Dublin-ized Chinese food is not too good, either. Especially to someone who is accustomed to Californi-ized Chinese food.

                Sorry. I like to watch Jamie and the two fat ladies on their motor bike and side hack, but they’re still playing catch-up.

                3 Replies
                1. re: yayadave

                  I still think objectively speaking, Chinese food in Europe is generally lackluster compared to the Chinese food found here; authenticity has nothing to do with it.

                  1. re: yayadave

                    "But the British Isles are notorious for their bad food"

                    I love comments like that...not sure how to respond but please!!!

                    1. re: rob133

                      agree with you rob133. It is claptrap to say Britain is notorious for bad food. Some of the greatest chefs are British or cooking in Britain.

                      As a Brit in the US I find numerous American restaurants pretty awful.

                      anyway back to the original question. There is no such thing really as authentic. Food evolves as peoples move around the world. British curry is different to curry in India and yet if you go to East Africa you will find the curries different there too and yet an Indian population live there.

                      Jewish food is different in the UK and the US. For example it is the norm in the UK to have fried gefilte fish balls, but in America it is unheard of and is always boiled. So which is authentic?

                  2. interesting topic...

                    to me authentic food is any homeland cuisine cooked with love...even if it's not your homeland

                    1. It was seven years ago, so maybe things have changed... but I had one of the best Chinese food experiences of my life in Dublin. I don't remember the name of the restaurant, but it was close to the British Embassy.

                      1. About two years ago, there were three or four threads on this topic. Long, interesting, I enjoyed them a lot. I've spent the last half hour hunting for them on Google and can find only two.

                        http://www.chowhound.com/topics/301046

                        http://www.chowhound.com/topics/364142

                        While searching for info on another topic, I found a recent book whose theme was the evolution of traditional cuisine among immigrants (especially in the US) and how traditions intermingled and hybridized (to coin a word) You can read a 10 page free preview at http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&a...

                        According to one website, the Good World restaurant, which looks like an Irish pub, has a separate menu, handed you only on request, if even then, that has authentic dishes like congee with sliced fish. http://farm1.static.flickr.com/84/208...

                        5 Replies
                        1. re: Brian S

                          My recent experience with the evolution of food... we ate at a sushi restaurant recently and ordered a roll with tuna in it, and when it arrived we couldn't figure out at first what it was... then it dawned on us, they used canned tuna. It is a restaurant run by a Japanese family, but I can only assume they've adapted to appeal to the German affinity for canned tuna (including pizza... don't get me started on this one).

                          1. re: Foodie in Friedberg

                            Someone on another discussion of authenticity
                            ( http://www.chowhound.com/topics/385703 ) jokingly remarked that the next thing you know, someone will invent fried chicken sushi! So I did some research and actually found it, in Melbourne.

                            http://photos1.blogger.com/photoInclu...

                            1. re: Brian S

                              Sushi Zushi in San Antonio, TX has some great sushi, and they've got a lot of "funky" rolls that incorporate aspects of Mexican cooking... but the one thing on the menu I swear I'll never try is the "Texas Roll" which is made up of Roast Beef, Cream Cheese, Avocado, Asparagus with a crunchy breaded finish. (Full disclosure - I refuse to try it not out of a desire to remain in the realm of authentic sushi, but because I don't like roast beef.)

                              1. re: Foodie in Friedberg

                                What if some other place offered the same thing, but called it a wrap?
                                paulj

                                1. re: paulj

                                  I don't eat roast beef sandiwches, so I suppose I'm not the best person to comment on roast beef sushi. But there's just something about a sushi roll with lunchmeat in it that I can't get my head around... it has been on their menu for years, though, so someone must be eating it!

                        2. Authentic food tastes real good. It's all in the preparation, which does not necessarily mean adherence to tried-and-true or terroir of origin recipes. Chow should schmeck, that's rule number one for me.

                          1. I personally think the term authentic is very overused and analyzed. As someone who has made the same trip as you in the opposite speaking (more or less - I'm from England and moved to the Bay Area) I find your opinions interesting. I think in general I agree with you when you talk of Chinese cuisine and it being of higher quality (in terms of taste) over in america but I could not disagree more strongly about Indian food.

                            Since arriving in America I have had nothing but bland curries, maybe one of two places manage to at least get some flavour into their Indian food, but I've never come across any really heat in a curry in America - maybe I go to the wrong places but I've tried a lot of them!

                            I'm afraid that when you mentioned tikka Masala you lost my interest in any debate about authenticity - is there is a less authentic dish anywhere in the world? Someone mentioned that theonly authentic chinese cooking takes place in China - how true is that!? It's a very long and hard debate getting into authenticity and the actual meanings of that term, one that can't happn on a Monday morning!

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: rob133

                              Rob, if it makes you feel any better, I wasn't the one that ordered the tikka masala. ;)

                              I think it's already been acknowledged on this thread that Indian food in England is some of the best outside of India. However, Ireland is a very different place!

                              I guess my feeling is that I was thinking "this isn't authentic" when having these sorts of foods here, but really what I meant is "this isn't good." As many people on this thread have mentioned, authenticity is hard to find, and to me, I realize, is slightly beside the point. I don't care if it's authentic if it's good.

                              1. re: Lina

                                Your point about the tikka masala's colour is well noted - it is not usual for red food dye to be used in abundance in some places in the UK.

                              2. re: rob133

                                In regard to Indian food in England - another thing you might want to consider is that much of the "Indian" food in the UK isn't Indian - it's Bangladeshi. There are very few Bangladeshi restaurants in the Bay Area and the ones that I have been to (other than Cafe Dhaka) serve much of the same standard northern Indian fare as other Indian restos and very few Bangladeshi dishes at all.

                              3. Lina, let me start by saying I know nothing about Dublin.
                                I find your comments and laments very interesting though. My brother moved to Dublin (from Toronto, Canada) last year and he too often says that the food is very different. He complained that the chili sauce is sweet not hot. And that there is no such thing as a coffee/donut shop in the area where he lives. He has yet to find a sushi palce that has the same value/quality combo that he found here at home. All that being said perhaps it is a matter of what the market will bear. Even though there might be a large percentage of Asian people in Dublin, I suspect the actual number pales in comparison to California. Can anyone shed some light on actual numbers?

                                1. I saw a St. Patrick's Day show with Bobby Flay traveling to Ireland. Once of the big points he made was that Ireland is just now starting to focus more on non-traditional foods. Pubs are starting to expand their menus to include more than fish 'n chips and shepherd's pie, and more ethic eats are just now starting to become available. It's a country that doesn't embrace change very quickly

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: mojoeater

                                    Anthony Bourdain's TV show, No Reservations, traveled to Ireland and did a sampling of traditional and non-traditional including a visit to a small Chinatown and some cooking with a local Irish chef. Both were big on the Chinese population in Ireland bringing new tastes and foods.

                                  2. Not to sound silly, but perhaps the pursuit should be for "authentic" Irish food. Ex-pat food will never be truly "authentic" for logistical and cultural reasons. I have a Vietnamese colleague who mentioned once that, until cooks are allowed to slaughter live chickens in their restaurants, there will never be truly "authentic" Viet cuisine in the US. Also, many of the spices that one culture takes for granted in preparing their food is unavailable fresh or sometimes at all in another country. As for culture, this thread touches on the greatness of Hong Kong food in London, but HKers are very different culturally from other provinces in China, both in terms of the food they prepare and in terms of the cultural importance of resto dining vs. dining at home. HK food is simple (some would say bland - I say subtle), very different from say Szechuan. Also, in crowded HK, family dining is almost exclusively at restos. Compare that to many Indian cultures where eating in a resto is a rarity.

                                    In general I agree with the concept that there is no such thing as "authentic" because of the cross-cultural influences and logistical constraints. I also have found that even if a place claims to be authentic, that doesn't mean they do it well. Bad cooks are just bad cooks in any culture.

                                    So, it may be that you are now the new chowhound explorer in Dublin, checking all the out-of-the-way places and scoping it out, so that when we post asking for recs, you'll be able to advise us.

                                    Good luck!

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: Loren3

                                      Loren3, I think that's a great point. I did spend some time looking for "authentic" Irish food, but have found it to be not to my taste. For example, during my first week here, I ordered a "toastie" (toasted sandwich at a pub. It came with a packet of mustard, and I was strongly warned by my fellow diners to only use a tiny amount because it was so spicy. I used the whole package, and didn't find it spicy at all. I think everyone here is used to much less spice/flavor than we are in other places, so to my palate, it's very bland.

                                      My parents were here recently, and I forced them to eat traditional Irish food at a pub. They ended up getting potatoes with a side of potato. Seriously.

                                      1. re: Lina

                                        My son travels often to Taipei and is usually taken out to eat by the locals. He first said he was VERY careful to understand what each dish was made of - "it wasn't Chow Mein."Lately, he's moving toward the "if they can eat it, it probably won't kill me" mode, and says he has had some pretty tasty stuff.

                                        Nowdays, he makes it a point NOT to ask just what's in the dish. :-)

                                        1. re: MikeLM

                                          My sister is in the marine core and she has spent the last 5 years in various other countries. She spent a year in China and tried many local dishes. Since that time she is very careful to say that she misses American Chinese food. She stressed to me the difference between the two styles of Chinese food. One of the most interested food traditions she has come across was in Turkey. She told me that wherever she went in Turkey she came across food stands that sell cups of corn. Does anyone know why this is so prevalent?