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It has to be authentic!

Wow, so many posts on the Chow site are searching for the “authentic” {fill in the blank}.

What exactly is it for which we are looking?

Webster defines “authentic” as

a: worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact <paints an authentic picture of our society> b: conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features <an authentic reproduction of a colonial farmhouse> c: made or done the same way as an original <authentic Mexican fare>3: not false or imitation

By that definition just about any restaurant or any recipe is “authentic”. And, isn’t “authentic” really about personal interpretation?

A case in point: There is a taco shop down the street from me. The owner lived and traveled through much of Baja California. He describes his tacos as “a combination of many Baja traditions.” He even claims that his tacos are “the best in the county”! While the actual food is tasty and entirely edible, I think as tacos they are a horrible example. They are on soft flour tortillas, have pre-melted cheese, and soupy whole beans! How dare he call them tacos!

But that’s just my opinion, right?

So, when you want authentic, what is it you really want?

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  1. An excellent point, IMHO. Most really authentic ethnic food is prepared in conditions that would probably make most of us gag. Should one strew roaches arund one's kitchen, and use water from the toilet bowl to insure the highest degree of authenticity.?

    I recall once scouring a series of supermarkets in the Dallas area trying to find authentic Mexican chorizo. Almost everfy brand I found listed as the main ingredient the "salivary glands of hogs". Fortunately, I found, in a upscale Mexican store, some "Luxury" (i.e. not authentic) chorizo where the main ingredient was just pork. Even then, who knows?

    In regard to Mollygirl's story about the taco maker, I once met a guy who assured me that the best cheese comes out of an aerosol can.

    6 Replies
    1. re: ekammin

      LOL @ the chorizo ingredients. I shopped once at a huge Mexican market place. The ingredients to chorizo were in English and that's the day I stopped eating it.

      Additionally, I was watching World Trekker and they were in a thrid world country where a family was preparing a meal for the host of the show. Dirt floors, flies buzzing, no running water in the kitchen..... yep, it was authentic, all right.

      1. re: ekammin

        Really? You think poor people cook with toilet water? That's really offensive.

        1. re: babette feasts

          I see nothing in ekammin's post about poor prople.

          1. re: BeaN

            OK, then 'ethnic' people of all income ranges. But of course there is no toilet bowl to get water from if you only have a squat toilet or an outhouse, so s/he must mean the rich 'ethnic' people with western flush toilets are cooking with toilet water.

        2. re: ekammin

          <Most really authentic ethnic food is prepared in conditions that would probably make most of us gag.>

          Well! Your idea of "really authentic ethnic" and mine are quite different. I have no hard & fast, bullet-proof definition of what "really authentic ethnic" means, but I can say unequivocally that it is not a synonym for "filthy."

          1. re: ekammin

            Who is using water from their toilet bowl? If you have a plumbed toilet why in the world would you scoop from the potty bowl??? Oh the need for a hint of urine for a proper.... no can't think of anything needing that.

            Please enlighten me.

          2. What is so confusing about 'conforming to the original'?

            2 Replies
            1. re: babette feasts

              Who's confused? "Conforming to the original" can incorporate variety. And, that's my point. What are you looking for when you ask for Authentic?
              Consider Pho. All Pho's conform to the original but Pho'licious is good and Tom's Noodle House is not so good. Are they both authentic?

              1. re: mollygirl

                Sure, you can have a poorly executed example of authentic. Something can be made with the same basic ingredients, recipe, technique, but lacking love, understanding, or some mystery component the result mau be less than stellar. I'm sure there are bad cooks in Vietnam as well as good ones.

            2. I once spent some months in a Mexican town, San Antonio Tlayacapan, near Guadalajara. Not everybody there was poor, some people had more money, newer cars, bigger TVs, than I did,

              The municipal water supply consisted of a well, whose output was dumped into the town's pipes with no purification, examination, or anything else. That's what came out of everyone's faucets. A few gringos (and Mexicanos) like me drank bottled water, other people either used purification tablets or relied on boiling to kill any germs, other used it as is, taking their chances. The choice seemed to have nothing to do with any economic or social issues.

              True, nobody I knew removed the water from their toiiet after use, to be reused.

              Also, everybody, myself included, bought their tortillas at the local tortilleria, where I never heard any questions about the provenance of the water used. The tortillas were very authentic, and very good.

              1. I find that the term authentic is neither useful or valuable when it comes to enjoying my food. I want to enjoy the flavor and aroma of food and I really do not care if its authenic or not. I want to apreciate the skill, passion and creativity of a chef and would not ding him for not following rules. I think this pursuit of authenticity has gotten out of hand and arguments/discussions about authenticity eventually degrade to chest pounding or ego bashing. Both of which are bad karma. I would prefer discussions about the taste, preparation, freshness, skill of the chef or the thousands of the things that make a meal great. There I have said my piece. Sorry if anyone is offended.

                11 Replies
                1. re: bgazindad

                  Yes indeedy! And, that is what was driving my original post. I, too, think the use of the term "authentic" has gotten way outta hand.

                  My Mom's tuna casserole is authentic and I STILL don't like it.

                  1. re: mollygirl

                    A friend of mine once made what I thought was a very intersting point on the question of "authentic food". His idea (which I can't really find a way to refute) is that you can't think of "authenticity" in terms of the food alone, since the food is only a small facet of the whole nature of the culture and cannot be seperated from it. Therefore the ONLY way to have a truly "authentic" dish of food from any nation/region/ethnicity/culture, is to be BORN into that culture and live your whole life in it, totally excluded from any and all foreign influences and in an environet that it similarly isolated (basically live in one of those tiny villages tucked away in obsucre corners of the world, that no one ever goes to and no one ever leaves, which has had no contact at all with anyone outside the village since as far back as anyone can remember as as far as all records go. Truly "authentic" food would be what you ate every day, not becuse you chose to, but because it was the only thing availabe, the only thing that ever had been available and the only thing that ever would be alvailable. Basically under his definition, NOTHING any of us could ever eat could be cosidered "authentic"

                    1. re: jumpingmonk

                      being cut off from everywhere else doesn't happen by chance. If it happened at all, anywhere, it would be the result of tremendous effort, i.e. not 'authentic'.

                      1. re: saacnmama

                        true but that effort may not nessecarily be yours. a lot of those little isolated places may have been created untold centuries ago by people making a huge effort (i.e. fleeing to somehwere totally cut off from eveyone else). but if they did a good enough job of cutting themselves off picking a location that's almost impossible to get to and still more impossible to get back from. so that contact with the outside world is infeasible, then presevation of that isolation can require little or no effort on the part of those people living there now. It's BREAKING that islation that takes the effort. part of the problem of course is that such isolation can only be talked about in the theoretical; the moment such a place is KNOWN to the outside world the isolation is broken. (its a bit like the old African riddle "What is the worlds most cunning animal? Answer: "That which no man has ever seen") That tribe the found in New Guniea (or was it the Phillipines in the late 70's) who had basically lived in the rainforset completely seperated from all other tribes and peoples since the Stone Age would be an example. now THEIR food must have been authentic.

                        1. re: jumpingmonk

                          The Tassaday "tribe" found in the Philippines was an elaborate hoax.

                          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                            There is an ongoing controversy as to whether the alleged Tasaday first contact was a hoax. But there is no dispute that first contact has happened fairly recently with isolated groups in the highlands of Papua New Guinea and in remote areas of the Amazon basin.

                            Regardless, it seems unlikely that stone-age hunter-gatherer cuisine is going to be the next big trend for new restaurants.

                            1. re: alanbarnes

                              There is no controversy other than the Elizalde group trying to make one. Any anthropologist could see from the beginning that it was all faked. Completely. I'm not aware of any new groups being found in the Amazon.

                              1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                Are you familiar with the work of Lawrence Reid of the University of Hawaii? He lived with the Tasaday in the '90s, studied their language, and determined that people on both sides of the debate were stretching the truth.

                                The current academic consensus seems to be that the Tasaday are in fact a distinct people, that they had indirect contact beginning in the 1950s, and that direct contact occurred around 1970. The problem is that that direct conduct led to their exploitation by competing political groups. That'll teach 'em to come out of the jungle.

                                As for groups in the Amazon, the Brazilian government did a helicopter fly-over of an uncontacted and previously unknown group of people in May of last year. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news...

                                1. re: alanbarnes

                                  Until relatively recently, the Philippines has had groups of people living in relative isolation from the lowlanders. The Mt Pinatubo Aetas were slash-and-burn farmers and hunters and gatherers with a language much farther from lowland languages than the Manobo spoken by the "Tasaday". I would conclude, as have others, that the "Tasaday" were are relatively isolated group (like those of Mt Pinatubo) with a somewhat distinct language, but who were in no way stone age. Their performance art would not and did not fool any ecological anthropologist. Many peoples of tropical forests have made clothing from forest fibers; none have worn leaves per se. Hunter gatherer technologies and tool kits, on the other hand, look simple to the untrained eye but are almost always finely crafted, effective tools - darts, spears, knives, arrows, traps, woven things to haul other things, water gourds, little cages, baskets, nets, and much more - none of which the "Tasaday" had. The caves were a joke: I don't know a group in the world that has lived in such "caves". At the time of “contact” the group did not have the means, skills, or area to support themselves.

                                  I met Reid, briefly, when I was spending quite a bit of time at the East-West Center to and from the Philippines - and don't really remember him and didn't keep up with his work after I left the Philippines.

                                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                    You and alanbarnes are amazing. I lived in Manila at the time and you guys know more about the Tasaday story. Of course, I was in high school and was more concerned about... you know, it wasn't about some stone age tribe debate. Elizalde was an interesting story though. Here is a link to his obituary from 1997. Talk about authentically dissolute.


                              2. re: alanbarnes

                                isolated from who? Are they in contact with eachother? They must have neighbors. Even if, like the Yanomami purportedly did, they spear anyone who trespasses on their land, that is still a type of contact.

                  2. My grandmother and mother were both born in Transylvania, and, of course, made a great deal of typlical food, a lot of which I still enjoy, when I can find it or make it (although my grandmother had the unfortunate habit of waiting until the hottest day of the year to serve some blazing hot Romanian soup in her un-airconditioned kitchen.

                    My favourite dish of hers, onviously utterly inauthentic, was a pasta sauce she got from a Sicilian neighbour.

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: ekammin

                      The sauce was inauthentic to Italy or Transylvania? Either way, an original recipe might be authentic to the neighbor. You may pass this recipe to your grandkids as an authentic version of'neighbor Carmina's pasta sauce'. I don't think you can speak of authenticity without speaking of a place. Take American barbecue. There are so many regional variations so what is authentic to eastern North Carolina is not going to be authentic to western North Carolina. Maybe delicious, maybe not, but not "conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features".

                      1. re: babette feasts

                        It was inauthentically Transylvanian because Salsa Bolognese simply isn’t a Transylvanian dish. It was inauthentically Sicilian because my grandmother was kosher, and substituted all beef for the original beef and pork mixture.

                        1. re: ekammin

                          I thought Bolognese was from Bologna... not Sicily.

                          1. re: Blueicus

                            Yes, you are right, Bologna is not in Sicily. But people from Sicily can still prepare food in the style of Bologna, just as New Yorkers can make Southern Fried Chicken.

                            Also, my apologies - I think the dish was rightly called Ragu Bolognese, not Salsa.

                    2. I think that authenticity is relative and differs from person to person.
                      When I hear the word "authentic," the first thing, literally, that pops in my mind is Mexican food. It's what I grew up eating and cooking, and now that I live in New York, I am on a constant search for a taste (literally) of my childhood/what to me is authentic Mexican food.


                      1. I can guarantee that nothing I make is authentic, even to its predecessors.

                        Chains, on the other hand, have such a standardized mechanism, that their food is likely authentic to themselves in their current mass produced state, but may not be authentic to what it was in past incarnations (ie the McDonald's fry which used to have beef fat as a flavouring).

                        1. When it comes to "authentic" any kind of food, I'm convinced there are as many definitions of "authentic" as there are people! So I've finally figured out that the only sure-fire way for me to get genuine "authentic" food of any variety is to cook it myself. But I'm usually more than willing to settle for a pretty good restaurant approximation. Lazy is as lazy does. '-)

                          1. Has to be authentic: sushi, French sauces.

                            I don't worry about the "authenticity" of: BBQ, pizza, gumbo, ketchup on dogs, ...

                            11 Replies
                            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                              Sam, I think we worry about the "authenticity'"of the foods we grew up with or know well. And don't care much about the ones we don't. How could one. I have trouble w/ kobasies, krauts, rye breads, and herrings being "authentic". You, sushi (And other Japanese foods?) and French sauces. Jfood, hot dogs w/ ketchup are an outrage, because of his New Jersey roots. Read the the New Haveners and New Yorkers diatribes about pizza, lots of Italians there.. And man, don't mess w/ the BBQ facists. I can't find a good taco In Maine, but boy, nobody better mess w/ my "authentic" lobster rolls!
                              Ah the joys of Chowhound.

                              1. re: Passadumkeg

                                Great points. (I think it all extends to a foodie who's visited somewhere, tasted authentic, and then tries to find it again. But yeah it's a big deal for the natives!)

                                1. re: Cinnamon

                                  Yes, Calvin Trillan's Zen food book deal entirely with this question of trying to find the "authentic" foods of his travels back in the USA or even more specifically in NYC.

                                2. re: Passadumkeg

                                  You really hit the nail on the head. The more intimately we know a particular food, the more we are likely to find fault with substituting something else in its place.

                                  But it's also a question of availability.

                                  I can get the 'substitution' food seven days a week. If somebody who grew up in New Haven wants to explain to me why a particular place really typifies for them why they love pizza from their hometown and why they can't find it elsewhere, then that's good enough for me to try if I have the opportunity.

                                  1. re: Steve

                                    When I arrived in New Mexico in the late sixties, my brother's old New Mexico SIL took me in and fed my lots of pork chile and taught me how to cook New Mexican style, at the same time my first lessons in Spanish. I also helped an old gent (w some help of 2 Mexicans which in retrospect were prob. illegals) build an adobe house. Manuel used to feed us red chile w/ dried elk jerkie reconstituted in it. I had native friends in the pueblo of Zuni. I did the electrical wiring in their newly constructed adobe house and ate red mutton chile w/ more than a dozen of extended family. The point is that all 3 chiles were basically the same chile recipe; a red chile sauce of blended dried red chiles w/ water, garlic, salt and meat poured OVER pinto beans and usually served w/ grated cheese and diced raw onion as garnishes. To me, personally, this is "authentic chile". I live in New England now and quietly give the myriad of chili concoctions a quiet pass and make my delicious "real authentic" chile at home and smile to myself as I eat it.
                                    I learned New Mexico style chile as a young man in its place of origin and am to this day, fussy about it. Call the other stewey stuff something else (like ersatz burritos, call them wraps) and I might eat them.

                                  2. re: Passadumkeg

                                    Although jfood can point to his NJ roots for many positive and negative attributes, ketchup on hot dogs just sits bad in the belly in all 50 states. It is not that jfood has not tried it, as he did peanut butter on a hot dog a few weeks ago as a result of scargod recommending it. But a hot dog starts with mustard just like a pizza starts with tomato sauce (other than clam pizza).

                                    How would a good olde Mainer think about ketchup mixed in with the lobster meat?

                                    1. re: jfood

                                      Yuck, ketchup on lobster? Hmmmmmm....wait a minute. I have written down somewhere or can find the source of a national survey cited in the Algebra I text in our school that ketchup is the number 1 condiment used on hot dogs in the US of A. Do I agree or use ketchup on hot dogs? No, I too grew up in the Garden State and am a mustard & kraut guy. But Maine born and raised #5 Keg does prfer ketchup & relish. Food for thought on ethnocentrisim.
                                      And oh yes, Olde Mainers associate ketchup w/ Manhattan clam chowder and the New York Yankees.

                                      1. re: Passadumkeg

                                        When did you take algebra? It's been over 25 years for me, but I do know that salsa surpassed ketchup in sales nos. in the US a few years ago.

                                        1. re: saacnmama

                                          The statement "ketchup is the number 1 condiment used on hot dogs in the US" is not the same as the statement that ketchup is the top-selling condiment in the US.

                                          BTW, the salsa claims are based on sales dollar volume. Measured by the gallon, there's still a lot more ketchup consumed than than salsa.

                                          1. re: alanbarnes

                                            >>BTW, the salsa claims are based on sales dollar volume. Measured by the gallon, there's still a lot more ketchup consumed than than salsa.>>

                                            Yup - I rarely see salsa offered up as a condiment at the institutional level. And I wonder where those sales dollar volume numbers are extracted from - retail? Regional? If one includes the dollars spent by various institutions, i.e., restaurants, cafeterias, etc., I'd have a hard time believing that salsa outsells ketchup even based on dollar volume.

                                            1. re: bulavinaka

                                              At least one of the studies looked only at retail sales. So sales to institutions and restaurants weren't counted. http://blogs.wsj.com/numbersguy/ketch...

                                3. My mother was a wonderful cook, and she was the eldest of 11 brothers and sisters, all growing up in Mindanao in the Philippines. Most of them also became avid and talented cooks. At a family gathering here in the States, I asked the group what their secret was for the amazing desserts they prepared. I got 3 or 4 different recipes and techniques for most of the dishes... each one authentic in the cook's mind, just for the desserts. You should have heard them argue about which ones were grandma's secret recipe. And this was within one family... and btw, not one formula involved toilet water.

                                  1. One reason for searching out 'authentic' or using that term is rightly or wrongly shorthand for "help me find something with true flavor and technique integrity passed down generation to generation - something that hasn't been overmanufactured with substandard ingredients yielding it untasteworthy, something that has not been taken and bastardized by unknowledgeable cooks into an amalgam that nobody ever would have thought 'hey, this would be great together.'"

                                    12 Replies
                                    1. re: Cinnamon

                                      Good explanation, but it's definitely wrong, or ineffective shorthand.

                                      1. This is chowhound. Do posters actually need to ask that they not be sent to places with 'substandard ingredients' and to be recommended foods that are 'untasteworthy'?

                                      2. Traditional preparation works, especially as that allows for the developments and experimentation of a knowledgeable chef seeking to build on tradition.

                                      I actually don't hate the word authentic, and can see its uses, but the way it has been overused by foodies has stretched the word to the point of meaninglessness. It also risks creative cookery from an entire range of people (typically non-white) who are told to cook only as they had when they had limited resources, and only as they had from a particular time. 'Authentic' has a way of cordoning off groups of people from shared time, seeking to preserve them as museum exhibits. There's a violent sort of romance in this nostalgia.

                                      I know that's huge claim, and one that possibly overstates my feelings, but there are so many value judgements attached to 'authentic' that it seems to move away from food.

                                      And, as I've said on countless occasions, it is simply inefficient.

                                      I could go on, but I need a cup of authentic coffee right now.

                                      1. re: Lizard

                                        I would agree it's an overused word. Any better shorthand terms available, I wonder?

                                        (And I of course disagree with your assertion that my longer explanation is wrong or ineffective - though it does ramble. Remember I said 'one reason' - not that it's the only reason anyone uses the term 'authentic.') :)

                                        To your point #1, heck yes. Sorting out the better from the not so good is part of the whole point of the site. No it's not the only thing.

                                        >'Authentic' has a way of cordoning off groups of people from shared time, seeking to preserve them as museum exhibits. There's a violent sort of romance in this nostalgia.<

                                        I think that's an interesting point. I wouldn't want that to be all that's available and I love some 'fusion' cuisine. (Not so thrilled with the term, love the inspired results when the chef strikes a great chord.)

                                        But while you could look at 'authentic' as you say 'cordoning off' groups of people, you could also look at it as an extinction issue. Without seeking to preserve the 'authentic' in food in some even small quantity (the end result of a recipe from some era, and the ingredients that go in), there go heirloom tomatoes, non-GMO foodstuffs, and maybe things like St. John rootstock in the wine industry.

                                        In a world with so many food choices, certainly there's room to keep some of the older stuff.

                                        1. re: Cinnamon

                                          I didn't say that your explanation was wrong or ineffective-- I thought I had agreed with you to a point. I simply maintained that the word 'authentic' is used wrongly (you gave me the choice, as I recall) and that it is an ineffective word for achieving things. (Indeed a demand on the International board for authentic Belgian street food to eat whilst in Belgium left me absolutely confused as to what to suggest...)

                                          Agreed on preservation. Never said I didn't want to preserve traditional cookery. But at the same time, who's to say 'when' things should be arrested? And whose cooking should be. (Who is permitted to innovate and be lauded?)

                                          Please, whatever happens, don't assume that my annoyance with the word 'authentic' should ever be a call for genetically modified foods and tasteless tomatoes!

                                          1. re: Lizard

                                            The most likely scenario for a tourist, though, is inauthenticity. ie, Removing the spiciness so the folks near ther grand hotel will not be offended. Increasing the sweetness because it sells better to the tourist trade. The fact is that everyone on this board has probably experienced the 'you no like' syndrome. If somebody says, I want the authentic stuff, I think we can all assume it's the stuff that is popular with clients of their own nationality but regularly withheld from the tourists.

                                            And if someone were to ask me about authentic street food of a particular city, I would steer them to items that are widely enjoyed in that region but might not be available elsewhere. Now, is that so hard?

                                            1. re: Steve

                                              There is no call for rudeness. Sorry, mate, but 'Now, is that so hard' comes off as unpleasant and condescending. Maybe you can help me, then: Which frites and gaufres stands in Brussels are the authentic ones. I know which ones have been around for decades, but does that make them authentic? Or good. They aren't spicy, so perhaps not.

                                              As to 'authentic: If you like the word so much and if it makes you feel better about what you achieve on your travels, please do continue to use it. Meanwhile, I will continue to prefer using a more varied vocabulary in my mission to eat everything the world has to offer.

                                              But to add: going somewhere you don't know? Ask me what's not to be missed. I'll likely direct you to traditional foods and to the people who've done some marvellous variations on that theme. I will without question direct you to the good dishes that you are unlikely to find elsewhere. If you're worried I'll skip the traditional fare, specify that. Demand authentic and I'll wonder if I should send you to that crazy old lady who does something unusual but insanely delicious. She's a genuine old lady making genuine food, but does it serve the fantasy of an unchanging world? Or does it meet your requirements as that thing that will make you different from the mythical tourist?

                                              1. re: Lizard

                                                Insanely delicious to whom?

                                                People use the word 'authentic' on me all the time. Especially people who come from other cultures and places when they bemoan that the food from their country is misrepresented here. They seem to know what they are talking about, and that's good enough for me. "I'll have what they're having."

                                              2. re: Steve

                                                No, it's not hard at all.
                                                However I've been to parts of Mexico, where there's never been any evidence of tourists other than me, and some of the food is crap made by locals who don't know how to cook.
                                                I'll eat food where it takes days for the intensity of 'heat' to die down but if the ingredients the person's using don't blend well, and the cook doesn't have the foggiest idea how to cook, I'd rather not eat it.
                                                This food, in that region, would undoubtedly be labeled as 'authentic'.

                                                1. re: latindancer

                                                  Sure, I would easily assume that all the food in an area where there is no tourism, for example, is authentic. The good and the bad.

                                                  I can tell you that I'm not often in that situation. My typical situation is I am here in the US looking for food from another culture and I probably won't find anything even close to authentic, but I'm trying to get as good an idea as I can and broaden my horizons as best as I know how.

                                                  I have also noticed when I'm traveling that many places (especially the most convenient ones) cater to a tourist crowd and really don't care about what they are serving and wouldn't eat it themselves. I want an authentic experience as opposed to something catering to my tastes.

                                                  1. re: Steve

                                                    I'd generally agree - but besides tourism, I think what you're referring to as authenticity can disappear with mass production too. I was thinking about this last time I went into a big Asian grocery store (albeit here in L.A.) that caters to an almost all-Asian clientele, and read through the things in the dumplings in the freezer section.

                                                    (No, didn't buy any. Did make some homemade!)

                                                    1. re: Steve

                                                      That reminds me of a trip to Lindos, in the Greek Isles. It's a very touritsty destination. I was really anticipating all the wonderful traditional foods of Greece. We had the hardest time finding any! They were so cognizant of catering to the European tourists, it was more like EPCOT. They had sausages for the Germans, Fish & Chips for the Brits, Pasta for the Italians...through perseverance we did succeed. Our first discovery was that there is not one Greek restaurant I've ever eaten in (in the US) that makes a true Greek salad. In Greece it consists only of some or all of the following: chopped tomatoes, cukes, green peppers, onion, olives and feta. No lettuce in sight, no pepperoncini and for those folks from Tarpon Springs, FL certainly NO POTATO SALAD.

                                                    2. re: latindancer

                                                      Latindancer, thanks for bringing that up. As I read down this thread, I wondered if authentic by definition mattered whether the person cooking could cook worth a shit or not. I've not been a big traveler, but I've been to several parts of western Mexico, and though I didn't go there for a culinary adventure any of those times (long time ago before I gave up on borderline anorexia, quit smoking, and became a chowhound) I've had a lot of food that was 'authentic' to the region and some of it was great, some of it not so hot, and a couple of times I got sick from it. There was nothing about the food that was outside the region, however.

                                                      A funny aside- My sister (NOT a chowhound) went to Italy, and came back claiming haughtily in her very own special way that the Italian food in Italy wasn't any good. I nearly burst a vessel trying not to laugh.

                                                      1. re: EWSflash

                                                        It IS all what you are used to sometimes. My husband loves good Chinese when we go to Vancouver, but we have to wrestle over the darn sweet and sour pork. He loves it and gets pissed when I try to deny him it.

                                          2. last year's discussion: :)
                                            there are several more someplace.....

                                            1. "Authentic" is a silly word to use to describe food. Wax fruit is imitation food, but anything that's edible is "authentic." Whenever I hear somebody use the word "authentic" to describe food, it's a good indication that that person doesn't know what they're talking about.

                                              C'mon, "authentic Mexican fare"? Give me a break. There are dozens of food traditions throughout areas that are now or have in the past been part of Mexico. A very few of those traditions remain close to their pre-Colombian roots, most have enthusiastically incorporated foods brought from Eurasia and Africa in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and others are far more recent developments. For example, nobody will deny that tacos al pastor are "authentic" Mexican food, but they were unknown in Mexico until the 20th century, when a wave of immigrants from the Middle East settled in the DF and came up with a local version of shawarma.

                                              Same with "authentic" Chinese food. What are you talking about? There are eight major Chinese culinary traditions, each of which is distinct, and each of which is authentic. But more significantly, none of them is stagnant. Walnut prawns are a fairly recent invention, but they're definitely an "authentic" part of Hong Kong cuisine today. And what about the Chinese who've immigrated to other parts of the world? General Tso's chicken may not exist in China, but it's clearly a part of American Chinese cuisine. Is it any less "authentically" Chinese because the Chinese cooks who developed the recipe lived in Manhattan?

                                              IMHO "authenticity" is not a particularly useful concept. Tradition, on the other hand, is. But you have to specify which tradition. If you tell me that we're going to be having a traditional Hunanese (or Punjabi, or Ethiopian, or Scottish, or Veracruzano) meal, I have a pretty good idea what to expect. Same if you blend traditions; there's nothing inauthentic about Vietnamese-influenced French food, even if it doesn't arise from a single tradition.

                                              Isn't it better to use words that convey meaning than to wallow in ambiguity?

                                              10 Replies
                                              1. re: alanbarnes

                                                I don't find your arguments satisfying. Especially when I am trying to get something good to eat.

                                                A case in point could be Salade Nicoise. An authentic salade 'nissarda' (in the local tongue) would have no cooked ingredients, no greeen beans, no tuna, no potatoes. it is all chopped raw vegetables. But even if you go to Nice these days, you would have to go out of your way to find a salad 'nissarda'. Almost everywhere you find what we (and even the French) have come to know as 'that thing with canned tuna, potatoes, olives, and green beans.' At this point, both are authentic because hardly anyone eats the original cuisine, and the popular item has been around for close to fifty years. I can deal with that!

                                                However, if someone argues that ONLY the 'nissarda' should be eaten, then I will gladly listen to them. Why? Because the watered down, the homogenized, the fake, and the outright banal will always be with us. It doesn't need me to champion the cause. But if someone seemingly knowledgeable stands upon a soapbox and screams about authenticity, then I want to know where that person is eating. I will probably wind up finding something damn interesting.

                                                1. re: Steve

                                                  You raise a good point, one I hadn't considered.

                                                  "Authentic" when applied to a cuisine as a whole doesn't convey much meaning. But it's different when you're talking about a particular well-defined dish - especially one that has been the victim of frequent bastardization.

                                                  So if somebody's on a soapbox railing about "authentic" Mexican food, I'll still assume that they haven't figured out that there's more than Taco Bell on the one hand and everything else on the other. But if they're holding forth about authentic enchiladas verdes de Aguascalientes, yeah, I want to know where they're having dinner.

                                                  1. re: alanbarnes

                                                    Alanbarnes, I've been agreeing with you the whole way.

                                                    But I do wonder about this term 'bastardization' which sounds so hostile to innovation it might as well take up a shotgun and tell those kids to get offa its lawn.

                                                    As I've stated before, we're all interested in good food and some of us are interested in learning about foodways. I remain unconvinced that 'authentic' is a word that tells us enough. Even the nissarda/niçoise story above is too rich and involved to be understood through the word 'authentic'.

                                                    1. re: alanbarnes

                                                      That's my take on it. Particular dishes become reknowned because, by virtue of a set of ingredients and particular technique, they acheive a flavor that is overwhelmingly approved of. Over time, it becomes iconic. Talented chefs can mess with the original, but what they produce is no longer the same dish.

                                                      As a very simple example, take Buffalo chicken wings. Very simple dish -- Frank's Hot Sauce, melted butter, and chicken wings. Fry wings, dump in bowl with hot sauce and butter, swirl, drain and serve. Done right, there is a pretty broad consensus that it tastes fantastic. Over the years, all over the country, "bastardized" versions pop up. Typically, either breaded, with some goopy sauce on them, or both. I would say these versions don't hold a candle to "authentic" wings, but some people prefer them. Either way, they aren't Buffalo wings.

                                                      One last point as to the difficulty of attributing authenticity to a cuisine as a whole. I agree you can't discount the evolution of a cuisine. Just remember, the Chile pepper is indigenous to the Western Hemisphere. Before Columbus, that means Thai, Indian, SIchuan, etc. cuisines were very different.

                                                      1. re: sbp

                                                        And Italian w/out the tomato? German w/out the potato? Mexican w/o bef or pork?
                                                        etc.,etc. All post-Columbian inovations.

                                                        1. re: Passadumkeg

                                                          I always thought it would make an interesting cookbook.

                                                          1. re: sbp

                                                            I think I'll start a thread on the media board.

                                                          2. re: Passadumkeg

                                                            Hey keg,

                                                            I agree about the italian w/out the tomato, but will stand firm that it's Irish w/out the potato. ;)

                                                          3. re: sbp

                                                            About the same time buffalo wings became popular nationwide, fajitas also became popular. In Texas, fajitas were named from faja in Spanish, fajitas, the little belt of skirt steaks. Now there called chicken, shrimp, and gasp, veggie fajitas. Just as teriyaki buffalo wings aren't Buffalo wings, these other creations aren't fajitas.

                                                          4. re: alanbarnes

                                                            I think you've hit the nail on the head!

                                                      2. I never want authentic (whatever that means) - just good tasty food.

                                                        How would I know what is authentic? I can tell you what is authentic Harters food, but that's about it.

                                                        Is a dish that my Mallorcan brother-in-law prepares authentic Mallorcan food because he cooks it the way his mother does? Or is the dish more authentic when I've eaten it in a restaurant in Mallorca, prepared differently. Or more authentic, in a different Mallorcan restaurant because the chef prepares it the way his family has always prepared it (or at least how s/he thinks it has always been prepared.

                                                        Searching for "authentic" is a fruitless exercise.

                                                        25 Replies
                                                        1. re: Harters

                                                          Amen. As long as there is no accepted standard for any one item, how can you judge authenticity? Dogs have such a thing -- at dog shows they're judged on how closely their appearance adheres to the written standard for the breed. With food, at best you have a general idea of how everybody makes a thing, and even this is just an average.

                                                          I don't care about my food's pedigree; only that it is delicious. And mongrels tend to be more robust anyways. :)

                                                          1. re: mogo

                                                            If you only want food that is delicious, then how will you broaden your horizons? How will you ever enjoy something that doesn't already conform to your notions of good taste?

                                                            1. re: Steve

                                                              But you can be open to trying anything under the sun and still not care about its provenance. I am always looking for more things to file under "delicious".

                                                              I'm just saying the "authentic" label is not very relevant if what you care about is deliciousness.

                                                              1. re: mogo

                                                                Moreover, no one is saying that an interest in deliciousness has to be at odds with learning about the foodways of a region. (I'm agreeing with you and adding to your post, Mogo.) Steve is building a strawman argument here in which anyone's debate over authenticity automatically relegates them to some sort of wilful ignorance-- the status of the imaginary tourist over whom Steve towers.

                                                                Meanwhile, there is something really troubling in the ways the champions of 'authentic' as a driving discourse have opted to define it.
                                                                A cursory reading through the boards (this and others) yields this:

                                                                * It must be hot (spicy).
                                                                * It must not exist in the U.S. (because 'bland American palates' cannot take it.
                                                                * It must be 'street food'
                                                                * It must be something non-Anglo.
                                                                * It must be 'ethnic' as opposed to regional, national, what? (Maybe I'm misunderstanding, but this formulation seems particularly geared to ignore designations of French cooking-- and even then, to disregard the differences of each region.)

                                                                In effect, when many chowhounds describe authentic, they think of the East and the Global South, and if anything, they should be formerly colonised nations.

                                                                This fetishisation of some unchanging cuisine becomes all the more troubling then, since it seems to position a certain group of people in an unchanging time, whereby all change (contact with modernity?) is bastardisation or 'Americanisation' (in that blessed negative narcissism that ensures that North American, and in particular the U.S. remains the driving force of everything, good or bad).

                                                                'Authentic' presumes an origin that has been unchanging. This is why the term is so troubling, because it carries this assumption that some people have maintained things without any change. True, some do their best to maintain traditional foodways, and it is well worth enjoying what is offered. But should one eschew the possibility of a chef in these regions, who invents and builds? Is that somehow only for the bland palate? Is that for someone who doesn't care about food--eating and learning? Or is that for someone who truly wants to know what any region has to offer? Is that for someone who acknowledges that change exists in all parts of the world for a variety of reasons?

                                                                Indeed, the problem I find here is that authentic becomes an acceptable marker of 'otherness' which is preserved in order to make _some_ chowhounds feel adventurous, as if they were conquering virgin territory. The expressions of authenticity here can come from genuine places of knowledge, but the discussions smuggle in an unseemly imperial flavour as well.

                                                                So in answer to Steve's question to me (another subthread here): Delicious according to whom? What if it was delicious according to that native whose unchanging state you so need?

                                                                That said, I am all for preserving and developing knowledge of traditional foodways, and anyone wanting to see the efforts people use need only visit UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage site in order to see the list of foods, traditions, languages and celebrations that have been marked as in danger of erosion.

                                                                At the same time, this kind of thinking can lead to some very troubling decisions, such as that recent fuss in Italy whereby a town banned any restaurants not associated with its own local tradition. One can see reasons for anxiety, but the fact is that the world is subject to change, and choosing to arrest it at a particular moment of authenticity (an imagined time whose evocation is itself a form of nostalgia that ignores other groups living in the region at the time, say), well, it's troubling to say the least-- especially when that change is attributed to new flows of people. Are there really to be cultural checkpoints?

                                                                Finally, I want to get back to some of the things that have been sidestepped (including the answer to a question that was deemed so easy, but nevertheless went unanswered):

                                                                I recently saw a plea for authentic Belgian street food. Apart from the friteries and gaufres stands, I was at a loss. I suggested good sandwich places, but something troubled me. And then I realised what it was as I was reading something about France and the sandwich: while there have been places for people to grab snacks on the street-- some seafood as well-- the concept of authentic street food puzzled because of the more traditional proper lunch that is disappearing in recent years. Neither spicy, nor street food, certain kinds of meal traditions in France and Spain, and yes, also Belgium, are disappearing for cheap convenience-- and for the fantasies of authenticity?

                                                                I am not saying street foods do not exist there, because, yes, they do and have for some time. However, if one has traditionally sit down and had more than one course for a proper lunch, is it not authentic? Because that's the way it used to be done.

                                                                Admittedly, this is still a coarse outline of complicated issues, but given how much space I have taken, I hesitate to take any more.

                                                                Thanks for letting me rant.

                                                                1. re: Lizard

                                                                  One thing left out of much of this discussion is that in the best usage the descriptor 'authentic' is followed with something like 'to the way x has been made in the southwest of ___ country in my grandmother's day' - or 'authentic to Texas BBQ the way it was handed down when I was growing up' etc.

                                                                  You might have a guy from Texas, or a foodie who carefully observes, like a naturalist, how the preparation is done, and goes back to Maine, and cooks a 'pretty authentic' Texas BBQ. But if cooks then copy it, but substitute a bunch of more locally-available ingredients, or decide that a sweeter, thinner sauce is more desirable, or just buy inferior ingredients or apply cooking methods ineptly, that's no longer authentic. Thirty years later if everybody in Maine (by the way, no slight against Maine, I'm speaking of it as an arbitrary example - substitute with Mordor if you like) ... has been making 'bbq' with the sweeter, thinner sauce in a different cooking manner than how it originally arrived from Texas, well you could have 'authentic Maine BBQ' then.

                                                                  1. re: Cinnamon

                                                                    Very good and true point Cinnamon. I was thinking about conch fritters this morning and was wondering if my way was "authentic" or just what I have liked and grown up with.

                                                                    Also. Maine Lobster Roll. I do not give a rip if it is authentic to put lobster in a hot dog bun. To me that is a nasty waste of good lobster. If I want to mash it between bread, make it pan fried garlic bread.

                                                                    I just wanted to get that off my chest.

                                                                  2. re: Lizard

                                                                    Wow. Your ranting is fine by me, Lizard. :)

                                                                    [re: otherness and imperialism]
                                                                    Yes, I think there is something to that. When some restaurants mess with traditional recipes, they get labelled inauthentic. When other restaurants do it, it's called 'fusion'. The only difference is that restaurants in the latter category aren't expected to be ambassadors of any particular culture.

                                                                    1. re: Lizard

                                                                      I like to put food in my mouth, Lizard, but you obviously like to put words in my mouth.

                                                                      Talk about a strawman argument... now you have me "arresting the development" of whatever you are accusing me of.

                                                                      Anyway, I suppose I don't have the energy to even read your whole post except to say that in my life, the word authentic has proved very useful. In conversation with people who come to my hometown from all over the world, people seem to understand the word and they have pointed me to some very good food indeed. And from the folks who use it on this board (and seem to know about it much more than I do), they have enriched my eating to great lengths.

                                                                      1. re: Steve

                                                                        Hmmm, seems to me that if you want to tell me I'm mistaken in my interpretation of your position. I read this from the posts which repeatedly responded to disputes about the term 'authenticity' with your declarations of interest in what people eat and in not being one of those icky tourists. Fair enough, but the way you positioned them appeared to be to counter my posts querying the use.

                                                                        If you were so troubled by my mistaken interpretation, I would have hoped you'd opt to discuss that rather than attack me. This is the second time you've opted for a rude comback in lieu of a discussion. Indeed, you seem to prefer making snide comments rather than directly address the posts or answer the questions I've posed to you.

                                                                        Then again, you seem to prefer not to read the posts, but simply respond. I find this ironic in light of the open-mindedness you appear to profess in your quest for authenticity.

                                                                        That said, and as I've said before, this clearly works for you. And if it's a term that gives you what you need, go to it. But please do try to remember that some of what happens on this board addresses issues of communication-- we need to make sense to one another. What is nice about such discussions (when people actually take them seriously) is that they open the term, and show the number of interpretations and understandings that exist, and perhaps encourage those in quest of authentic, to specify what exactly they want when posting in another thread.

                                                                        I hope you read this.

                                                                        1. re: Lizard

                                                                          Here are some of the words you used to describe my position which I did not use: icky tourists, willful ignorance, the imaginary tourist over whom Steve "towers." Is this last phrase not meant as an insult?

                                                                          I simply realize that hardly anyone puts as much emphasis on food when they travel as I do. I am not putting them down. Not everybody has the same priorities, that's all. A tour bus will stop at a place that can accommodate a group of fifty at a pre-arranged price, get them in and out on schedule, get them the fewest complaints, and conform to the majority's thoughts of what constitutes delicious food. That will be their priority, and if I were running the same company, those would be my priorities as well. They are not necessarily looking to be challenged, to try the new and exotic, or something that may be an acquired taste.

                                                                          Think of it as a huge "you no like" syndrome, with the emphasis placed on the business owner. I even used the phrase "withheld from the tourist trade." So instead of eating where most of the tourists are eating, I will plan a route to my next big tourist attraction that 'just happens' to pass by a place where I hope to get what the locals are eating. Yes, food I consider to more authentic.

                                                                          1. re: Steve

                                                                            Fairplay although you don't quite account for the snide email in the first post.

                                                                            Still, you continue to refer to the quest for food as something that distinguishes you from others. Perhaps that doesn't play well on chowhound where everyone of us has come here for what might be considered an unholy preoccupation with food.

                                                                            Moreover, you repeatedly asked us how we would broaden our horizons, or come to know anything if we were on a quest for delicious, but not authenticity..

                                                                            As for the quest for authenticity and how that differentiates you from the average tourist... some might say that this quest for some originary moment, something that is not available, is precisely the quest of the tourist. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Tourist-New-T...

                                                                            Yes, I'll continue to trouble this word precisely because it is so problematic. However, the missions to know more about food and to taste everything available, sure, that I can always get behind. Of course, because of the problems around the word 'authentic' I don't know that this will ever be an effective criterion for me in my own personal journeys. Sharing food with people, eating as locals do, 'broadening my horizons' sure-- but I don't see that as necessarily tied to this word, which imagines an unchanging world.

                                                                            1. re: Lizard

                                                                              "Still, you continue to refer to the quest for food as something that distinguishes you from others. Perhaps that doesn't play well on chowhound where everyone of us has come here for what might be considered an unholy preoccupation with food."

                                                                              Despite my commonality with all Chowhounds, I do read a fair amount of posts that are dismissive of the authenticity question with 'I know what I like,' which differentiates me from at least some folks.

                                                                              If it doesn't 'play well' out there, so be it. I'll be happy to let a comment like that slide on Virtual Tourist, but I don't see why I should not challenge people on Chowhound who might be willing to listen to the ravings of a fellow nut when it comes to food.

                                                                              1. re: Steve

                                                                                It's curious. You continue to miss the point of what I'm trying to say. Wilfulness or a simply lack of interest, or whatever, it's a shame. Certainly at no point have I been placing 'I know what I like!' against a quest for authenticity. I'm simply questioning the use of a _concept_ that is hopelessly fraught and may, in fact, impede discovery-- of new (delicious) foods, of cultural history, of traditional foods, of the recognition that people around the world change over time. (This is why I brought up the 'straw man' point earlier.) You refused to answer my question about the post I encountered, perhaps missing the point that this 'native' was gobsmacked by the request of a poster and would have been better able to guide through the use of different wording.)

                                                                                However, because of this inability to even communicate-- forget agreement which I think is overrated anyway-- I'm going to have to stop (as tempting as it is to procrastinate this way). You enjoy yourself now!

                                                                                1. re: Lizard

                                                                                  I did not attribute that sentiment to you. I have seen many similar posts on Chowhound including one in this thread: " I don't care about a food's pedigree.... only that it is delicious."

                                                                                  If you put so much effort into worrying about the use of authentic, what if I did the same with your use of the word 'innovation?' Is that not just as "hopelessly fraught?"

                                                                                  If you are referring to your Belgium example, I did not "refuse" ( your use of the pejorative) to respond. I've never been to Belgium so I couldn't comment on that situation. If someone was looking for a tip on street food in Paris, perhaps I would direct them to the felafel at L'as du felafel or the caviar d'aubergines at Sasha Finklestajn's. I would not feel it necessary to question them about what they mean. If they didn't like my tips, then I did the best I could do.

                                                                                  1. re: Steve

                                                                                    Yeah, but it it AUTHENTIC Parisian food?
                                                                                    (That said, I have had some awesome falafel in the Marais...)

                                                                                    Also: Trying so hard not to adopt your initial response to me: "Now was that so hard?"

                                                                                      1. re: Lizard

                                                                                        Bien sur. These items fit the first definition of the word as given by the OP, surely "worthy of acceptance." They have been well accepted and come highly recommended by Parisians.

                                                                                        Nah, it wasn't so hard. I'm peacin'.

                                                                                        1. re: Steve

                                                                                          Heh. Your answer now raises so many more questions, but definitely goes to prove my point: the word authentic is simply too burdened with expectations and definitions to be of practical use.

                                                                                          One of the reasons I initially asked about the 'authentic Belgian streetfood' (which I'm sure you can't remember) is that a hound, on another thread, asked for just that.

                                                                                          Did this mean that the poster was in search of Belgian food that was sold on the street? This would be frites, gaufres, and sometimes frinkandelle. And, to my mind, anywhere that serves it is 'authentic'. The problem for me, here is 'Is it good'? (And yes, I say that as a native-- or one time native, I no longer live there.) You might then interpret this as 'away from the tourist spots' but bear in mind that Brussels is tiny, plus, there are some decent spaces near the Grand Place.

                                                                                          Also, the demand for streetfood made me wonder: would this person like to know of a sandwich place that serves things she could not find outside the country. It's inexpensive, too. I assume yes, but as one typically sits down there... and as it is close to touristy area... hmmm.

                                                                                          But your willingness to now define this as food not native to the area-- and indeed, the type of food that might not interest a visitor from Israel, say, adds something.

                                                                                          It also leads to more thinking: I am always thrilled to recommend an Ethiopian restaurant in Brussels. Is it authentic? Hmmmm. Belgians like it and it is frequented by an immigrant community, although that might be a more North African community. So now, by your definition, it could be authentic even as a person from Ethiopia might beg to differ. At the same time, even by one of your definitions below (regarding your appreciation for the Italian authentic described below-- a lovely lyrical portrait indeed!).

                                                                                          It is just so much easier for people to ask for gems, to ask for street food if they want it (although to also acknowledge that streetfood may not be as prevelant in some places), and to ask for inexpensive... Or, as some might say, and I'm willing to concede this usage of 'authentic': e.g. I'm looking for that authentic Szechuan restaurant in Kensington...

                                                                                          You find this very easy. I suppose I just think too much (and admittedly, if you haven't guessed, read a great deal on the topic of authenticity and tourism) so it will never be that easy for me. In the end, the other qualifiers will be of more use-- for me.

                                                                                          Now I have really got to stop this! I have a chapter to deliver and instead I'm spending all my writing and thinking time here. And meanwhile, I have likely driven you to rocking back and forth under your desk as you weep copious tears begging 'No more! No more!' Dayenu.

                                                                                          1. re: Lizard

                                                                                            I find the word authentic extremely practical and greatly effective shorthand. When I hear someone use it in relation to their travels, I imagine they are looking for food not dumbed down for tourists.

                                                                                            Dumbed down for tourists could include:

                                                                                            Locally popular items removed from the menu because they may go unordered.

                                                                                            Unfamiliar local ingredients substituted by familiar ingredients.

                                                                                            DIshes that call for unfamliar flavors or preparations are made more easily or more cheaply or by less talented cooks.

                                                                                            The food is probably available in the same style and quality half a world away.

                                                                                            The locals wouldn't spend their own money there if their priority for good food trumps convenience, etc.

                                                                                            "Also, the demand for street food made me wonder: would this person like to know of a sandwich place that serves things she could not find outside the country."

                                                                                            I am sure the person would be delighted with any information like that. It can't hurt, and you don't seem to mind giving out your opinion.

                                                                                            "(which I'm sure you can't remember)" Actually, I have a pretty good memory.

                                                                                            By the way, one of my favorite novels is Paradise News by David Lodge. Maybe you are familiar with it since the character of Dr. Sheldrake, a Professor of Anthropology, is studying tourism - one of the main subjects of the book.

                                                                                            1. re: Steve

                                                                                              Yes, as I said, despite the numerous definitions you've had to give to explain your understanding of 'authentic', it works for you. Enjoy in good health.

                                                                                              p.s. Of course I offer tips-- I'm not sure why the fact I offer my opinion is such a bad thing, but it clearly upsets you enough. So now really. I'm done.

                                                                        2. re: Lizard

                                                                          A little bellowy, but I think your point is well founded. I wonder if Molly (OP) realized the can of worms she was opening.
                                                                          *for an authentic recipe involving worms, please refer to "How To Eat Fried Worms" by Rockwell or "Henry Huggins" by Cleary.

                                                                  3. re: Harters

                                                                    "How would I know what is authentic?"
                                                                    Imagine you are in an 'American' restaurant overseas, you bite into a hamburger, and it tastes of fish, then could you say that is inauthentic? Or would you say that is typical of how American hamburgers taste? Would you say that you have ever eaten a hamburger served like that in the U.S.? And if somebody from that country took you to that restaurant claiming the food was authentic American food, would you agree with them, or would you say that you have no idea? I mean, folks are looking to you, the American, to either validate their claim or to give them some insight.

                                                                    1. re: Steve

                                                                      I think I had this argument on some other topic with respect to going to a country's own chain restaurants. It really perplexes me because being a chain doesn't automatically make food something other than authentic. For instance, I stayed with a family in Korea and we went to chain restaurants, but we still had to order the least spicy item on the menu because we were told we couldn't handle anything else.

                                                                      1. re: Steve

                                                                        I would say that it's not a typical hamburger. But typical is not the same as authentic. And if it tasted good, I'd be happy. :)

                                                                        Conversely: How many Americans eating fishy burgers would it take to qualify it as an 'authentic' American food? If there existed a small fishing village somewhere in the US that made fishy burgers as a local specialty, would that somehow make it okay? This authenticity stuff is just too arbitrary.

                                                                      2. re: Harters

                                                                        You got it right. There is just no way to say one place, town, city or region can lay claim to authenticity. Within that place I'm sure there are many people cooking it their way and they call it authentic. Say it is a simple tomato sauce, but one guy adds oregano, but it is still the same sauce. Then they move and another town or city starts to make it and always uses oregano ... and the chain just keeps going on and on.

                                                                        I like a traditional bolognese, but I have many that all claim the same thing "Traditional." I gave up, I make the one I like best.

                                                                        I care less if it is authentic or not as long as I like it.

                                                                      3. After reading this thread I want to add my two cents. I am one of those people constantly looking for "authentic" food. I definately over use the term. So when I saw this it made me start thinking about what I want in an "authentic" meal or restaurant.

                                                                        One of the things I have noticed about eating food abroad and then eating the same food here is the quality of the ingredients. In general, the ingredients quality are much better here than in many other countries, especially the meats and I think that is one of the things that changes the flavour of ethnic food made in the U.S. quite a bit. I went to an Ethiopian restaurant recently with a friend who had recently come back from Ethiopia. He was amazed at the difference in the food. The food at the restaurant he enjoyed, but while he was in Ethiopia he barely ate at all. (This was not a foodie, but his actions reinforced my theory.)

                                                                        So, what is the point? My point is that I want food that is cooked for the people of that country with the flavours, spices, intensity, heat to the best of their ability, not for generally bland american palates. Authentic ethnic food is food that is cooked the way it has always been cooked, not modified for people who are unable to tolerate it. It may not be the best term, "traditional" perhaps, but it doesn't really matter to me until I can afford to go to every country and explore it through their cuisine, the best I can do is find out where the local community of that country likes to eat and follow them.

                                                                        1. I want food prepared as it is prepared in [whatever country] by decent cooks. I DO NOT want food "adjusted for American customers".

                                                                          I feel pretty confident of getting authentic food if I'm the only anglo in the place. Extra points if I'm not quite sure my car will be there when I leave (maybe that's because such places tend to be in the low-rent out-of-the-way locations that a business can afford if they don't pander to the masses). Double extra points if I have to work hard to convince the server that "yes, I really do want it just the way that table over there is having it."

                                                                          Add in a bit of tolerance for the fact that there is no single standard "authentic" recipe for anything, here or abroad.

                                                                          1. OK. Here's one for y'all. Is an authentic Caesar salad dressing supposed to be creamy and thick? Not the way I learned to make it. And does an authentic Caesar salad contain bacon bits? Not mine. As far as I know, the Caesar Salad was invented in Mexico by a chef named Caesar, and not invented in Italy as some people say. Anybody know the true poop on an authentic Caesar salad?

                                                                            1 Reply
                                                                            1. re: spazita

                                                                              My understanding is that it was "invented" by a restaurant owner in Tijuana to feed some late night guests with the ingredients he had on hand. I believe that the original recipe did not include anchovies. When I make this at home, the dressing is a bit creamy, but I wouldn't say it is thick.

                                                                              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caesar_s... - don't know that this is the be all end all description, but I do use the recipe in Julia Child's "The Way to Cook".

                                                                            2. When I look for authentic, I look for restaurants or foods similar to what could be found in the home country or region.

                                                                              Doesn't mean it has to be the best or the tastiest. Just means I can imagine the same dish or restaurant in the place of origin.

                                                                              Too many people who don't care about authenticity is the reason why here in LA, clam chowder means thick roux-based and goopey and chili means tomatoes and beans. And what a lot of restaurants pass off as Philly cheesesteak is just plain scary. I guess if you've never had the original and don't care about authenticity it tastes alright...

                                                                              7 Replies
                                                                              1. re: huaqiao

                                                                                Beans in clam chowder? That's the worst thing I've heard since beans in chili.

                                                                                1. re: James Cristinian

                                                                                  Lol. The beans were meant to describe the chili. :P

                                                                                  1. re: huaqiao

                                                                                    Kinda missed that one. I hate it when poeple don't read posts correctly.

                                                                                  2. re: James Cristinian

                                                                                    Beans in chowder NO, beans in chili, wouldn't eat it without beans. Can't stand chili without the beans. It is just stew and horrible tasting. Sorry all, just not worth it.

                                                                                    1. re: kchurchill5

                                                                                      Any chili that needs beans just isn't good chili.

                                                                                      I can see how you'd want to add beans to the tomato / hamburger soup that passes for chili in some places. But I've got a better solution: just make real chili. Without beans.

                                                                                      1. re: alanbarnes

                                                                                        And then one pours the real chile w/out tomatoes, over the PINTO BEANS (no other will do), if one wishes.
                                                                                        My dad came to visit us in New Mexico and I took him out to our favorite Mexican hole-in-the-wall restaurant, Jramillo's Mexicatessen. He ordered a boy of chile (He had great pride in his kidney bean, ground beef, tomato Gringo chile.) First spoonful he gasped, "Are you trying to kill your poor father?" due to the spicy heat, and then he asked, "Where are the beans?" "Pop", I replied, "You ordered a bowl of chile, you didn't ask for beans." (Chile con frijoles.). He also tried to cut his first tamale, corn husk wrapper and all, may he RIP.

                                                                                  3. re: huaqiao

                                                                                    Why have a philly cheesesteak in
                                                                                    And how could it possibly be like eating at the counter next to Rocky? Now that would be authentic.

                                                                                  4. Authentic - where does it end, or more importantly, where does it begin? Maybe it's a simplistic assumption on my part, but every dish had to evolve from some beginning point to achieve the supposed label of authentic. The first guy or gal to throw brontosaures burgers on a fire was a bastard for demeaning the authenticity of raw meat. :)

                                                                                    3 Replies
                                                                                    1. re: bulavinaka

                                                                                      You're right. It's hard to define. Who knows, maybe impossible. But like love, justice, art, and grace, just because it is difficult to define doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

                                                                                      On Chowhound, I listen for the folks who are passionate about the food they seem knowledgeable about. I enjoy the give and take. And, yes, the arguments. I can't get that on any other website.

                                                                                      1. re: Steve

                                                                                        I think the term, "authentic," is directly linked with the phrase, "it depends." I think we can all agree that certain food items, e.g., a plain croissant, has certain qualities that can add up to authentic. But let's now travel to Japan where okonomiyaki has so so many iterations. So many families and individuals have their own favorite version for the ideal okonomiyaki. Each version can be considered, "authentic" in its own right by many, while the "hardliners" and "old-timers" will snarl at the use of Kewpie mayo or consider the use of cheese as an abomination. Even cracking an egg on top to finish off a very "traditional" and "authentic" Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is frowned upon by others. Who is right? Who holds the authority to consider a particular version to be authentic? I don't know - I guess it depends who you want to believe. It's almost like religion and politics.

                                                                                        1. re: bulavinaka

                                                                                          AFAIK, they could all be authentic. But I'd be interested in hearing about the different viewpoints, that's for sure.

                                                                                    2. When I use the word "authentic" I typically have a dichotomy in mind. It's not meant to be judgmental, just descriptive. Where I live we have lots of places served Americanized Mexican food, and lots of taquerias and other places serving food which try to serve food similar to what you'd find in Mexico for a mostly immigrant clientele. I tend to use "authentic" to distinguish the latter from the former.

                                                                                      3 Replies
                                                                                      1. re: Naco

                                                                                        how many decades have to pass before "American-Mexican" is an authentic cuisine itself?

                                                                                        1. re: bbqboy

                                                                                          You could argue that it is, but the problem from a descriptive point of view is that it usually(never, in my experience) isn't described that way, and many people don't know that these places are serving a completely different style of food.

                                                                                          1. re: bbqboy

                                                                                            Isn't there that category(s) already? Authentic Tex and Cali Mex?

                                                                                        2. I doubt I can add much to this discussion, but thinking about the concept of authenticity brought to mind the following scenarios...

                                                                                          I could say that only chocolate chip cookies made from the recipe on the Nestle’s package are authentic. But even saying that seems kind of silly since there are countless variations on it that could also be "authentic”.

                                                                                          Perhaps authenticity comes from ingredients and techniques native to a region. A California vintner might make “champagne” in his back yard, but as I understand it Champagne comes from Champagne, FR. But, I’ve made empanadas in my own kitchen with an Argentine buddy, and I’d consider those to be authentic.

                                                                                          There was a local Indian Restaurant (Bombay Bistro) that served excellent food, unusual in that the kitchen staff were all from Colombia! The chef taught these guys how to prepare Indian dishes. To my palate, it tasted authentic, but what do I know? I’ve never been to India.

                                                                                          1 Reply
                                                                                          1. re: cuccubear

                                                                                            Anthony Bourdain makes a huge point about cook origins in his book Kitchen Confidential, and also every chance he gets on his show No Reservations. He points out that many Mexicans and folks from one specific South or Central American country (I've forgotten which) are fabulous chefs now in America, cooking the classic French way and every other manner. I kind of wonder if this will result in any new foodways in their countries of origin, if some of them ever go back.

                                                                                          2. I think the OP's question really sort of hits the issue directly - when we say we want "authentic" food, what is it that we actually mean? Other posters have pointed out that there can be lots of variations of a dish enjoyed by people in a particular place, culture, region, etc. and so it's difficult to point to one and say that it is *the* authentic dish.

                                                                                            When I travel, there are (potentially) two different types of food I want to find:

                                                                                            1. I want to eat tasty food, that I can't get (or would have a hard time getting) back home because the ingredients aren't available or the preparation process isn't known or is too labor intensive. I want it because my only (or best) chance to experience it is by being in this particular place.

                                                                                            2. "Authentic" food with a sense of history. I when I travel I like to imagine the people who have been there before me - how can you not think about all the peope who have climbed cathedral or castle steps worn down over centuries? And I want to experience and try to understand what the people there now experience. I want to eat what they ate/eat - to try as much as possible to "get into their headspace" (yes, I know it's not really truely possible, but I still want to try!). That's what I think of when I think of authentic - I imagine fictional but (in my mind) representative person X and want to eat what he/she ate or eats. The person might be an everyday Joe eating at a pho stand on the way to work, or a farmer eating the food his family produced or a king in the middle ages. Their food may or may not be to my liking, but that's really of secondary importance - the primary is the shared (ok, only in my mind) experience. This is why I'd be up to trying "authentic" prision food (if offered) on a tour of Alcatraz even though I don't expect to actually like the food!

                                                                                            I think we get into trouble when we use the term "authentic" as if it's some kind of absolute, intrinsic characteristic. Authenticity is relative and it only really makes sense when you qualify who/what/where dish x is or isn't "authentic" to. My Hawaiian-Portuguese great grandmother's Portuguese sweetbread is absolutely authentic to her and to my family (and my family will be able to tell you whether any attempted duplication is an "authentic" representation of it), but I have no idea whether anyone in Portugal would even recognize the sweetbread recipe. And you could probably find lots of other Hawaiian-Portuguese families who would say that my great grandmother's sweetbread is not "authentic" (to their great grandmother's recipe - but that's not really the goal, is it?)

                                                                                            9 Replies
                                                                                            1. re: akq

                                                                                              Beautifully put about the shared experience. Though I might skip the prison food.

                                                                                              Doesn't Taco Bell have that concession?

                                                                                              1. re: Steve

                                                                                                Up until the US decided to incarcerate such a high proportion of its people and budgets got tighter, food in the joint could be pretty good. The max security pen in Oregon, for example, uses a lot of food produced on its own low security farm. Cons learn how to cook; and some come back off the streets, eat well, sleep well, can't do (much) drugs or booze, lift weights, and go out the next time quite healthy and well fed.

                                                                                                1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                                                                  I am happy to report Arizona prison food is no picnic.

                                                                                                2. re: Steve

                                                                                                  The story that I've heard is that Alcatraz actually had great food when it was operational. The theory was that if the inmates had really tasty grub and a limited time (10 minutes?) to eat it, they'd stuff their faces instead of fomenting dissent and planning escapes.

                                                                                                  1. re: alanbarnes

                                                                                                    Don't know. Alcatraz was closed by the time I got around. The food at San Quentin was OK; and people had a lot more than 10 minutes to eat.

                                                                                                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                                                                      LOL! I almost wrote "This is why I'd be up to trying "authentic" tuna noodle casserole made by my boyfriend's Midwestern mother even though I don't expect to like it", but I thought the prison food example would be less controversial. That'll show me!

                                                                                                      1. re: akq

                                                                                                        Well, I enjoyed your response; and responded more to Steve. He'd have a harder time in the joint - no 20 hour indirect smoked pulled pork. Have to have par-boiled and braised pulled pork, but with sauce made in the pen. Maybe that would make him leave the life. You might enjoy yourself - try the bigger high security pens like MacNiel Island for better food, though. Course, then you'd have a 20 to life fall, \more than enough time to get tired of the food.

                                                                                                        1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                                                                          Yep, that will surely set me on the straight and narrow.

                                                                                                3. re: akq

                                                                                                  I agree completely with you. Couldn't have said it better myself.

                                                                                                4. A Chinese translation of "authentic", re-translated back into English, is "true to form", loosely speaking.

                                                                                                  To measure "authenticity" one must have a standard or measuring stick. And that usually comes from the place of origin. Or if you have not had the pleasure, the one who comes close to replicating the experience.

                                                                                                  But to add on top of that, "true to form" in some Chinese circles also means the historical original style, that also includes

                                                                                                  - not taking shortcuts
                                                                                                  - not using "new methods" that compromise taste, texture, quality. e.g. if the receipe calls for duck eggs to bring out the flavor of an Asian egg noodle, don't think that you can get away with using chicken eggs of lesser quality and still call the noodle by its classical name.
                                                                                                  - not substituting ingredients to achieve a similar effect
                                                                                                  - doing almost everything by hand or prepared from scratch
                                                                                                  - following a near identical receipe since the original receipe was somewhat "standardized"

                                                                                                  Of course is helps if you know whether you've had "the real deal" in the old world, to compare it with the revival or comparative offering in the New World or elsewhere.

                                                                                                  In Taiwanese culinary circles, the word "authentic" isn't quite as overused as "Ancient Early", loose characters that basically mean either reviving (as a trend) or preserving the original flavors from 30 to 50 to upwards of 100+ years ago, aka preservation of taste, flavor, identity, and culture. This is more of a cultural discipline where those who are proud of food history (as well as a fierce determination to make $ in the process), continue to offer what their parents, grandparents, great grandparents and their forefathers enjoyed at the street food stalls. Similar philosophy can be found in Japanese cuisine.

                                                                                                  And to add to what has been said about Japanese food, "authentic" isn't just applied to sushi, but practically anything you can think of, even the generics. Yes there is "authentic" miso soup, teriyaki, tempura, udon etc.

                                                                                                  3 Replies
                                                                                                  1. re: K K

                                                                                                    For Japanese, "authentic" should especially apply to non-sushi foods. The gauges I use for Japanese are for traditional dishes. My yardsticks for sushi - as applehome and silverjay have let me know - are too tied to my background being the equivalent of way back up some holler on some crick yonder in the coal country of Cane Tucky or Wes V'ginya.

                                                                                                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                                                                      see, sam? You're just too Middle American :)

                                                                                                    2. re: K K

                                                                                                      Uh, no, not really I think. The term "authentic" in Chinese will have the same semantical issues as we are finding in English on this thread. 正宗 or Zhengzong means "authentic." One must be careful not to literally translate Chinese characters. 正 Zheng (right, proper or correct) and 宗 Zong (lineage, ancestry, ancester or clan) together form the compound word "authentic" in Mandarin Chinese. No more. No less. (Same goes for Ancient/Early, whatever that is!)

                                                                                                      The use of lard in Chinese cooking is decreasing. How then does substituting lard for vegetable oil (about 35% less fat) make a "classical" dish that previously had lard less authentic?

                                                                                                    3. Another point on "Authentic" I would like to discuss:

                                                                                                      There was an "No Reservations" show where Anthony went around to his fave places and old school places in NYC. One included a Chinese place. He went with a Chinese guy that had been going to that place since he was a kid. He ordered off menu for... authentic Chinese food! I was fascinated by this... and a little annoyed to be quite honest. I want what he was having. It looked so good I could have jumped thru the TV. Why don't they offer that to non Chinese? Do you have to be in the know and be Chinese (or in the company of Chinese) to get it? I feel jipped.

                                                                                                      21 Replies
                                                                                                      1. re: Sal Vanilla

                                                                                                        This is a sore point for me as well. I have a friend that is Taiwanese. She speaks Mandarin. We go to this one restaruant and there are 2 menus. One in Chinese and one in English. Luckily, she can translate the Chinese menu for me (the English menu is good, but it's for us White people). She also orders for us.

                                                                                                        However, when we sit down, they always look just at me and say, do you want a fork? They never ask her and I've very good with the chopsticks.

                                                                                                        Also at the end of the meal, the waiter will bring her the almond jello and I get a cookie.

                                                                                                        When I go to the resturant without her, the food is still good, but prepared differently.

                                                                                                        1. re: mollygirl

                                                                                                          The fact is that most Americans who go into a Chinese place want American Chinese food; the rest of us are in the minority. So you can't exactly hold it against a restaurant when its employees try to deliver the experience they think the customer wants or is expecting.

                                                                                                          Problem is when you tell them you want the traditional stuff and they still won't give it to you. The old "you no like" syndrome.

                                                                                                          In a place that serves both traditional food and Americanized food, it helps to cultivate a relationship with the servers. It has taken some time, but at my new favorite place, the wait staff has learned that I make the distinction between what they call "American food" and the "Chinese Chinese" menu. Still get fortune cookies, though.

                                                                                                          What's funny is the servers there are fairly recent immigrants, and they kind of dig the American food. I guess for them it's something a little different and exotic that still has culinary roots they're comfortable with.

                                                                                                          1. re: alanbarnes

                                                                                                            Funny, the "Chinese Chinese menu". I hope at least they are giving you an authentic Chinese-American fortune cookie.

                                                                                                            1. re: Steve

                                                                                                              I made Chinese fortune cookies about a decade ago. Never again.

                                                                                                              I love Mollygirl's post about the jello and cookie. Completely priceless.

                                                                                                              1. re: Sal Vanilla

                                                                                                                I brought back X-rated fortune cookies from NYC Chinatown a while back. Every now and then I'll palm one on to a pile of regular ones. Pretty funny.

                                                                                                        2. re: Sal Vanilla

                                                                                                          This really depends on the restaurant and their operating policies.

                                                                                                          Some places have one main menu, maybe a specials white board or a separate menu of chef's specials. And there are places like Hop Kee that either has a "secret menu or off menu" but in reality are just dishes that Cantonese speaking people have been eating for years and years and years.

                                                                                                          But to most Cantonese folks, the stuff Chris ordered "off menu" are considered common known Cantonese dishes that 95% of Canto restaurants can duplicate (the sea snails one isn't as common in some parts but it's similar to how common black bean sauce clams are on the west coast for example). The way Cantonese folks order vegetables or a stir fried plate of greens, at most Chinese restaurants is to find out what is in stock or in season, then request the way it is cooked. For higher end seafood restaurants, it is a matter of finding out what the restaurant has seafood wise (if not in the live tanks), how much they charge by weight, then figuring out how it should be cooked.

                                                                                                          To non Cantonese or Chinese speaking folks, it may seem like there's a shroud of mystery surrounding this, but it is just a matter of knowing how you want something and how it is done.

                                                                                                          While you can find what Chris ordered at Hop Kee in Hong Kong to this day, I'm willing to bet some hardcore Cantonese food fan or Hong Konger, should he travel to Chinatown anywhere in the US, will find even their Cantonese style preps an abomination or unrefined (believe it or not).

                                                                                                          The problem is with a lot of places in Chinatown is that they're historically stuck in the past, cooked by immigrants from the old world settled in their ways, and not changing their formula for a long long time. So to Asian Americans (1st gen immigrant who came and settled in the US years and years ago and/or their children who were actually born and grown in the US, never having the real thing in Hong Kong) growing up and eating metropolitan US Chinatown style Chinese food, to them that's authentic.

                                                                                                          But to a visitor from Hong Kong who has a different measuring stick, Chinatown Chinese food even if from some old school Hop Kee like place, will see it totally differently. Perhaps it is the over use of MSG, or the lack of knifework in cutting the vegetables, or the fact that way too much cornstarch was used in the sauces, or the chef lacked the "proper" stir fry skills compared to what he or she can get back in Hong Kong.

                                                                                                          All relative, I suppose. Authentic Americanized Chinese, Authentic Cantonese in America Chinatown style, Authentic Cantonese old style from Hong Kong etc etc.

                                                                                                          1. re: K K

                                                                                                            I have never heard this explained so succinctly, Thank you.

                                                                                                            Another point made by a recent magazine article (I forget the publication or author) is that even when a restaurateur would like to bring over a skilled chef from China, they are met with difficulties getting a visa.

                                                                                                            A Chowhound now living in Beijing, James G, once discovered a place in Fairfax, Va that proudly posted a certificate the chef received from a prestigious cooking school in China. That restaurant became the venue for quite a few terrific Chowhound gatherings and produced one of my all-time favorite meals with nine other Chowhounds. Among the many great dishes we ate was a special of mutton with angelica. One time I asked the chef if he could reproduce this dish and he just laughed and shook his head. He could no longer obtain the angelica, IIUC.

                                                                                                            The chef wound up in Knoxville where Chowhound John B has been keeping tabs on him.

                                                                                                            1. re: Steve

                                                                                                              Sorry for coming by late. But I have a recent story about said chef in Knoxville, and as I was reading through this thread I was thinking about it and what it might say relative to the authenticity discussion here. Since Steve mentioned him, I must tell the story.

                                                                                                              I stop by and say hello to Chang every so often. Last time I was there he told me, through an interpreter of course, and I swear this is the honest truth, that his latest business idea is to return to China when his Knoxville contract is up and open up an American buffet.

                                                                                                              The authenticity implications of this are more than I am able to process with the few brain cells I have that still fire.

                                                                                                              1. re: johnb

                                                                                                                Roast beef, pork chops, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, dirty rice and po boys.
                                                                                                                ham hocks and green beans. Fried Catfish. Beef Stew. Jello. Boston cream pie and chocolate cake .Soft serve ice cream. BBQ brisket, pulled pork and ribs.
                                                                                                                What's not to like? :)

                                                                                                                1. re: bbqboy

                                                                                                                  I was with you until you got the the jello. But on second thought, what the hell, why not.

                                                                                                                  1. re: johnb

                                                                                                                    The chinese already have jello. It's prepackaged in shots and sold by the bag or giant container.

                                                                                                            2. re: K K

                                                                                                              Let me disagree here again slightly. First off, the great hallmark of Cantonese cuisine is fresh seafood. When fresh, the seafood is simply steamed. Perhaps with some ginger, scallions. When fish or seafood is not fresh is when it needs to be masked by some sauce i.e. hot and sour, sweet and sour, black beans etc. I've been in enough Chinese restaurants (in the USA, China, Hongkong and Taipei) with Chinese friends to know that only sometimes can one start to ask for dishes to be cooked in a certain way. It is no different than in any western restaurant really. And while it is true that many Chinatown restaurants are historically stuck in the past, with the recent arrival of over 300,000 Fujianese immigrants in the past 20 years we are seeing their vibrant cuisine emerge.

                                                                                                              1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                                scoopG, you make some good counterpoints but like yourself I will have to respectfully disagree on a few points.

                                                                                                                But the hallmark of good classical Cantonese is not just fresh seafood. Granted if this were in certain parts of Guangzhou, Shantou (spelling) Fushan etc, it is a standard that all seafood is fresh. Anyone can use fresh seafood or ingredients, but it takes a real master to bring out the real flavors and not rely on things like MSG or excess oil or soy sauce. And just because a restaurant is in Chinatown doesn't necessarily mean it has the access to the best ingredients, maybe best available yes, but if the skills of the kitchen are not up to par, a good fish can be ruined. I agree whole heartedly on the sauce, which is why I prefer a steamed Cantonese fish over a fried then stewed version like they do for Shanghainese or Sichuan styles.

                                                                                                                Everyone has different taste tester dishes for Chinese food. In Cantonese, some aspiring restaurant chefs are given tester dishes before they are hired, ranging from dry fried beef chow fun or something simple like scrambled eggs with shrimp. Mess up stir fry skills and no matter how good your steaming skills are, it's over (although kudos if you can steam a fish perfectly, it's definitely an artform).

                                                                                                                Also there are certain styles of Southern Chinese out there, all different in their own way (not saying one is better than the other). I'd rather not say styles of Cantonese because they're derivations, such as Toi Shan style cooking, Hakka Cantonese, Chiu Chow, Shun Tak, many of which I don't find representation or hardly in say San Francisco Chinatown.

                                                                                                                During a recent trip to Taipei, I ate at this really cool seafood joint called "Goose City". The fresh seafood tanks and fish on ice were on display by the entrance. It was a matter of picking and choosing, then selecting how we wanted it cooked (also given available recommendations of the restaurant). But ultimately we were the customers. We didn't even see a menu and just ordered off the bat like that.

                                                                                                                Perhaps East Coast Chinatowns are different, but here in SF and Chinese restaurants in other communities in Northern California, people also order off menu, or they find out what fish the restaurant has, and specify how they want it cooked, if the menu does not have it. And fish isn't just necessarily steamed, the competent Cantonese restaurant may also offer it served 2 to 3 ways (including a soup) if say the fish is some big cabazon.

                                                                                                                The Fujianese immigrant explosion must be a NY Chinatown thing. It's mostly Toishanese with some outliers in SF.

                                                                                                                1. re: K K

                                                                                                                  Of course Cantonese food is known for more than just seafood - but the main emphasis, in general on Cantonese seafood prep is simple, yet delicately flavored steamed freshness. If it ain't fresh then don't steam it. And yes, I am aware of the subdivisions within Cantonese cuisine. In fact northern Cantonese blends with southern Fujian in many respects. I'd say the Hakka exist as their own culture with their own language and own additions to the food canton.

                                                                                                                  The Chinese diaspora in California is so spread out all over CA - in the Bay area (not SF) and the San Gabriel Valley (not LA). San Francisco's Chinatown is mainly a tourist relic and not anywhere near as vibrant nor as large as say NYC's Chinatown. During my last visit in 2006, no one could tell me the Chinese population of San Francisco's Chinatown. I asked at the hotel, I asked in Chinatown.

                                                                                                                  Large amounts of Fujianese are now found in NYC, Philadelphia and even in Minnesota, as I found out in a recent visit.

                                                                                                                  Also, extreme freshness is still evident in NYC's Chinatown and Flushing with our close proximity to the Fulton Fish Market (now in the Bronx) and the Hunt's Point produce center, also in the Bronx. We'll get fresh choy sum (or cai xin) from NJ and even NY in the summer and then CA or FL or Mexico during the winter for example.

                                                                                                                  1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                                    While seafood is oneof the pillars of Cantonese cooking, I feel that the great hallmark of Cantonese cooking is not seafood, but the breath in terms of ingredients and technique. The flavours and types of fish can vary as well, for example, the Teochews/Chiu Chows would steam pomfret with pickled mustard greens and a a pickled.candied sour plum, which is probably unusual in native cuisines of Guangzhou.

                                                                                                                    I wouldn't say that Nothern Cantonese blends with Southern Fujian though. While there are some similarities e.g. braising is indeed more widely used in Teochew/Chiu Chow, there are also differences e.g. the stocks and sauces in braising can be quite different. There are perhaps a few dishes in common, e.g. prawn meatballs, but the preps aren't exactly the same, with the Teochews favouring a yuba wrapper to the prawn meatballs, while the Southern Fujians giving them a dust of flour after wrapping with the fatty visceral lining.

                                                                                                                    As for Hakka, it's slightly complicated by the fact that there are Hakkas from Canton and Fujian, and the dishes aren't exactly the same between them.

                                                                                                                    Most of the Fujian restaurants in the US are Fuzhou/Northern Fujian; it's probably easier to find Southern Fujian dishes at Taiwanese places, of which there's a reasonable number as well.

                                                                                                                    1. re: limster

                                                                                                                      Hi limster,

                                                                                                                      I would still argue that the long coastline of Guangdong province makes the huge variety of seafood a distinct characteristic of Cantonese food. Plus the fact the Cantonese eat virtually anything that moves or grows!

                                                                                                                      Under the umbrella of breadth of Cantonese cuisine as you mention, I’d include the Cantonese mastery of many techniques: stir-frying, deep-frying, steaming, poaching, baking, curing, roasting and more. Secondly (and I think this is true in general of Southern style i.e. Cantonese, Chaozhou, Dongjiang, Guangxi, Macao and Hongkong too) is the attention paid to fresh ingredients and a light hand in cooking with minimal seasoning. In general each food’s natural color and flavor is preserved.

                                                                                                                      Chaozhou (Teochew/Chiu Chow) though is not near Fuzhou. I think nearer northern Guangdong and southern Fujian the styles meld.

                                                                                                                      The Hakka I think were found in several areas of the south after migrating from the north during the Song Dynasty. They have many types of preserved meats in a wine and soybean paste mixture and feature many stews, often made with pickles and salted vegetables. And they are known as well for one dish meals like salt baked chicken. Many also eventually settled in Taiwan.

                                                                                                                      1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                                        re: Seafood, there's a lot of coast up Fujian, Jiangsu etc too and even up to NE China, and seafood features prominently in these cuisines as well, which I why I feel that the distinctive characteristic of Cantonese cooking is the breath rather than seafood alone.

                                                                                                                        Not everything has to be fresh though, dried seafood like dried abalone or dried scallops are particularly prized.

                                                                                                                        Yep, sorry I wasn't clear, Chaozhou/Teochew is not part of Fujian, it's a city in the Eastern side of Canton that borders Fujian. I was trying to say that Northern Cantonese (e.g. Chaozhou/Teochew) is distinct from Southern Fujian as a cuisine.

                                                                                                                        The Hakkas you mentioned are probably more along the Cantonese lines -- the ones in Fujian will use ingredients such as basil. I only found out when I had Taiwanese friends point out Hakka dishes at Taiwanese places that were nothing like the Hakka dishes back home -- turned out that the Hakka in Singapore probably were from Canton.

                                                                                                                        1. re: limster

                                                                                                                          Right but the temperate climate of the south, coupled with the long history of fishing by both Cantonese (Fujianese) makes seafood much more prominent IMO. It was the Cantonese who introduced commercial fishing to the USA west coast in 1852 and opened a seafood processing plant in Monterey. Am traveling now so will have to wait to dig up my info on the melding of northern Cantonese and southern Fujian cuisines!

                                                                                                                          1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                                            Limster is right, Hakka Taiwanese is very very different from Hakka Cantonese. For one thing I saw no salt baked chicken in Taiwan or fried stuffed tofu, and the soy sauce marinated simmered snacks (lu wei) in Taiwan is not something that's terribly common in Hakka Cantonese (Chiu Chow style yes, but a totally different receipe).

                                                                                                                            But where there are parallels, even the receipes are different. For the classic stewed pork belly with preserved veg clay pot, the Hakka Cantonese prep leans towards the sweet side (especially the preserved veg). The Hakka Taiwanese prep using fermented/dried/salted mustard greens is a lot more pungent (and probably too strong for most folks), and probably a Fuzhou influence on top of that.

                                                                                                                            Going back on point, and that is what Chris ordered at Hop Kee in NY, one of the Cantonese off menu dishes being "Gon Jeen Lung Lei" which is dried pan fried Lung Lei fish (then smothered with a thick corn starch enhanced soy sauce). I want to say Lung Lei is sole but I cannot be certain. Anyways, this is a fairly common prep at least for SF Bay Area Cantonese restaurants. When you go to some Shanghainese, Hakka Cantonese, and even Toishanese type restaurant, a common homey dish is pan fried pomfret. So you can't always say fresh seafood needs to be steamed, even though I agree on principle. Certain items need to be done a certain way for whatever reason. Same goes for why Cantonese hawker street food late night snack types do typhoon shelter or salt pepper baked crab, or salt pepper baked mantis shrimp (aka "pissin' shrimp"), or even the boney leng yu (I'm not sure how to translate this in English) which is a known local fish in Cantonese/Shun Tak/Guangzhou culinary circles, is not just steamed, but sometimes stuffed, made into meatballs or paste, or grounded up with other ingredients and served with other things (e.g. tofu). Just sayin'

                                                                                                              2. re: K K

                                                                                                                >>"The problem is with a lot of places in Chinatown is that they're historically stuck in the past, cooked by immigrants from the old world settled in their ways, and not changing their formula for a long long time."<<

                                                                                                                I dunno. SF Chinatown may be a bit of an anomaly, since most new Chinese immigrants settle elsewhere in the area. But in other major cities, recent immigrants (I'm defining "recent" to include the wave of immigration leading up to 1997) tend to dominate the demographic in such places. I don't have any statistics, but my experience is that many immigrants who have become established in this country and virtually all ABCs tend to move into more ethnically heterogeneous neighborhoods.

                                                                                                                There is always a spectrum of quality among restaurants preparing any kind of food. That's true everywhere. And friends who have spent significant amounts of time in Guangdong tell me that it's more difficult to find good Yue cuisine there than it is in the US.

                                                                                                                There's no doubt that some of the best restaurants in the world are in Hong Kong. But comparing them to Hop Kee is like comparing Chez Panisse to Mel's diner (they both serve simply-prepared American food, right?). If you want to compare apples and apples, look at the very best Cantonese chefs and restaurants in China and those in North America. I don't believe the difference will be that dramatic.

                                                                                                              3. re: Sal Vanilla

                                                                                                                I sometimes order off-menu. And I have NO idea what I'm doing.

                                                                                                                If I don't see what I am looking for, I ask.

                                                                                                                A basic example: I usually try to get a green vegetable to have in a Chinese restaurant. I'm going to be ordering some rich and savory stuff, so I want something simple to go with it. They usually don't put 'fresh green vegetable of the day' on the menu, so I ask.

                                                                                                                As another example: I go into a restaurant where everything seems Americanized. I'll enquire about what else they can prepare as if I was of their culture.

                                                                                                                I'll also ask for the foreign language menu even though I can't read a lick of it. Of course, I'll ask questions, but ultimately I have to accept that I may not know what I'm getting.

                                                                                                                But even if you can read the language, there is still some allowance for mess-ups. In most cultures, they don't feel it necessary to describe the dish to every last detail ("a marjoram-balsamic reduction with Fingerling potatoes roasted inside a clay oven, etc, etc.") so you might wind up with a shrimp staring at you in your menu-described "avocado salad." Or perhaps your pork dish will actually be pork snout (or an item even lower to the ground). Now there's a departure that ought to perk you up!

                                                                                                                And sometimes menu language is flowery ("two birds making love" in one French restaurant), and in some restaurants like Bolivian or Peruvian, they have their own food terminology derived from other than Spanish, so going with a Spanish speaker may be of no use.

                                                                                                                Anyway, using my strategy, I am certainly taking my chances. But since I don't have too many food fears, I wind up having something decent to eat all the same.

                                                                                                              4. When you really get down to it, authenticity is inextricable from context. If you want to experience the true, authentic cuisine of, say, rural Tuscany, you have to - HAVE TO - wake before dawn on a farm; have a crust of bread in the dark, with a shot of grappa to chase the chill; and spend all day working in the fields. Then you come back to the farmhouse, and your wife serves you whatever she's prepared from the farm's produce and what has been gathered from the fields: perhaps a pasta with wild porcinis, some fresh artichokes or squash blossoms, a piece of pork or chicken, some wine from the guy in the next farm who makes it. That is authentic; it's food in context of a specific type of life. You might be able to get food that's similar to that kind of meal, but you will never have the same experience, without living the life. There are no shortcuts.

                                                                                                                9 Replies
                                                                                                                1. re: Bat Guano

                                                                                                                  I love, love, love your description. Wow, that sounds amazing. I'm sure we have all heard of stories of people giving up their cozy city life in order to pursue that kind of experience - even if just for a while. If I ever did something like that, it would turn out like a rejected Green Acres script.

                                                                                                                  I'd like to think I have the powers to enjoy all that without laboring in the fields, but I do understand that the food would taste different to someone who did.

                                                                                                                  1. re: Bat Guano

                                                                                                                    You know... I think that is a perfect PERFECT way to describe authentic that we all have missed. Context.

                                                                                                                    I was watching a No Reservations - I am not sure where - maybe Greece. The guys were picking and they stopped to eat and enjoy bounty. Killed a goat. Enjoyed the bounty. I never think about my own home and traditions. We recently had to cull quite a few chickens because they insisted on crowing like roosters. We worked in our fields out West, culled the chickens and prepared them according to our traditions - simply, but nicely.

                                                                                                                    OK maybe that is more getting back to basics. But we did honor the traditions of the people in the group. A Greek, a couple Southerners and a French woman. (fried chicken, grilled chix with Greek oregano and chicken with cream, cheese and potatoes)

                                                                                                                    We are making Greek sausages and Pastrami tomorrow. It should be interesting. We are going for authentic. Thank you passadumkeg. If my camera had not dropped into the neighbor's new koi pond I would snap a few pics.

                                                                                                                    1. re: Bat Guano

                                                                                                                      AHA. Then authenticity is not really about the food, but the overall experience you are seeking. So if I am seeking the authentic American fast-food hamburger experience, I will head to McDonald's.

                                                                                                                        1. re: Passadumkeg

                                                                                                                          do Foreign food boards discuss the most authentic hamburger in the USA? Hmmm.
                                                                                                                          I'll nominate Cozy Inn in Salina Ks.

                                                                                                                          1. re: bbqboy

                                                                                                                            Burgers on the LA Board can be very very contentious - please don't start a new one there...

                                                                                                                            1. re: bulavinaka

                                                                                                                              No problem. :) I was just amused imagining European or Asian tourists searching out "authentic" American food, and having this same argument.

                                                                                                                              1. re: bbqboy

                                                                                                                                Thanks - IMVHO, LA is the capital of burgers of all sorts. Been "actively involved" in some of these battle royales on the LA board, and they're not pretty. :)

                                                                                                                        2. re: mogo

                                                                                                                          Go to the drive-thru. Don't forget the chocolate shake.

                                                                                                                      1. When we eat out, whether it's at home or when traveling, we strive for "autentico" especially in ethnic cuisines. But, I think I gained a greater understanding of the topic when spending a week on the Amalfi coast, in Italy. Authentic, regional, ethnic, in some ways it's region that makes the difference (excepting the wonderfully mixed-up nature of the US). Everything we ate was fresh, lovingly prepared, delicious...and used the same handful of seasonal, local ingredients. I soon found myself craving a new flavor palate.

                                                                                                                        There simply is no deciding "tonight let's have Greek" (or French or any other out-side ethnicity). You eat what's grown locally, every meal, every day.

                                                                                                                        Another time, we ate at a charming local, very authentic, Mexican restaurant. It was so autentico, that we didn't know what to order. We had studied the menu in advance, and I speak a smattering of spanish, but it was not enough. Again the food we did get was very good, but English "sub-titles", though inauthentic, sure would have helped us.

                                                                                                                        That being said, those events (and many others) really are what we're looking for when we want authentic. Something unique to a place or culture, that without this specific restaurant or shop or stand, we otherwise wouldn't get to experience.

                                                                                                                        1. During the '80's, when Japanese tourists were coming to the Hawaiian Islands in droves, I remember watching busloads of them coming to McDonald's for breakfast.
                                                                                                                          When asked what they found so compelling at McDonald's their usual answer was the coffee.
                                                                                                                          "I want cuppa coffee' , in very broken English, was the standard request.
                                                                                                                          They were ordering, what they thought, was authentic coffee in the United States.

                                                                                                                          1 Reply
                                                                                                                          1. re: latindancer

                                                                                                                            At that time, that was an authentic cuppa coffee. How times have changed at least in this case, for the better. :)

                                                                                                                          2. Since I've never responded directly to the OP's questions, despite all my posts, here I'm taking the opportunity to do so:

                                                                                                                            "What exactly is it for which we are looking?"
                                                                                                                            Obviously I can't speak for everyone, but from my years on Chowhound I'd say the first definition, "worthy of acceptance," is what most people are looking for. The questioner is looking for a great rec which is accepted by the 'locals.' Would the locals happily spend their own money there if taste trumps all else?

                                                                                                                            "By that definition, just about any restaurant or any recipe is authentc."
                                                                                                                            No. I can tell you that in France there are many, many eating establishments close to famous tourist sites (like the Bayeux Tapestry) which cater to tourists and that don't care about what they serve and wouldn't eat it themselves.

                                                                                                                            "So when you want authentic, what is it you really want?"
                                                                                                                            First and foremost, I am looking for a great tip. Probably a tip I can't get via the major media. CHowhound is here to fill an important void. Bonus points if it's a food that is probalby not available in my hometown. So if it's a micro-regional specialty that I wouldn't get a chance to have in the US in a million years, yeah, I want to hear about it.

                                                                                                                            Practically speaking, if a place has mostly (or all) locals in it, it probably fits the bill. If it is delicious and off the beaten path, yeah, I want to hear about it.

                                                                                                                            So, while I find it interesting to hear that tomatoes and peppers come from the New World, or that there are several (hotly debated) variations of a particular dish, or that people didn't make it that way 300 or 50 years ago, I call of these NEWS FLASH posts. Old, old news masquerading as mostly interesting but unhelpful tips. OF COURSE some authentic food is bad. OF COURSE not everyone agrees. OF COURSE it wasn't made exactly that way so long ago. But if you adore it, is unavailable where I live, plus the locals seem to love it, then I want to hear about the tip.

                                                                                                                            That's what I'm looking for.

                                                                                                                            1 Reply
                                                                                                                            1. re: Steve

                                                                                                                              "But if you adore it, is unavailable where I live, plus the locals seem to love it, then I want to hear about the tip."

                                                                                                                              I think we can all agree on this much. :)
                                                                                                                              Where we don't agree is on the use of the word "authentic".
                                                                                                                              But oh well, à chacun son goût. I'm hungry.

                                                                                                                            2. Speaking of authentic, is brown rice sushi a longstanding thing in Japan? I'm not up on all the sushi rice varieties and colors out there. Someone recently scoffed when I asked about getting brown rice sushi. (But they do that kind of thing a lot, so I wouldn't read anything into it.).

                                                                                                                              2 Replies
                                                                                                                              1. re: Cinnamon

                                                                                                                                Brown rice is simply rice that hasn't been milled into white rice (i.e. it still contains the bran and germ). Basically most varieties of rice can be called brown rice prior to the milling process. To my knowledge unmilled rice is not commonly eaten or preferred in the big east asian cultures so chances are brown rice sushi is an adaptation.

                                                                                                                                http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/530926 may be helpful

                                                                                                                                1. re: Cinnamon

                                                                                                                                  Brown rice is incredibly hard to find in Japan. You may find it in specialty stores with more foreign food, but all the rice I saw while living there was white rice.

                                                                                                                                2. Sometimes I go out of my way to find something that's not authentic, eg. we had to try British chinese food in England because I wanted to see what it was. I like more authentic chinese food, though I didn't search that out, but also like american chinese food which would have been interesting--what would the English version of mu shu pork be like? I tried McDonald's in Paris to see if it was any different (this was years ago but it wasn't) although my cousin says that a McDonald's hamburger in Taiwan isn't the same. I really wanted to try curry at Subway but never made it there. I like to see how countries/regions prepare their own food but it's also fun to see what their ideas of what we're used to is like. I'm always curious, across the country, what clam chowder is there.