“Oh I love Chinese food. But not like..real Chinese food. I like Americanized Chinese food.”
It has has been around for ages, the argument to distinguish between what is considered “real” Asian food, and what is considered “fake.” For simplicity’s sake, and my own limited knowledge, let’s take Chinese cuisine. Some general comments that you tend to hear on the subject: orange chicken is not ‘authentic’ and all the entree options offered at the widely known Panda Express is not ‘real’ Chinese food. And that is just a couple of the many statements made about Chinese cuisine. The big question here is how exactly to define what is authentic. Is it possible to define, sure. Is everyone going to agree, more than likely not. So perhaps to define authenticity is to only express an opinion.
Authenticity means what is defined as such is genuine and true to its origin. When people claim to only like American Chinese food, are they aware of what ‘real’ Chinese food is, rather than just knowing that they dislike it? What do they imagine it entails? Eating strange animals/straying away from the typical farm animals? Speaking as a second generation daughter, my parents have adopted some American foods into our breakfast and lunch meals. Dinner however, has 90% of the time always been their cooking. Having moved to America after adults, my parents have a very refined palette, and prefer the taste of their cooking. To have not been exposed to American dishes/flavors, I believe that their style cooking has always been genuine, as they grew up with it back in China. It tastes nothing like the flavors offered at Chinese Restaurants, even those who claim to be authentic.
One restaurant in particular which my parents claim to have the food from Guangzhou, China, is what they claim to be ‘authentic.’ The dishes there however are not at all what I eat at home, or even at China. They are maximized in flavor, and non-simplistic like the meals at home. Perhaps they are dishes that are also offered at the restaurants in China. Perhaps that is what they believe is authentic, but not home-cooking. They also do not taste like the stereotypical flavors that many people associate Chinese food with. But people unfamiliar with these dishes would not know to order these dishes. They are present with menus containing fried rice combinations and lo mein. These dishes are only found on the ‘family style’ menus..which are only in Mandarin characters. To quickly define, ‘family style’ dinners is a process of ordering several dishes based off the head count at the table, and sharing those dishes at the center of the table versus each person ordering their own entree. If you cannot read Mandarin..tough luck. Yet you won’t even know you’re missing out, because the waiters and waitresses most likely won’t hand you those menus if you are any race outside of Chinese.
Does this make the Chinese racially assumptive? Probably. But it is generally understood that there are few people outside of the Chinese race that are fluent in Mandarin, and same with any other language. Although they cannot be completely at fault for assuming such things, it can be a given, but to exclude the option of these ‘family style’ dinners to people who cannot read Mandarin is quite wrong. The menus can be easily translated and printed for a wider audience.
What if this is only done because the Chinese eat meals in this fashion with multiple dishes to share in the center. Maybe this ‘authentic’ way of eating is brought to a table that is only seeking ‘authentic’ foods. These restaurants may actually have a definition of authenticity of their own. In this sense, it composes of dishes/flavors offered in the restaurants of their region in China and is eaten the way a traditional family would eat.
It is also interesting the palette that is associated with authentic Chinese cuisine. Let’s take for example, Panda Express. Their claim is “Gourmet Chinese Food.” Majority of people would say that their entrees are not genuinely Chinese. Buzzfeed, the simplistic news media internet phenomenon, released a video with Chinese people trying Panda Express for the first time (watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fo59LlkTDe4). Within this video they had middle aged to elderly Chinese people who were grouped as the ‘foreigners’ as they could not speak English, and they have a younger crowd. Both are assumed to know what authentic Chinese food tastes like. Result wise, most of the taste tests were positive coming from the ‘foreigners’ (surprisingly) while the majority of the younger crowd tended to gag at every bite. To some degree, maybe Buzzfeed proves that Panda Express can have ‘authentic’ flavors as some of the reasoning that the ‘foreigners’ pointed out were the similarity in taste. Of course, you cannot trust everything you see on the internet. There could be other factors involved. China is composed of many regions and provinces, all in which most likely have different tastes and cooking styles. So this begs the question of where these Americanized Chinese foods getting their flavors. But that is another issue.
Defining what is authentic may be subjective, but overall, it is generally agreed that it is not the flavors offered at just any Chinese Restaurant. You may say that you like Chinese food, but are you actually eating what is genuinely Chinese cuisine. Maybe you are..and maybe you are not.