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May 14, 2010 11:56 PM

Authenticy of Food?

I hear the term "authentic" and "Americanized" being thrown around so much, but I really have to ponder on what they mean. I believe authentic means that it tastes like food that has the same distinct flavors as one would discover in the nation the restaurant is representing; however, this means people should not be throwing around the term so lightly, as most have probably never visited the place. How can they know whether it is "Authentic" or not? Furthermore, what is Americanized food? I see that being used a lot for Indian food, and as I am very much familiar with homemade Indian food and restaurants in India, I see no difference, except the food here is maybe toned down in spice and the Butter Chicken is a bit more sweeter. Much of the Indian-Chinese cuisine is missing, and the food is usually crappy, but that fault lies with the cook. If food is not authentic, does that mean it is Americanized? If it is Americanized, is it unauthentic? I'm going to take a wild shot and guess Americanized means dimmed down to reflect American taste, but once again, unless they've dumped a bunch of sugar into it, how can someone who has not eaten real Indian food determine whether it is "Americanized" or not? Overall, it just seems like a term thrown around to slander or praise restaurants.

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  1. Ha! Do a little search on this and the NAF board, and you'll have reading fodder for the next couple months.

    1 Reply
    1. re: linguafood

      Yup - not going to touch this one. It's a wildfire waiting to happen.

    2. Any term used to slander or praise restaurants should be taken with massive chunks of authentic sea salt. However, when a term is used to describe food, you need to assess whether it has meaning to you or not, at a personal level. After all, if it's a recommendation you're looking for, it's only meaningful if the food is described to you in a way you will understand. Does "delicious" mean anything?

      Ultimately, for me, words only have meaning in their context. Who says them is as important as what they say. Hearing my gaijin in-laws tell me of an "authentic" sushi place leaves me with no desire to try the place. But hearing that same term from my Japanese mother would have left me with much more hope. OTOH, my in-laws in Oklahoma CIty could tell me of a steak place in town that does steak "authentically", and I'd be interested. Presumably, that would mean not sous-vided to death and then thrown under the salamander for a minute, but perhaps, thrown on a burning hot wood fired grill.

      applehome -

      1. Last week The Splendid Table had a segment about regional or typical foods for various parts of the US, The guest, John T Edge talked specifically about teriyaki in Seattle.
        He describes both the typical version, and its permutations, and the fact that shop owner could well be any of 'new' immigrants, Korean, Somali, Mexican, etc. Is a Japanese dish, prepared by an African cook for a Korean-American college kid authentic or Americanized?

        Or how about a Mandarin Chinese noodle dish with a side of kimchee in the food court of a New Jersey based Korean grocery chain?

        1 Reply
        1. re: paulj

          Frickin' regulars on these boards know better than to get started on this subject again... ;^) Must - Fight - Urge - To - Bite! Silverjay's noble gesture to preempt everyone to side with reason wasn't enough for me - I'm too weak, but will keep as brief as possible (hee hee).

          Our country is a land of immigrants. Immigrants bring their cultures to this land. Some parts of the cultures - in our case, food - becomes well accepted into the mainstream. Those examples will then become subject to interpretation for many reasons. Depending on the culture from which these particular foods originate from, some from the old school will hold fast to its original accepted form for a variety of reasons, while others will take it like a piece of clay and shape it into whatever they see fit. A simple glazed bowl will remain a bowl in the hands of some, but others will transform that piece of clay into anything from another simple bowl to a roof shingle or ceramic knife and everything in between. Some examples of the bowl will be mass-produced, while others will be formed in the hands of true artisans - some, true artists. Some worthy of art galleries, others will be had at Neiman Marcus, some at Target, and some will be found at the local five & dime (is there such a thing anymore?).

          Consider where the UN resides. I think this is for a good reason. Where else in the world could representatives of so many nations be accepted into the fold of one nation without that nation's public even batting an eye? And where else in the world could just about everyone of those countries' representatives get a meal that at least resembles something back home? Authentic and Americanized have their places. Paulj's reference to an African cook preparing a Japanese dish for Korean-American students is apt. The permutations that influence the concepts of authenticity versus Americanized are endless. Whatever fits the market is acceptable. For those who want authentic, seek it out. For those who want Americanized, it will fall in your lap.

          1. So basically; screw this topic, it either tastes good or not. That sounds like a fine answer to leave with for me. You can't really trust people who say whether it's "authentic" or not, unless they've actually tasted food from that homeland. Americanized is just a pointless term that means it's been changed around, so basically non-"authentic." And even then, I can't really criticize Indian restaurants. Are they really non-authentic for cutting down on the spice? That's just a personal preference... Now, if they coated honey on their chicken tikka, I'd understand.

            22 Replies
            1. re: Undeadsteak

              Take it as you will. The key (to me) is to understand that authentic has nothing at all to do with good. It's just a descriptor and its very relative. If, for some, its not authentic without spice, then that's what they mean when they say its not authentic. But even you have a point where you'll buy into something not being authentic. When I see one of your posts saying it's not authentic, I'll think the tikka must have honey!

              1. re: applehome


                Agree: authentic has nothing at all to do with good

                1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                  Yeah, I agree but the lust for authentic food is a desire to try all available iterations of a type of food and to have the ability to compare and contrast. Above anything else, we are foodies, are we not?

              2. re: Undeadsteak

                The way I understand it is: anything good = authnetic, anything bad = Americanized. Why? Because we are a self-hating nation.

                1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                  Damn, you are so spot-on about that. I have a friend who has traveled the world multiple times, and she spends her whole time trying not to be labeled an American, which she thinks will get her killed in most countries. She hates where she made her home in Tucson. She hates where she came from (Massacusetts), and she and DH made up a whole scenario a bout retiring to Vancouver, complete with what kind of car they they'd have, only to be hit with inferior construction on several of the condo settlements they'd looked at. '

                  To some people, authentic is anything but what they came from, Sad but true.

                  1. re: EWSflash


                    Yes, sometime, it can be sad. In their case, there is nothing authentic about it.

                  2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                    To the rest of the world, that sounds like a bad joke.

                    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                      The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                        Most Americans - even Chowhounds- don't have much regard for British food, Eastern European food, African food, or most foods from Central or South America.

                        Meanwhile, bbq, cajun, southern food in general, crabcakes, lobster rolls, NY deli or pizza drive people into passionate frenzy.

                        Watch the Food Network. All those DIners, Dives, and Drive-Ins are serving classic American food.

                        1. re: Steve

                          "Most Americans - even Chowhounds- don't have much regard for British food"

                          Whereas many of we Brits are in love with what we perceive to be American food - burgers and other "fast food". The rise of Subway has been astonishing.

                          1. re: Harters


                            Don't be silly. We like British foods. Well, I do anyway, I like Fish and Chip (I were just asking Soop for his recipe on his unqiue Fish and Chip) and I like chicken tikka masala, which your Secretary Robin Cook has declared as the number one British national dish.

                            1. re: Harters

                              Eh, I don't see where the American argument that British food is bland comes from, given the only thing we tend to put on our food is sweet sugary stuff, which is worse. As for Eastern European food, I wish there were more restaurants that catered to the taste. Their food is awesome.

                              1. re: Undeadsteak

                                Reading many of the posts on, say, the home cooking board, I think I understand how Americans might have that perception of blandness of British (and some other European) cuisines. It is a matter of what folk are used to. I think there are some very significant differences between how a keen American homecook might prepare a meal and how a keen British one might. Looking at those posts, I'd say that, almost invariably, the American meal will be far more complex - with something "interesting" done to the sides as well as the protein. In the UK, the nature of our cuisine is to prepare food in a very simple way. Americans might therefore describe that as "bland", whereas I would say the principal ingredients have been left alone to taste of themselves.

                                1. re: Undeadsteak

                                  That's because you weren't there in the 70's. It's come a long ways quite quickly, as have we. I remember dried, tasteless pasties, more mutton than lamb (and often very unseasoned). Even the blood sausage there was bland compared to the continent. I would get these hockey pucks with breakfast and wonder how they were supposed to be eaten. The mushrooms and tomatoes were ok, but the bread-filled sausages made me wish I'd gotten the "continental" breakfast. I enjoyed the fish - even the salty dried herrings, but the food I had then was most definitely bland.

                                  1. re: applehome

                                    Hey, applehome, I'm not sure who you're directing the "not here in the 70s" to - but I've been here since the 50s - I've always been here.

                                    I suspect, from your post that you're referring to downmarket hotel or cafe breakfasts - black pudding is a sausage shape - the sliced things only appear in cheap places (by and large). The pasty, of course, also depends on where you buy it - it's usually beef. Mutton would be great as its much tastier than lamb - neither are traditonal.

                                    1. re: Harters

                                      I was responding to Undeadsteak saying that he/she doesn't "see where the American argument that British food is bland comes from..." In 1976, while stationed in Germany, we took a 30 day trip around the UK - camping out of the back of our little Toyota pickup truck with a tent. My son (see my icon) was 2 years old. While there were some highlights, especially in Wales, I came away thinking that British food was pretty much horrid and tasteless.

                                      Back for several business trips in the 90's and 00's, I totally changed my mind. The food I ran into then was as good as I remember of Germany and France, generally better than ours. I'm talking about mom and pop places we'd see on the road - some far off the road, not about chains or on the other hand, fancier downtown places.

                                      This is generalizing, of course, but back to the 76 trip, to take a 30 day trip mostly around the south, midlands, Wales and the London area, and feel that you've been exposed to a lot of different foods and feel like it was almost universally bland - you definitely feel that it's a national character. And btw, a lot of mutton at the open air markets in Cardiff and Aberystwyth (sp?) - the chops I bought at the markets and cooked at camp were better than any we had in the restaurants. I used garlic and salt!

                                      I had some of the same breakfasts later - the fine curd scrambled eggs, sliced cherry tomatoes, fried mushrooms, blood sausages - all delicious and tasty. I was very apprehensive because of my previous experience, but the smell alone, and then the first few bites, proved it. I stand by my claim that Brits learned how to season their food between 1976 and the 1990's. ;-)

                                      1. re: applehome

                                        And then they forgot soon after :)

                                        If meat can be stuffed with oats or grains to make it go further along with whatever root veg accompany it, so be it. (That said, I actually enjoy haggis, neeps and tatties, so go know. But the blood sausage here I can't enjoy remotely, because the boudin I eat in Belgium are so much better.)

                                        But Arbroath smokies are lovely-- sorry, glmpse of 'open air markets' reminded me...

                                        Meanwhile, I'd like to take this moment to let Harters know that American food and 'fast food' are not synonyms. Indeed, the British love of convenient ready meals and prepared sandwiches suggest fast is a feature of here as well. Subway may be growing in popularity as everyone panics over health matters and Subway offers at least some option for fresh veg in convenience-- and no sandwiches automatically slathered in butter and mayo before the fillings come. It becomes a more healthful alternative to Greggs, I suppose. Or, there could just be some miserable other alternative for its proliferation (which is insane).

                                        1. re: Lizard

                                          "I'd like to take this moment to let Harters know that American food and 'fast food' are not synonyms."

                                          Agreed - but I'd still wager that, if asked to define American food, that's how a very large proportion of Brits would respond. I base that on the premise that the vast majority of Brits have not visited America and therefore draw their conclusion from what they see on their high street and on TV and film. I've yet to see anyone setting up here offering a "low country boil" for example.

                                        2. re: applehome

                                          Hi, applehome.

                                          Yep, I understand the background now. There's definitely been an upswing in restaurant quality in the last 40 years with many places now concentrating on British classics. In the earlier years, "good" restaurants thought they had put a French or Italian spin to their food. It is now, often, much simpler with dishes offered that are more akin to home cooking.

                                          It also took many years for some parts of the food industry to recover from rationing in WW2. The war all but destroyed cheese making on a small scale and it's only ion comparitively recent years that a new generation of farmhouse makers are starting in business.

                                          And, yes, as for the home cooking, I also understand what you might mean. My mother was a lousy cook - particularly related to the different standards of today. She learned her cooking as a young wife in the immediate aftermath of the war when food remained hard to get. There were also few wider influences on our cuisine until the 70s - first it's really only from then that we started to travel abroad for holidays and, secondly, this is when the influences of immigration started to impact on the cuisine. Previous generations of immigrants had not had major impacts on the food.

                                          But, also , you are absolutely correct that modern British food is generally not highly seasoned, spiced or particularly complex (as it was centuries ago). Which is why I said in an earlier post why I understand that some foreigners, and especially many Americans, will think it bland.

                                2. re: Steve

                                  >>Most Americans - even Chowhounds- don't have much regard for British food, Eastern European food, African food, or most foods from Central or South America.<<

                                  I don't know about that - at least on the LA Board. A lot of LA Hounds seek out various "non-conventional cuisines." If not for a change-up, it's practically an obsession. However, I feel LA isn't well-represented in the categories of British and African food. East European is a little better. This might have to do with immigration patterns of those from the mentioned areas. Central and South American is pretty well-represented. And of course, Mexican and various Asian cuisines at all levels are considered "normal" food around these parts.