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6 June 2017

Inauthentic Cuisine

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Though it’s easy to focus on the exciting parts of travel—the fireworks of the process like the new views, the wonderful foods, the fascinating people (the stuff that gets you those likes on social media)—there are other effects, less socially rewarded, and usually unintentional. We’ll call them “side effects” of travel. The most commonly accepted side effect of travel is, of course, perspective. By visiting a new place, whether near or far away, your understanding of the different ways that people live expands.

Perspective, unfortunately, is an amoral phenomenon: two people can encounter something new and different and one can react positively to this new perspective (“oh wow, I never thought of doing it that way”) and the other can react negatively (“people who do it this way are stupid and/or evil”). The trick is to not only be conscious of the differences you encounter, but also of the reasons for the differences, and the reasons you react to them the way you do. In other words, for perspective to be useful, it must be acknowledged as exactly that: the way we all see something different through our own eyes.

Take food, for example: there’s no cultural practice more beloved than cooking. Every culture on earth has developed a cuisine, and it’s no wonder so many people are attached to their indigenous one. Not only does a cuisine reflect the history and geography of a culture, but it also reflects the history of the individual as well. Food, then, is a crucial part of our identity. As human beings wander across the earth, relocating from their native cultures to foreign cultures, the thing they most reliably bring with them is their cooking. Whether looking to cook or looking to eat, this results in restaurants popping up. One of the most spectacular parts of America, for example, is the diversity of its cuisines. Because the country is nearly entirely made up of immigrant cultures, America is home to cooking from all over the world. And it’s not just America: anywhere people move to, usually cities, you can find a little bit of their cuisine.

But a funny thing happens next: once a cuisine is transplanted, it becomes susceptible to change. From a practical standpoint, this can be the result of some ingredients not being readily available. From a more interesting, cultural standpoint, this can be the result of the mixing of the immigrant culture with the host culture. The most famous example of the process is American Chinese food. Anyone familiar with actual Chinese food will, probably with a slightly haughty tone, inform you that American Chinese food is nothing like the food in China. Hell, in St. Louis the Chinese takeout places put a mung bean and scrambled egg patty on white bread and call it Chinese! If they’re lucky, very few people in China have ever even seen white bread! Why has Chinese food split into an American variant? Because it’s a free market, and the restaurants are going to serve what people are likely to buy. Once a cuisine begins to grow beyond the immigrant community, it begins to adapt to the tastes of everyone else that shows up.

We saw elements of this when we were in Budapest. We first noticed it when passing a restaurant called “Soul Food,” which featured Cajun and Creole cooking. Now, being proud, culinary adept Southerners, we were already a bit indignant over this lumping together of not only Cajun and Creole, but also, even more inexcusably, soul food as well. We looked closer at the menu and found, well, nothing familiar: sure, “jambalaya” was a word on there, as was “gumbo,” but there was plenty of pasta, and the flavors were the wrong kind of eclectic. The Hungarian kind of eclectic. How inauthentic! But then we realized why not? Of the handful of cuisines remotely native to the US, these are easily three of the best, and the regional differences we bristle at look pretty small on an unfamiliar map of the country. On top of that: this restaurant doesn’t serve Cajun people, or African Americans from Rural Mississippi, it serves tourists from Europe and people from Budapest. It’s built to their specifications! The original cuisine is, in a way, just an inspiration.

So then we noticed it everywhere: a Mexican restaurant with burritos, burgers, and barbecue (dry rub). Japanese restaurants with remarkably fish-deficient menus. It seemed suddenly that every restaurant we saw was reinterpreting its claimed cuisine. And then we thought about the US. How many “ethnic” foods do Americans gobble up thinking this is what they eat “over there?” How much of our idea of authenticity is predicated on food that has been adapted to our own narrow band of taste? The answer is that nearly every cuisine is somehow adapted to its new home. This adaptation is an essential part of culinary survival.

A cuisine is the product of a land, a coast, a people, a practice, a tradition, a culture. If you change any one of those factors, you change the foundation of the cuisine. But that’s OK. That’s more than OK: that’s great. The cuisines we cherish as static have never been so. The way people prepare food is constantly changing as they encounter new cultures and new ingredients. Of course, these changes will be bemoaned by many as destructive, but change is a fact of life, and this kind of adaptation by absorption is an essential facet of any successful culture. So next time you see a Chinese restaurant in a US strip mall, remember that’s not Chinese food they serve in there, it’s not better, and it’s not worse either, it’s just what happens when one country that loves to eat meets another, and whether inspired by the Chinese or the Cajuns, that’s always going to be delicious.

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