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Is there such a thing as good "Americanized" ethnic food?

Be it Americanized Chinese, or Americanized Italian or Americanized Mexican or whatever Americanized, can it ever be considered good?

Whenever the phrase Americanized [insert ethnic cuisine of choice] it's almost always used in a very pejorative sense.

Such as, "I never go to PF Chang's because it's only Americanized Chinese ..."

Or, "I can't stand Olive Garden because they serve Americanized Italian ..."

Whether such statements are true or not is beside the point except to illustrate, I suppose, a common feeling that Americanized ethnic cuisine is somehow subpar, or dumbed-down or something fitting only for the most gullible of the hoi pollloi.

But is there such a thing as good Americanized ethnic cuisine? Can there be such a thing?

Will we ever say, "I am going to Per Se because the kitchen is now serving Americanized Italian!"

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  1. Depends on what "good" means in this context. If it means "delicious" and "doesn't make you sick", then obviously yes! If it means "just like people in their native countries eat it", probably not. There's a sub-assumption to the latter attitude, which occasionally assumes that the people eating in the native countries, are eating well. Which, often, they're not.

    1. Fantastic question!

      My feeling is "Of couse!" there's excellent "Americanized" Ethnic cuisine. In my city, I can think of two outstanding Americanized Chinese and Indian restaurants, where the food is light, flavorful, carefully crafted, and beautiful to behold. By no means does "Americanized" equal bad, and authentic equal good... I've had some pretty terrible "authentic" meals...

      Unfortunately, though, Americanized often *does* mean subpar, dumbed-down, or something fitting only for the most gullible, as you put it. Kind of "lowest common denominator," using the cheapest ingredients, quickest prep, and shortest of short-cuts (load up with salt, fat, and oils).

      But you ask, "Will we ever say, "I am going to Per Se because the kitchen is now serving Americanized Italian!"...

      Well, I think that's already happening, but if often comes under the guise of "fusion" or "New American." Some of the best restaurants I've ever been to have new Asian-fusions, and there's one Indian-fusion in my metro that's amazing, so, yes, it's definitely possible!

      - Garris
      Providence, RI

      1. I will probably get crucified for this one, but anyway, I think some "Americanized sushi" (generally rolled sushi with untraditional toppings/fillings) is totally inventive and delicious. Living in Tokyo I have access to wonderful traditional preparations of sushi, but sometimes I really want a spicy, crispy tuna roll wrapped in unagi and covered with garlic chips, sriracha and soft-shell fried crab (not really, but you get the idea). There is one place here in Tokyo that specializes in "American style” maki and I have to go every now and then to get my fix. Among my Japanese friends this place is considered to be a bit exclusive, trendy, and tasty and the fact that it's American is the reason! Maybe this is an anomaly. http://www.wdi.co.jp/en/re-rainbow.html

        2 Replies
        1. re: taryn

          I think the flexibility of sushi is one of the best things about it. I once had a sushi roll filled with cooked catfish and Flaming Hot Cheetos. Completely inauthentic and completely delicious.

          1. re: mordacity

            Brings an image to mind: you on a huge horse, amored and battle ax in hand, at the gates of Edo ready to burn, sack, plunder, loot, and ravage.

            Actually, I'm sure that the catfish & cheetos sushi was delicious. I would guess that people are least able to adapt to changes in the traditional foods they grew up with. On the thread about European cabbage rolls, people have identified their national origin and are putting up with no changes from what their great grand mothers made. No guacamole, frito, lobster, and quinoa cabbage rolls to be seen.

        2. Of course. Foods change as they cross continents. Here we'd be speaking "Canadianised", and I've also had, say, Vietnamese or Chinese food in France and in Italy, that is really influenced by the country where it is served. Never sweet, for one thing.

          Olive Garden is crap not because it is Americanised but because it is industrial swill. Some "red sauce" Italians that serve homemade spaghetti and meatballs - which are not served together in Italy - can be fine places to eat. Italian food in Argentina is also very different from what is served in the old country...

          And Tex-Mex and southwestern US cuisines with Mexican influences certainly exist in their own right.

          1. I agree, it can be very good. Even drawing on local ingredients in the U.S. would probably make a better meal than trying to use an imported perishable.
            I think "americanized" gets it's bad name from the corporate restaurants. They can fool people with lower quality, simplistic (overly sweet, spicy, etc) food when their clientele is not familiar with "authentic" versions. It is easier to pull that off with tastes unfamiliar to most Americans than with a steak and potato (though people seem to fall for that too...:)
            In Vogue this month, Gary Shteyngart quotes a Chinese chef cooking "nuovo" Chinese in NYC. He complained that people can't tell the difference between his dumplings and the much cheaper ones in Chinatown. Which is more americanized I can't say, but it illustrates the point that people are not as perceptive to differences in quality and taste when they are not very familiar with the cuisine. We all know how we want our soup dumplings to taste, but I'm limited to what I know- Idon't know how the ones I like are defective compared to better ones.

            1. This topic has been extensively discussed -- 113 replies -- in this Chowhound thread that's one of my favorites:
              http://www.chowhound.com/topics/385703

              1. I confess that Genera Gau's Chicken and Chicago deep dish pizza are guilty pleasures.

                1. I think that those that really like the "Americanized Ethnic Food" are those that cannot handle, for whatever reason, the real deal..usually those that cannot take the spiciness, etc. I personally have enjoyed Americanized versions, but prefer the authentic

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: jinet12

                    I think that can sometimes be the case, but is not necessarily a rule. I am given to eating "exotically," as my friends politely put it; but as much as I love tacos de lengua and carnitas, I also really love the cheesy, fatty, crunchy goodness of Tex-Mex. I love California and Philly rolls next to my tamago and hirame. And when the food's good, I want me some American-sized portions. No small, sensible platters. I want my arteries clogging with delicious, made-in-America plaque. The kind you get when you turn a cuisine of vegetable stir fries into deep-fried balls of chicken in sweet and sour sauce.

                    Americanization just emphasizes our favorite flavors in a cuisine. It's the same as when Indians add turmeric and chilies to Chinese or the English add fruit and cream to curries. It's certainly obnoxious when "foodies" call Chimichanga Hut the BEST Mexican in the Valley(like omg it's so good!), but it's hard to deny that it tastes pretty damn good.

                    1. re: jinet12

                      This isn't true in every case. Quite often, Americanized ethnic food is a completely different cuisine, and becomes something to be pursued in its own right.

                      On the other hand, if the authentic cuisine in question involves the paws of a civet, then hell yeah I'll pass. (Although I might be induced to try civet coffee.)

                    2. I think you have to distinguish between places that consciously serve fusion or "contemporary" renditions of an ethnic cuisine and places that just serve bad authentic cuisine. Usually I will take "Americanized" to mean dumbed-down and suited to the Western palate so that the food loses all the nuances and characteristics of the authentic version.

                      I love California rolls because they taste good. It's definitely not authentically Japanese; more like they took the idea of maki rolls and ran away, but hey, it tastes good.

                      1. Quite possibly.

                        On another thread, Filipino Americans have decribed how their families are now using less oil and sugar, more chili and other spices, ...and are probably serving cooked dishes hot rather than at room temperature. I would patronize a Filipino restaurant that made such changes while keeping the rest of the basics the same.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                          I know I'm new here, but dude, where have you been eating your Filipino food? Room temperature? Sugar? Sounds like what the maids cook for themselves and the driver.

                          1. re: makatiboy

                            Lived there for 14 years.

                            Not only that, but food cooked in the "dirty kitchen". Fancy house, gleaming kitchen, food cooked out back over three rocks on dirt floored shack.

                        2. I would add that it's not unique to the US to see the local influence on ethnic food. Many Indian restaurants in the US serve the "Indianized" versions of Chinese food.

                          1. Maybe we should learn to say "I am going to Per Se because the kitchen is now serving food I like!" Without looking for "authentic" or "Americanized" or "Batali-ized" for validation.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: yayadave

                              Exactly! Why does it have to be a comparison, like "once you have the original, you'll never eat the Americanized"? Perhaps the authentic cusiine is good, and the Americanized is different but also good. Sometimes I want Mexican, sometims I want Tex-Mex, sometimes I want Italian, sometimes I want what is served at an Italian-style American restaurant, sometimes...

                            2. When it comes to Mexican cuisine... I feel the Americanized portion tends to be a disaster.... 99.99% of the time.... the 0.01% is reserved for things like New Mexico style Chile Verde, Fajitas (a Texas invention), Texas style BBQ (no not grilled meats with overly sweet sauces clumsily slathered on) etc.,

                              However, after my trip to Peru... I generally feel that the cuisine by Peruvian immigrants to the U.S. is in many respects tastier & higher quality than what I had in Peru. (That is not to say there weren't some very good things in Peru... I don't think Californians understand what quality lettuces are supposed to taste like until they have had salads in Peru... and the fish in their ceviches were pretty good). But I think that overall Peruvian cuisine in the U.S. has benefitted quite a bit from borrowed ingredients & techniques incorporated here in the U.S.

                              1. I would have to say that good quality Americanized (insert ethnic cuisine here) is definitely tasty. It serves its purpose. Sometimes I want authentic chinese, sometimes I want the pupu platter from down the street. Sometimes chicken mole is good, while other times a California Burrito is the only thing that will do. I think they each have their place depending on your mood. As long as the food is tasty and well prepared, I'm there. If food didn't continue to evolve due to various regional and social influences then we would be eating the same thing without new dishes to look forward to. Granted this doesn't always turn out well, but sometimes great dishes are created in this manner.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: ThaiGer

                                  Personally I am all for innovation... and will recognize it when its positive. I have come to really like a well prepared dish of Fajitas or some high end Calfornia Cuisine's takes on Mexican cuisine (I still remember the great Pork Loin Carnita cooked medium rare at 5 Dudley (RIP) near the Venice boardwalk).... but I will never see Rice, Beans, Sour Cream, Pico de Gallo etc., as an improvement over the traditional pairings used in Mexican cuisine (a nice Anise Tamal with Mole Poblano, or sweated Calabacitas with Camarones a la Diabla, or Chickpea & Vegetable soup with my Barbacoa etc.,).

                                  Maybe you think a California Burrito is good now... but if you have a Burrita in Aguascalientes or an Eggless Machaca burrito in Sonora... you would rarely crave a California style burrito.

                                2. Well...what if we think of it this way. If a dish contains potato, tomato, or corn in any form it has been Americanized. That puts quite a bit of the world's cooking into the Americanized camp. No red sauce in Italian food. No potatoes in French or British, not even cornstarch in Chinese. Hummm......

                                  5 Replies
                                  1. re: KaimukiMan

                                    By Americanized you mean as in the American continent... or U.S.?

                                    1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                      I was replying in the context of "authenticity" Is something 'authentic' just because of it's place of origin? Its historical pedigree? Its cultural signficance?

                                      Is a pizza made in Italy truly an authentic Italian dish if it has tomato sauce on it? If a sushi shop in tokyo puts avocado in their hand roll, is it authentic Japanese food? It is certainly not traditional. How far back in time do you have to go before something becomes authentic?

                                      1. re: KaimukiMan

                                        Its interesting I have been working on a mini essay on Authenticity for my website (to be published in a few months)... and one of the things I argue is the merits of the word "Representative".... it considers that all cuisines are evolving... while I am come across as a purist (when it comes to Mexican cuisine)... I am really all for evolultion and new ideas... in fact my personally culinary fascination is all about reviving Pre-Hispanic cuisine but then updating it with cutting edge modern techniques and new ingredients. And I believe you can complete incorporate new things will still maintaining enough of the traditional to deliver what any reasonable person would understand as representative.

                                        Just the either day I had a "BLT" that used roasted Pork Belly & Pancetta.

                                        Is it traditional American cuisine? No.

                                        Is it representative American cuisine? Yes its derived from a common, urban low class dish & updated to modern ideas. Further, the dish was first created withing U.S. borders by U.S. born chefs.

                                        Is it authentic American cuisine? Absolutely... for the reasons I have identified.

                                        Considering this when we talk about Authentic vs Americanized Cuisine we should keep Representativeness in mind. I don't think anyone would consider a 300 year old Italian recipe Americanized just because it incorporates a new world ingredient. However... it wouldn't hurt for Italian culinary historians to pay homage to the Mesoamericans who domesticated the tomatoe and bred it from its barely edible, wild origins to the luscious fruit it has become over the last 1,000 years or so.

                                        If you dig deep there really aren't any worthwhile, major cuisines that don't have outside influences. Even if we go Pre-Hispanic... we see for example that Aztec cuisine wouldn't have been much without imported elements such as Vanilla (Totonac), Cacao (Mayan), Jalapenos (Totonac) etc.,

                                        1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                          I don't agree with a BLT being a "common, urban low class dish" (all three of those descriptors), and that the one you had was "updated to modern ideas" by replacing one ingredient with a somewhat related one.

                                          The rest is getting to the point of just being word play. Traditional, representative, authentic - they are as arguable as politics. I find this like taking a course in humor - once you start dissecting and explaining it, it's no longer funny. Just laugh at the stuff you think is funny and eat the things that you like.

                                          1. re: SuzyInChains

                                            I wouldn't expect everyone to agree with me.

                                  2. Sure. Just about all "traditional" American dishes -- from pot roast to fried chicken to soul food -- is Americanized ethnic fooid. The names "hamburger" and "frankfurter," for instance, come from cities in Germany; the sandwich gets its name from an English earl. Etc., etc., etc.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: mpalmer6c

                                      Californa rolls are an excellent example, and from what I've heard of their origin, point to "Americanized" food often being "American immigrant" food. From what I heard, they were invented by Japanese students living in California, who then took the recipe back to Japan, causing a fad (and ridiculous avocado prices in the 80s).

                                      Chow mein and the fortune cookie are other American inventions. And the American pizza--be it east coast "pie," Chicago deep dish, or Californian CPK/Pucks--well, not exactly Italian, but good food.

                                      Even the corporate chains are not necessarily bad. I've had rather good experiences with Bucca de Beppo, in particular since I'm intollerant of garlic and they have several items on their menu which contain none, notably the Chicken Saltimboca which I've happily recreated at home (using un-garlicked German proscuitto).

                                    2. Gotta call out an old favorite of mine--Springfield-style cashew chicken. Developed by a Chinese-American chef in Missouri. It's no more "authentic" Chinese than a hamburger. But it's still yummy.