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May 6, 2007 01:23 PM

What's authentic?

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?


      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 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.