Thursday, March 22, 2012

Authenticity in Food: A Case Study

Xiao Long Bao, photo by Kake Pugh on flickr.
Chris Crowley over at Serious Eats recently posted an article on authenticity in food. Some foodies think that if a dish isn't authentic, however good it might otherwise be, it's somehow deficient. Chris looks at Chinese dumplings as a case study in how 'authenticity' can be misleading.
When considering foods eaten out of context—that is, foods eaten in a country or region that they do not originate from—the question of authenticity and what it means to be "authentic" is always a vexing one. Take, for example, Xiao Long Bao—the soup-filled dumplings hailing from Shanghai that have since been popularized throughout the world. Even referring to them as "dumplings" is enough to set off some food scholars who insist that they are distinct from what we traditionally classify as dumplings. The question is, what does it mean to be authentic and more precisely, is it even possible for authenticity to be preserved across the many barriers of language mapping, social custom, and regional tastes?
 One of the problems is that there is no single Chinese word for dumpling. The English word covers a variety of dishes that Chinese distinguishes between. So it's hard to define in the English speaking world what makes for an authentic dumpling, because there's no such unitary concept in Chinese.
As far as English terms are concerned, it seems acceptable to call something that is doughier a bun and something with a thinner wrapping a dumpling. So the argument goes, if bao zi have leavened dough, which is almost always true, butxiao long bao—or the form Westerners are familiar with—don't, then they are dumplings, not buns. However, if we are going to equate dumpling with jiao zi, then we ought to be clear. Leavened or unleavened dough, xiao long bao are not jiao zi, which are always horn shaped. Like other bao zi, XLB are purse shaped. As an all encompassing term for these related foodstuffs, dumpling doesn't do justice, failing to take into account the particulars and gray zones endemic to the Chinese perspective.
 So getting riled up over whether or not something should be called a dumpling is importing foreign concepts into Chinese food. But the other part of the argument is that all food is syncretic. It all imports notions and ingredients from other cuisines, and so no dish is truly authentic. Take dumplings again.
In his Shanghai cuisine primer Culinary Nostalgia, Mark Swislocki, referencing 1950s reporter Chen Mengyin, wrote, "what passes for Sichuan cuisine today only took shape relatively recently, probably no more then 250 years ago." A flush of immigrants and new ingredients changed the game. Today, anything less than searing heat is considered a misrepresentation (it isn't). But when digging into that ma po do fu, you aren't thinking about how those chilies, which give the dish its vital kick, were originally brought over from the New World by European merchants. They have become synonymous with Sichuanese cuisine to the point of being one of its defining elements—talk about evolution through contact with new people!
There's something to critiques about authenticity, he writes at the end. It's bad when it tends to flatten, to make all foods taste the same. But too often the impulse for authenticity tends to do the flattening, as if all pizzas had to be made the Neapolitan Way, or all beers had to be made according to the Reinheitsgebot.
What's the verdict? Food doesn't have to be "authentic" to be delicious—though it certainly helps to maintain the spirit of the cuisine. Delimiting a food like pizza with an artificial certification of authenticity (like the standards set by the Vera Pizza Napoletana society) ignores its origins on the trade routes, a place of birth shared by a great deal of our favorite foods. Some Americans become obsessed with eating chilies, learning to love spicy in an effort to experience more authentic cuisine—all the while forgetting where peppers first came from. That aside, the concept has undoubtedly pushed food forward in this nation, exposing millions to new flavors and ingredients they'd otherwise never experience. But maybe it's time we moved beyond authentic, towards a more malleable, and perhaps delicious, cuisine.
I'm oversimplifying a long and excellent article, so I encourage you to read the original here.

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