"But is it authentic?"
February 19, 2014 10:45 PM   Subscribe

A comic on food and feeling like a repository of ethnic food advice instead of a person, by Malaysian-born artist Shing Yin Khor. Directly informed by Soleil Ho's essay "Craving the Other". “Oh, you’re Vietnamese?” they’d ask. “I love pho!” And then the whispered question—“Am I saying that right?”
posted by spamandkimchi (206 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
i'm not 100% sure how to pronounce it either, i've heard "fo" and "fun", and i respectfully await a definitive resolution by an authentic vietnamese authority. how helpful is it when a malaysian who is no more vietnamese than i am seeks to mock me for my confusion? i will be watching this thread to see if fo v. fun gets authoritatively resolved.
posted by bruce at 11:01 PM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


bruce- sounds mostly like fuh, with the 'uh' sound kind of going up at the end of it. At least that it what it sounds like to me when my in-laws say it. No one has ever criticized or otherwise commented on my pronunciation, although I don't necessarily know that anyone would.
posted by MoonOrb at 11:07 PM on February 19, 2014


bruce: your question has been authoritatively decided by none other than Judge John Hodgman!

in the case of pho, he decides wrong.
posted by casarkos at 11:10 PM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


"fa" is always how I was told to pronounce it, but it's more of a 'fauh' when I hear in in vietnamese. It's cha gio I can never get right, though.
posted by tavella at 11:10 PM on February 19, 2014


bruce, quick clarification. The quote is from Soleil Ho's essay and Soleil is ethnically Vietnamese.
posted by spamandkimchi at 11:11 PM on February 19, 2014 [7 favorites]


I think Soleil Ho IS Vietnamese, that pho quote is from the second link, not the comic.

MoonOrb's pronunciation is the most accurate to my Vietnamese-Australian ears. I always just say "fo" though, unless I'm asking my mum for a bowl of it. Everyone gets a pass on trying to pronounce words from tonal languages.
posted by mooza at 11:14 PM on February 19, 2014


Fun fact: "fun" is in fact how you'd pronounce the Chinese character 粉 that means pho noodles. But it's only useful if you're ordering in a Chinese-speaking environment.
posted by casarkos at 11:21 PM on February 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


I'm beginning to feel like
a) I should have picked a pull quote from the comic, maybe "If what you're asking for is a glimpse into my authentic immigrant experience, through the food of my birth country, you're not looking in the right place" followed by "My authentic immigrant experience doesn't have a curry recipe"
b) I picked the wrong pull quote from "Craving the Other," given how annoying Soleil found being repeatedly asked about the correct pronunciation of pho. ^_^
posted by spamandkimchi at 11:35 PM on February 19, 2014 [17 favorites]


Man, that comic is real.

My personal "favourite" co-worker / acquaintance / friend interaction is when I am branded as "not a real $DEMONYM" because I profess to not like a certain culturally iconic food.

"Really? But everyone eats it over there! How can you not like it?!?! You're not a real $DEMONYM, man!"
posted by theony at 11:36 PM on February 19, 2014 [6 favorites]


spamandkimchi, I strongly suspect bruce read the comic and engaged the material, and in his comment is taking the piss a bit by going on about pronunciation and authenticity like a guy from the comic.

That's my hope anyway.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:41 PM on February 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


"fun" is in fact how you'd pronounce the Chinese

Less fun fact: When living in Wuhan (the dialect is... not the prettiest, or clearest) I learned 'fun' (or... 'fehn') by not clearly announcing my desire to have fried rice to the waiter. 'Chow hahn' vs. 'chow fehn.' Tasty noodles, though.
posted by Ghidorah at 11:46 PM on February 19, 2014


i'm not 100% sure how to pronounce it either, i've heard "fo" and "fun", and i respectfully await a definitive resolution by an authentic vietnamese authority. how helpful is it when a malaysian who is no more vietnamese than i am seeks to mock me for my confusion?

She lives in LA. Maybe she has Vietnamese-speaking friends. Maybe she knows some Vietnamese. Maybe, like this Malaysian here, she Googles and finds this on Wikipedia.
posted by peripathetic at 11:46 PM on February 19, 2014


Ah! I realized that I've just recently discovered Shing Yin Khor's artwork... like within the last month or so. I thought I must have found it via MeFi, but searching her name didn't turn up anything. Then I remembered the post that originally led to me looking around at all her work. I love her "cabinet of curiosities"-style whimsical sculptures. She does a lot of cool things.
posted by taz at 11:48 PM on February 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


Totally unreadable on my iPhone :(
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 12:08 AM on February 20, 2014


I have no idea if dal makhani is supposed to authentically go on rice, but my habit is "beans on rice" and it was something new and, most importantly, on sale at the grocery store the first time I bought it a microwave packet of it, which I am probably entirely too lazy to make myself. I'm... not really worried about what other people think about that. I'm still not sure how to pronounce it, but if I ever start caring, I'll google. I grew up on quesadillas made in the microwave... the idea of "authentic" food is something I think born of the internet and cable TV.
posted by Sequence at 12:15 AM on February 20, 2014


Pruitt-Igoe, can you zoom in if they are just single images? Page 1. Page 2. Page 3. Page 4. Page 5. Page 6. Page 7. Page 8.
posted by spamandkimchi at 12:19 AM on February 20, 2014


Previously, on Malaysian food.
posted by infini at 12:21 AM on February 20, 2014


thank you for explaining the origin of "fun", i had heard it this way from my old friend, who is married to a formidable taiwanese woman i have known for ~25 years, and it's a good idea to pronounce things her way when you're down there.
posted by bruce at 12:38 AM on February 20, 2014


Wikipedia gives two possible etymologies from two very different languages: French and Cantonese. Both origins may be correct, which would explain why there are so many different pronunciations.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:45 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yes! Thank you so much for this, spamandkimchi.

One thing that gets to me is when someone travels somewhere typically deemed "exotic" and comes back and says something like: "They had McDonalds in Malaysia! They had hamburgers in Japan!" And while I understand that part of the sentiment comes from the shock of recognition, I also know that part of it comes from being surprised that a country did not fit one's image of an 'authentic' country.

I can't go on a long tirade right now, but 'authenticity' is one of those words that really makes me shiver. It's reserved for countries that are exoticized or simplified into caricatures, and somehow plucked from history, from contemporary society, from the teeming heterogeneous mess that is humanity and progress. The caricature of a country becomes distilled into a single idea, and captured as "authenticity" -- as if a country or culture itself doesn't have an infinite amount of discord and disagreement and internal differences within it, also.

One might respond to this and say, "well, authenticity just means -- will this taste like the stuff that's actually over there?" But what do you mean by over there? Whose recipe? What soul-flattening average are we going to get in the process of condensing a million different kinds of cuisines and personal preferences and cooking styles into a singular form? Isn't the twist that your grandmother puts on apple pie as much of a great recipe as someone else's rendition of it? Should I fault your grandmother's recipe for being inauthentic?

I guess - there are no authentic singular essences that culture just pours out of like a fountain of knowledge. There's just an awesome giant interwebbed mess of people interpreting the world and each making their own versions of it. Like language, culture is the shared but always fragmented glue between people, made by people. People make up their own in-jokes, slang, within groups of friends, or in relationships. People in different regions may not even understand each other. Everyone has different ideas about what words mean. But language doesn't survive 'despite' this -- in fact, it exists entirely because of this process. Same deal with culture. So to verify the authenticity of a food item in relation to its 'culture' is akin to asking whether a word is a "real word".

Q: Is "lolcat" a real word?
Q: Is "fuck" a real word?
Q: Is "taters" a real word?

A: Some people like using it. So yes.

Q: "Is this dish authentic?"

A: Some people like it. Do you?
posted by suedehead at 12:51 AM on February 20, 2014 [13 favorites]


Yes, "fuck" is a real word. Lolcat and taters aren't, because I say so. I wouldn't generally measure cuisine as being more or less "authentic", but I might use the term as shorthand for "this vendor is charging a premium because s/he claims to accurately reproduce the cuisine of your country. Am I getting what I paid for?" And yes, I know you can get burgers and chips there too, but you know what I mean.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:57 AM on February 20, 2014


My point is that there is no singular "cuisine of a country". Ever. There never was. History is full of great examples that illustrate that food has always been the result of improvisations and recombinations across time/cultures/communities/countries.
posted by suedehead at 1:26 AM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


infini: "Previously, on Malaysian food."

And just prior to seeing this FPP, I ran across an article about a different branch of Malaysian cuisine.
posted by barnacles at 1:37 AM on February 20, 2014


Growing up as an immigrant/child of immigrants in the 80s was a triple balancing act between loving what I ate at home (kimchi jigae! myeolchi! and american cheese over rice mixed with sesame oil!), being quite aware that my classmates found most of those foods weird, stinky and gross, and also having an obsession with tuna salad, pizza bagels, and microwaveable scalloped potato mixes. I brought kimbap to school once and then never again because in the 1980s, seaweed was not acceptable food. Even in college, roommates would throw open all the windows in the middle of a New England winter because there was kimchi in the fridge (ok ok it's pungent but so is my block of raclette!). Even more recently, a friend came home to find her roommate had thrown out her pot of stew because "it smelled and looked rotten."

So even though I don't mind being asked to recommend Korean restaurants, because god knows I have opinions about banchan -- (but my friends need to stop bringing me to Korean restaurants as a cultural guide/interpreter when I am fresh off the plane from Seoul and have been dreaming of doro wat for months, seriously guys, I will make you eat a jar of that shitty supermarket kimchi as punishment) -- it is unsettling that new acquaintances invariably get that gleam in their eyes "oh you must know the best Korean places." Because that 11-year old having to defend her lunch is still inside me and feeling a bit Little Red Hen-ish in wanting to turn my nose up at the American foodie mainstream's earnest desire to eat all the exciting, authentic Korean food now, when nobody supported my right to eat those foods in the past.

That's not even getting into the whole issue of folks returning from their travels in the throes of an obsession with culinary authenticity because god knows I am not immune from that. Still, that whole authenticity trip is a whirlpool of confusion, even setting aside the whole Columbian exchange question of what would Korean food be like without the chili pepper, etc etc. When my parents immigrated from Korea, there was no such thing as samgyupsal. Hell I don't even remember it existing in the mid 1990s.
posted by spamandkimchi at 2:18 AM on February 20, 2014 [27 favorites]


Jesus. The next time my Malaysian friend asks for an authentic spaetzle recipe I'll have to pour on the waterworks like this girl. Seriously, don't order the beans. We'll be here all day while you psychoanalyse them.

'Is it authentic?' doesn't mean 'Show me the one true version of this one dish as a symbol of your one-dimensional culture. Lo, it is in my belly. I have mastered you and your people! White POWA!' It means 'Help me out here. Is this any good? Would you eat it? Because I trust you. Has it been dumbed down? Will I look like an idiot later if I say I ate it - like eating spaghettios then saying I like Italian food? Am I eating it right? Am I supposed to add this stuff in this bottle, or would that be like putting ketchup on cornflakes? I like you and I don't want to look stupid in front of you.'
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:39 AM on February 20, 2014 [65 favorites]


that shitty supermarket kimchi

You mean it's not authentic?
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:41 AM on February 20, 2014


I see what you did there. O_o

There's a lot going on in that comic and I saw the frustration with authenticity as being important mostly because she's trying to parse what is going on with her feeling of being rejected as/ashamed of being too foreign and then being fetishized as exotic.

P.S. The brands commonly available in the major supermarkets here usually lack any fish guts or shrimp paste to get the fermentation going with any gusto. I can recommend a Presbyterian church that distributes some giant jars of kimchi to parishioners but you'll have to sit through a lot of success theology homilies.
posted by spamandkimchi at 3:01 AM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


So... if you want to know of a good restaurant that isn't Americanized or fast-food-ized, how are you supposed to ask? "What's a good Vietnamese restaurant that isn't like Taco Bell is to Mexican restaurants?" seems a little awkward and "What's a good Italian restaurant that isn't like eating spaghetti-Os" seems like it would offend people.
posted by stavrogin at 3:07 AM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


like eating spaghettios then saying I like Italian food

SpaghettiOs being labeled "Franco-American" confounded me growing up in Northern New England because we have actual French Canadian and French American food here and it's stuff like poutine and salmon pie and cretons, and when I tried SpaghettiOs they were distinctly unlike any of those. It's experiences like that which make me not entirely averse to the idea of inquiring about the authenticity of food you're trying rather than taking at face value the way it's presented.
posted by XMLicious at 3:10 AM on February 20, 2014


So... if you want to know of a good restaurant that isn't Americanized or fast-food-ized, how are you supposed to ask? "What's a good Vietnamese restaurant that isn't like Taco Bell is to Mexican restaurants?" seems a little awkward and "What's a good Italian restaurant that isn't like eating spaghetti-Os" seems like it would offend people.

I think the main problem is assuming that your Italian friend would know that by sole virtue of being Italian. Yelp exists for a reason.
posted by kagredon at 3:16 AM on February 20, 2014 [13 favorites]


Also, good is different to "authentic", whatever "authentic" may mean. They do very clever things with fusion cuisine nowadays.
posted by sukeban at 3:19 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Previously on MeFi, are Caucasian itamae "authentic" enough?
posted by sukeban at 3:21 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Authentic home cooking has always been the ability to cook with whatever's at home. If it means my French friend adds some red wine to his chicken and veg stir fry or if I add mom's garam masala to my shepherd's pie, then so be it.

And that's really what's unique about Malaysian/Singaporean food culture, its a real melting pot of influences and flavours!
posted by infini at 3:31 AM on February 20, 2014


I went to a restaurant offering Creole cuisine once. The waiter brought étouffée, which was bright red. My wife said "That's not étouffée, it's fish in tomato sauce." The owner said "Is Persian étouffée." My wife wasn't impressed.

Another time we bought okra chicken gumbo here in Australia with carrot chunks in it. Because it's more colorful that way.

But the very best, I think, was the kosher sushi wrapped in spinach leaves. Words not I have to describe this.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:32 AM on February 20, 2014


whatever "authentic" may mean

Well if "authentic" can have no coherent meaning, a proposal that people seem to like advancing in these discussions, why even ask about someone who's a trained Japanese chef at all? If you believe that, then someone who has never eaten sushi (for example) should be able to slap together anything that vaguely meets a description they've read on the internet using whatever they have on hand in their cupboards, and you should have no objection to the result being called "authentic sushi" nor to it being equally authentic to sushi made by even a specialist itamae.
posted by XMLicious at 3:34 AM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


I thought this was actually pretty awesome and educational


Also I didn't expect to encounter the sequence "lolcat fuck taters" but I did
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 3:37 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Jesus. The next time my Malaysian friend asks for an authentic spaetzle recipe I'll have to pour on the waterworks like this girl. Seriously, don't order the beans. We'll be here all day while you psychoanalyse them.

The issue here is that being asked about this stuff is a sore point for some folk. Very much like the "where are you from? No really, I mean where are you from?" issue - it get irritating when you hear it a lot. And it's not a major thing, and it's not as frustrating as full on racism or being hit on by some guy with an asian fetish, but it keeps happening, it's tedious, predictable, and, for the interogatee, is just sort of icing on the bullshit cake of more toxic issues involving race and ethnicity.
posted by sebastienbailard at 3:38 AM on February 20, 2014 [17 favorites]


TBH, no, there isn't even a standard of authenticity in sushi. Tuna sushi is only sixty years old or so. Japanese chefs are making California rolls because their clients ask for them.

I've eaten in Daiwa Sushi in Tsukiji, and the last time I went to Japan I had some take away battera from Kyoto's train station mall. Is the second one less authentic than the first one? It beats me.
posted by sukeban at 3:39 AM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


(I've also had tuna salad maki in a Japanese-owned sushiya in Düsseldorf. Is it also non-authentic? Who knows, really. Tuna salad is a common onigiri filling and it tasted OK.)
posted by sukeban at 3:41 AM on February 20, 2014


No you're not saying it right. Because it's apparently pronounced "fffe"
posted by Napierzaza at 4:03 AM on February 20, 2014


"Hi! I'm pretty sure that I'm the black friend!"

Dear heavens, have I been there. Just substitute "soul food" for "pho".
posted by magstheaxe at 4:10 AM on February 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


I've even gotten this a couple of times during my years living in the Northeast, being asked if Cracker Barrel is "authentic Southern." I. Just. Don't. Even. "Authentic" is a problematic category.
posted by ChrisTN at 4:16 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


I found the comic very difficult to read, even zoomed in on Chrome the low resolution images degrade before the text becomes large enough to be easily legible on a 1280x1024 monitor.
The comments on the article link are a good gauge of the easily offended knee jerk reaction that people often have to this kind of thing.
The sterilisation of national cuisines as they are appropriated by chefs in the US seems to be as big a bug bear as the search for authenticity for Soleil Ho. I totally get where she is coming from with that. The ephemeral fetishisation of flavours and attempts to deconstruct foods to demonstrate the virtuosity of the chef just detracts from the experience IMHO.

I am guilty of searching for authenticity though and I do ask people who identify as X cultural group where to get X food after they have mentioned eating X food. Assuming that someone is an expert on the food that I think their ancestors may have eaten is lazy and presumptuous. This is also a potential recipe for disaster as they might feel that they have to humour the request out of politeness, despite not having any idea about the subject. So it doesn't work for either party.
If someone asked me to recommend a place selling authentic roast lamb with Yorkshire pudding I wouldn't know where to start. I only learned how to make Yorkshire pudding last week and have never tried to do it myself. You might expect someone who has lived in Yorkshire all their life and identifies as a food lover to have some basic knowledge of local food preparation, but I don't really like Yorkshire puddings so it has never been of much interest to me.

Good may well be different from authentic, but generally I prefer to experience authentic first.

The most important ingredient in any meal is hunger, it really intensifies the experience. That is where I part from a lot of fine dining as the food sold at stylish modern restaurants is not aimed at people who are hungry. I enjoy the experiments and experiences created by people who play with their food, such as the creations of molecular gastronomy, but it is not much use to me if I am actually hungry.
posted by asok at 4:20 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


I've eaten in Daiwa Sushi in Tsukiji, and the last time I went to Japan I had some take away battera from Kyoto's train station mall. Is the second one less authentic than the first one? It beats me.

The fact that you were cognizant enough to move the goalposts back to the product of someone who has probably eaten sushi before and is making a version of it in Japan would appear to indicate that you did understand the sense in which the word "authentic" was used in my question.

Yeah, it isn't valid to imply the existence of some Platonic transcendent form of a dish or cuisine which all must aspire to, but there are many contexts in which "authentic" isn't a completely meaningless word for describing food, especially when you are trying to figure out what it is you're eating independently from what some marketer or retailer wants you to think it is. In every such case there are probably better, more specific questions you could ask but "authentic" is just less specific, not meaningless.

The racist experience aspect that can arise which sebastienbailard points out is clearly a real thing and is well-conveyed by the FPP items, and is something I'll be sensitive to next time I have a chance to ask someone for an opinion about a particular dish or restaurant though I rarely do that. But it isn't meaningless for me to try to figure out how closely some Indian dish I've made and taken shortcuts or license with resembles what the Indian author of the recipe eats when they make it, whether or not that measure should be called "authenticity". Nor should any of the random things I make with tortillas be called "authentic Mexican food" even if I were to start a business and suddenly have a commercial interest in doing so.
posted by XMLicious at 4:22 AM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


But think about the tuna salad maki rolls. Are they authentic when they are made in Japan, when they are made in Düsseldorf by a Japanese person, or when they're done wherever by a whatever non-Japanese person? Or none at all?

Also, is Japanese curry rice or Naporitan authentic something? (not Indian or Italian, that's for sure). They *are* Japanese home cooking (and I went "wtf" when I played the Naporitan minigame in Cooking Mama, because frying pasta in ketchup? For reals?). Are they "authentic" when I do them at my home with Golden Curry flavor packets?

I just don't think this authenticity thing has any meaning.
posted by sukeban at 4:28 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


> "oh you must know the best Korean places."

Boy do I hate that. Because usually I make them sad by saying, "No, the local choices aren't that great." And then confuse them by following up by, "Well, X is okay if you're looking for diner-style ("boonshik"). Y has decent homestyle food, but not what one would consider restaurant-class in Seoul." And I have a problem with "Korean" food, as in my head I think of food from Busan or Gyeongsang province or Jeolla province, etc.

For a long time I could not eat at Korean restaurants in the U.S. because invariably I ended up with an upset stomach after eating at one. Everything was too hot and spicy for me, who had grown up eating Seoul / Gyeonggi region cuisine, which traditionally is very light on the spices, including salt. There's a small Seoul / Gyeonggi-style restaurant my family likes to go to in Seoul, and I have read posts from Korean food bloggers complaining the food didn't taste of anything or lacked spice, and couldn't understand why it was so well-loved. Even within Korea people can't agree on what is "authentic" and "good."
posted by needled at 4:39 AM on February 20, 2014 [15 favorites]


sukeban - I just don't think this authenticity thing has any meaning.

This is getting into a philosophical level of discourse.

If I make food using the most authentic ingredients I can find, the techniques I was taught by the chef and with a mind set of trying to recreate an experience as close to that I had when I ate the food of the chef, then I would say I am attempting authenticity.
If I adapt the recipe/ingredients/techniques to suit my own palette or that of the diners then the food might be *better* but it will be less authentic.

Using authentic ingredients can mean using packet food. To make an authentic Japanese curry sauce from a packet all I need to do is buy an authentic packet of curry sauce and add water. Or am I missing your point?
posted by asok at 4:48 AM on February 20, 2014


We placed our order with an exhausted, ready-for-the-grave waitress—for some reason, the Kosher Nosh only hired newly minted female senior citizens; it was a restaurant of the aged sewing the even more aged. And it was while I was nervously starting in on a second pickle to pass the time and muster courage that an Asian family of four poked their heads into the dining area. This seemed very
unusual. They just stood there, father, mother, a son, and a daughter—all of them clearly uncertain about storming this gathering of Israelites in Montclair. We weren’t a fierce bunch of Jews, but if all the elders wielded their aluminum walking sticks at the same time, we could make a dangerous mob.

“Look,” I said to my aunt and uncle, because of the novelty of the occurrence. “A Chinese family. Or maybe Korean. I don’t think they’re Japanese.”

“They should come in,” said my aunt Florence. “The food here is the best.”

“I wonder what they’re thinking, looking at all these Jews eating corned beef and ready for heart operations,” I said.

“They’re thinking,” said my uncle, “‘must be a good place - there’s Jewish people here—that’s always a good sign.’”

-- Jonathan Ames, Wake Up, Sir
posted by Mchelly at 4:49 AM on February 20, 2014 [5 favorites]


My friend owns a Mexican restaurant. Her husband is the chef, and he was born and learned to cook in Central Mexico. She uses the term "authentic" in her marketing to make it clear that people are not going to be getting the same kinds of things they are used to at Taco Bell.

She also uses the word "authentic" to kinda offset the sticker shock as the dishes they serve are a bit pricier than the fast food outlet mentioned.

Even so, people in her restaurant grumble about prices, but even more they are shocked that they don't get free chips and salsa just because they walked in and sat down.

Her use of the word "authentic" isn't freighted with the same assholery as that illustrated in the linked comic. She just wants people to know the food served in her restaurant is of a higher quality, and more in the style of its country of origin.

The person in the comic has suspect motivation in his search for authenticity, but that doesn't make the word "authentic" suspect when used by others.
posted by valkane at 4:52 AM on February 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


Anyhow, I think this is good, but it seems like there are two issues here. One is using people as a stand-in for an entire culture, which is clearly problematic, if not outright racist. And I think that's worth the discussion.

But the other issue is culinary, and while yes, there is a spectrum when it comes to authentic recipes, and yes, many people from many cultures like McDonalds and ketchup and ramen and mayonnaise, the question about "is this food authentic" is aiming to find something else: it's entirely culinary. It's not about encapsulating a culture in a bite. It's about encapsulating a taste in a bite. And in that way, two completely different versions of the same dish can be equally authentic - there's no One True Pho, and I don't think even the most clueless white American foodie is asking that. Trying to taste something you literally can't recreate at home is what culinary adventurism is all about. It's the opposite of the spread of McDonalds, and I think lies in direct opposition to it - we as a world are homogenizing, and unique, "authentic" flavors are becoming rarer in some ways because of it. And I don't think that criticizing that exploration as culturally insensitive/imperialist is fair.

Having said all that, it's not like McDonalds in Des Moines tastes the same as McDonalds in Tokyo or Beirut or India. Regional differences and tastes have a way of intruding even there.
posted by Mchelly at 4:58 AM on February 20, 2014 [5 favorites]


The idea of "authentic" food being a product of any particular time is interesting too. I live in a place that has had its local cuisine changed a lot by the freezer, which allows us to more easily preserve our chile and then add it to everything (burritos, sushi, cheeseburgers, pizza, etc) in every season and not just fall.

I find the fact that what we think of as regional staples for a lot of places are relatively recent, since many of them are mesoamerican.

I think that the New Mexican habit of putting green chile in or on everything is an essential part of the authentic experience of the urban NM type who goes out to eat a lot, but there are lots of NM residents living perfectly authentically who don't go out to eat a lot. Because "authentic" is pretty arbitrary anyway. But I feel like there are just as many idiosyncrities of local ingredients and combinations and styles added to more recently imported cuisines that make up the experience of eating in a place and that those are part of what that means too, if that makes sense.
posted by NoraReed at 4:58 AM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


I have been to Thailand and trust me the American food they serve there is not usually authentic.

the better way to look at it is is something prepared for American taste or not.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:14 AM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


But think about the tuna salad maki rolls. Are they authentic when they are made in Japan, when they are made in Düsseldorf by a Japanese person, or when they're done wherever by a whatever non-Japanese person? Or none at all?

It still seems to me like you are dodging the question. Let's start at the other end: would you accept just any sort of food at all, with any ingredients whatsoever, from any culture, cuisine, and agricultural industry, being called an "authentic tuna salad maki roll"? What about something made by anyone anywhere that looks like anything and has any texture and flavor, but at least has tuna as an ingredient? Can things that fit those criteria be called "authentic tuna salad maki roll", say a tuna melt in a New England Style hot dog roll at a diner in Pawtucket Rhode Island?

If you're the sort of person who can make a bright-line division and split all of food into a Venn diagram of two non-intersecting sets - either it is a tuna salad maki roll or it isn't - then yeah, concepts like authenticity are probably useless to you. But for those of us who would have shades of grey between what is a tuna salad maki roll and what isn't amongst all food items in the world, there are concepts like "authenticity" that make sense to us. Though like I said there are much more refined questions you could ask - it's just that these distinctions aren't meaningless.

And in many cases, as NoraReed says, "authetic" is going to be arbitrary or poorly formulated because a target like "French cuisine" or "a pastie" is too broad or inspecific. But if the alternative is to simply accept what the labeler or retailer or restaurateur tells you is what they say it is and that's the deciding factor, independent of your own evaluation, I'm not sure that's actually any less arbitrary.
posted by XMLicious at 5:14 AM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


It means 'Help me out here. Is this any good? Would you eat it? Because I trust you. Has it been dumbed down? Will I look like an idiot later if I say I ate it - like eating spaghettios then saying I like Italian food? Am I eating it right? Am I supposed to add this stuff in this bottle, or would that be like putting ketchup on cornflakes? I like you and I don't want to look stupid in front of you.'

I get this. I get this.

But imagine a friend visiting the US (just as an example) from out of the country. They drop by and they look around at all the restaurants or the homecooked food. They're eager to try things out.

They ask you (whom, in this example, is American): "Is this authentic? Is General Tso's Chicken authentic American food? Is a burger from In-n-out authentic American food? Is sriracha, made in California, authentic American? Is Tex-mex authentic American food? I just want to know what is real American food! What about kale chips - is that authentic? Are french fries American food? But I can get that back at home - I grew up eating fries. Is Chicago deep-dish pizza authentic American food, or is it just considered a version of Italian pizza? And lasagna or caesar salad - those are Italian dishes, not authentically American, right? And it sounds like you grew up eating Twinkies - those aren't authentic American because they're junk food, right? Or is it?"

What would you say? How do you draw the line? What is 'authentic' American food?
posted by suedehead at 5:24 AM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


Jesus. Am I allowed to ask my white friends from Texas and Carolina if they know any places in NYC to get authentic Texas and Carolina style BBQ? Item: I am white.
posted by nathancaswell at 5:25 AM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


I think the concept of "authentic" food gets a bit too much hate here. There's nothing wrong with looking for versions of a dish which are not essentially a form of Extruded Food Product based on what a corporate board at one time decided people would find acceptably unthreatening, and looking for a pre-Extrudement version is one of several ways to go about doing that.

"Authentic" does, of course, become problematic in a number of circumstances:

1) When it becomes a badge of superiority ("I have tried an *authentic* version of this dish, and I am therefore a better and more knowledgeable person than you.")

2) When it becomes a bizarre sole test of quality ("So, at this place, they have really good -" "But is it *authentic*? I won't eat it if it isn't *authentic*.")

3) When it is used to mean the one true Platonic ideal of this dish as it exists in a single and unalterable form in the exotic country from whence it originates. Since such a thing of course does not exist.

4) When it is used in such a way that it indicates a form of "every X does Y" racism ("Your great-grandmother came from Whereverland? So, tell me, where can I find *authentic* Whereverlandian cuisine!")

But the mere fact of wondering whether your plate of "Whereverlandian" food served at a chain Whereverlandian restaurant is at all similar to anything anyone in Whereverland would actually eat is not a bad thing, and "authenticity" is not a meaningless term, just a complicated one.
posted by kyrademon at 5:28 AM on February 20, 2014 [20 favorites]


Jesus. Am I allowed to ask my white friends from Texas and Carolina if they know any places in NYC to get authentic Texas and Carolina style BBQ? Item: I am white.
posted by nathancaswell


Well, I wouldn't suggest doing it when they're all in the same room; Texans get all shirty for some reason when people talk about the One True BBQ, which is of course vinegar based and pork.
posted by Comrade_robot at 5:30 AM on February 20, 2014 [9 favorites]


I never ask the authentic cuisine question because, as a person with mostly Italian-American roots, I know two things: 1. Italian-American food bears a tenuous-at-best relationship to the foods of all the regions of Italy even when it is all made from scratch as it is in my family, and 2. I never, ever, go out for Italian. For what I consider good Italian food I would have to send you to my grandmother's house, or, now that she is passed, my aunt's. And I've just assumed that the same things, especially the second, are true of everybody's ethnic cuisine.

And, yeah, when I've been asked, because I have a pretty strikingly Italian-sounding last name, where good Italian food can be had in a town, it is always a little annoying. But as a white person I don't have the burden of being treated like a brand ambassador all the time and I can only imagine how annoying and othering that must be.
posted by gauche at 5:38 AM on February 20, 2014 [13 favorites]


I have been to Thailand and trust me the American food they serve there is not usually authentic.

On the one hand, I think anyone who has traveled and eaten local versions of their home cuisine has encountered this -- you can see what they were trying to do, and yet it misses the mark, sometimes in really funny ways. And yet even so, it's still more complicated than authentic/non-authentic.

For example, I once ordered "pizza" in a fit of homesickness and was served bottled barbecue sauce on a roti. What could be less authentic, right? But every pizza place in this town serves pizza made with barbecue sauce, and google will give you endless recipes for pizza made with roti dough, all made and eaten by authentic Americans in America. It was not what I was envisioning when I ordered it, but "authenticity" isn't quite the right metric to criticize it on, either.

The comic itself was borderline unreadable on my screen, sadly.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:16 AM on February 20, 2014


Let's start at the other end: would you accept just any sort of food at all, with any ingredients whatsoever, from any culture, cuisine, and agricultural industry, being called an "authentic tuna salad maki roll"? What about something made by anyone anywhere that looks like anything and has any texture and flavor, but at least has tuna as an ingredient? Can things that fit those criteria be called "authentic tuna salad maki roll", say a tuna melt in a New England Style hot dog roll at a diner in Pawtucket Rhode Island?

The point of the tuna salad maki is that a) it is not what you'd expect in a Western sushi bar, but b) it is clearly related to homemade onigiri and you could find a tuna salad onigiri in any combini in the homeland, and c) ferchrissakes, can't Japanese people innovate.

But Since I'm actually a Spaniard, ask me what I think about paella.

And the answer is: even if you come here, you probably won't be eating paella as it's cooked in the Valencian countryside, from where the dish originates. Since it was created in one of the poorest regions of Valencia, the original recipe included marsh rat, for starters. Nowadays rat is substituted by chicken or rabbit, and it has also green bean pods and garrafó, a kind of local bean.

This means most Spaniards have *never* eaten "authentic" paella (even if we mean by it the modern, ratless version). What's more, most Spaniards actually prefer seafood *and* chicken in their paellas, which is anathema to Valencian purists (who reluctantly allow for seafood paella). Does this make any good paella mixta inauthentic when it is what most Spaniards prefer? Who gets to say what is the canonical version of a dish?

The answer is both: a good paella mixta is authentically Spanish, but inauthentically Valencian, so it exists in a quantum wave superposition of authenticity. And all this is *before* leaving the country.

(Cookpad's paella recipes look surprisingly nice, anyway, even the one with bacon and sausage in it)
posted by sukeban at 6:17 AM on February 20, 2014 [5 favorites]


suedehead: They ask you (whom, in this example, is American): "Is this authentic? Is General Tso's Chicken authentic American food? Is a burger from In-n-out authentic American food? Is sriracha, made in California, authentic American? Is Tex-mex authentic American food? I just want to know what is real American food! What about kale chips - is that authentic? Are french fries American food? But I can get that back at home - I grew up eating fries. Is Chicago deep-dish pizza authentic American food, or is it just considered a version of Italian pizza? And lasagna or caesar salad - those are Italian dishes, not authentically American, right? And it sounds like you grew up eating Twinkies - those aren't authentic American because they're junk food, right? Or is it?"

What would you say? How do you draw the line? What is 'authentic' American food?


It depends. If that person really wants to talk about the complicated and multi-layered concept that is American food, then I would be happy to get into a big, long discussion about each and every one of those individual items, just as I might like to have a big, long discussion about whether or not cereal is soup or quiche is pie. I hope they would understand that not everyone is as into foodways as I am, and that if they asked someone like my wife their questions they might get an answer like "I don't know about that shit, I just eat what tastes good." If they are adamant about getting a simplistic, yes-or-no answer, I would probably sigh and lower my estimation of them and say something like, "I think anything that Americans eat and enjoy is authentic American food" and leave it at that, but that's easy for me to do from my position of privilege.

I completely understand the author's frustration and struggles with the way her ethnicity and her culture intersect with these deceptively simple questions, and I hope that in the discussions I have had with people about food and culture I haven't caused offense or discomfort, but I acknowledge that it's not always possible to avoid, and I apologize for the occasions when I have done so.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:17 AM on February 20, 2014


So make sure not to take interest in other people's culture...to not be accused of racism?
posted by vorpal bunny at 6:19 AM on February 20, 2014 [6 favorites]


One might respond to this and say, "well, authenticity just means -- will this taste like the stuff that's actually over there?" But what do you mean by over there? Whose recipe? What soul-flattening average are we going to get in the process of condensing a million different kinds of cuisines and personal preferences and cooking styles into a singular form?

I think, on the other hand, there's a certain point at which the search for authenticity is real and not necessarily minimizing or soul-flattening.

When I eat Korean food, I do so because I lived for a while in Korea, and really liked the food. I liked the food in tiny villages and I liked the food in Seoul. I liked coastal food and inland food. I liked pretty much all of the food.

But I find there's roughly two kinds of Korean restaurants out there. There are Korean restaurants/stores that are designed for people who like Korean food. The kimchi is plentiful and delicious and is not charged for separately. I can get more than two types of mondu. Soju is just soju, and is charged for at roughly market rates for imported alcohol.

And then there's Korean restaurants that the best way I can describe them is, clearly designed for idiotic Americans who want exotic food. The dishes are either badly transliterated or so simplified that I have no idea what I'm actually ordering. The kimchi is shitty supermarket kimchi and it's freakishly expensive, like, you're really going to charge me ten bucks for a tiny thing of kimchi that's not going to last me five minutes of eating? When I first got back from Korea, after years of living there, and ate at a Korean restaurant in the States, I nearly cried.

I never want to eat at a shitty fake Korean restaurant again. Because it offends my taste buds and makes me cry. I know that different areas of Korea have different types of food, and that's fine. There's no One True Korean recipe, but you know what? While I lived in Korea, I never got offered food, anywhere, not even a single time, as shitty as some of these restaurants, and I don't think it's awful to avoid them.
posted by corb at 6:26 AM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


So basically I can still enjoy my roti canai as long as I'm not a dick about it. Got it!
posted by Joe Chip at 6:27 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


So make sure not to take interest in others people's culture...so I can't be accused of racism?

I'd suggest that if this was your takeaway from the comic, you probably are going to run into a few problems when you try to interact with cultures that are not your own, because good lord.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 6:27 AM on February 20, 2014 [15 favorites]


As an English person who's lived in the US, I'm probably the only person here who's been asked the "is that place authentic?" question by someone hoping to hear the answer "no".
posted by cromagnon at 6:30 AM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


A few months ago, I was browsing Seamless for a burger place to order by way of the "American" category from when it presented me with "Aloha Teriyaki Grill."

Boy I sure wasn't expecting that particular bout of heavy thinking on colonialism, cultural appropriation, the concept of "American food," the natural evolution of ethnic cuisine, and so on.

I just wanted a hamburger.
posted by griphus at 6:38 AM on February 20, 2014


Boy I sure wasn't expecting that particular bout of heavy thinking on colonialism, cultural appropriation, the concept of "American food," the natural evolution of ethnic cuisine, and so on.

With the Japanese immigration to Hawaii in the late 19thC/ first half of 20thC, it would be strange not to see fusion cuisine. See also spam musubi.
posted by sukeban at 6:41 AM on February 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


a target like "French cuisine" or "a pastie" is too broad or inspecific

I've found the French can be very specific about some things.
posted by gimonca at 6:41 AM on February 20, 2014


Also, a lot of this article, especially the first half, hits really close to home. I spent most of my childhood avoiding the ethnic and spectacularly un-American cuisine made by my grandparents; my mom quickly adopted non-Russian recipes because in this country we now had "spices" and "ingredients" and "affordable meat that wasn't offal," but my grandparents fed me dinner. My grandmother would be aghast at the fact that I would pass up a delicious fridakel for a Big Mac.

And now that everyone is dead and I don't really have any recipes, I really want that food back. I have access to stores that sell it, but I really regret not getting any recipes from anyone. I could always get it from other people from the old country, but it's not like the family recipes came from a copy of Good Housekeeping USSR, January 1952 so I'm sort of SOL unless I undertake the lengthy process of learning how to cook all this stuff, which may be more trouble than it's worth considering how hideously unhealthy much of it is.
posted by griphus at 6:42 AM on February 20, 2014 [6 favorites]


My friend owns a Mexican restaurant. Her husband is the chef, and he was born and learned to cook in Central Mexico. She uses the term "authentic" in her marketing to make it clear that people are not going to be getting the same kinds of things they are used to at Taco Bell.

In Austin (not sure about other places) the usual distinguishing term restaurants use is "Interior" Mexican cuisine, as opposed to Tex-Mex, basically.
posted by kmz at 7:02 AM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


But its a given that no Indian restaurant, not even in India, serves 'real' food. Its restaurant menus that nobody cooks at home. Home food is an entirely different menu and the only place I ever had anything close to that was a buffeteria next to the University of Pittsburgh that just served lunch.
posted by infini at 7:17 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I just want to know whether what I'm eating actually tastes the way it should. Being British, if someone serves me a pork pie or an apple crumble I can tell if it's a good pork pie or a bad pork pie, a good apple crumble or a bad apple crumble. If I go to a British-style theme pub/restaurant in China (should one exist; if not, business opportunity) and order a pork pie I assume it's likely to be quite different to a pork pie I would get in the UK. A local patron, having not had a British pork pie before, would be quite justified in asking me if s/he was actually getting the desired gastronomic experience, or the imaginative creation of a local chef.

I don't think I use the word "authentic" though, I would say "traditional" if I meant that.

Americans! Don't order Tex-Mex in London, it's not even close to authentic. Or traditional. Or good (with a couple of exceptions). I only found out after I ate Tex-Mex in California, I should probably just have asked an American immigrant about it years ago.
posted by dickasso at 7:39 AM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


There seems to be two distinct approaches to the concept of authenticity and I think people are talking past each other because they are both in operation in foodie culture. Authenticity as a quick and dirty metric to put a restaurant's food on a continuum. And authenticity as an imagined ideal that essentializes and attempts to stop time. I mean, I am super wary of the latter while being perfectly able to use the former to distinguish between places in Honolulu serving local-style Korean food (the plate lunch favorite meat jun, sweeter sauces, a limited range of banchan, and an awesome if slightly baffling to me love of cucumber kimchi) and the kind of places that serve canned peaches on ice or cheongukjang (one expat food blogger called it the Ultimate Stinky Ass Soup).

Mostly, the problem is in the way that consumer society commodifies, repackages and then discards bits of cultural practices, whether it's anointing Y Cuisine as the next hot trend or making street food the thing to do or deeming spam a low-class food (there was a bar in my old SF neighborhood called Butter with a "white trash bistro" theme that prompted me to write a spoken word piece defending my Spam-eating family).
posted by spamandkimchi at 7:41 AM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


Rock Steady: I hope they would understand that not everyone is as into foodways as I am, and that if they asked someone like my wife their questions they might get an answer like "I don't know about that shit, I just eat what tastes good." If they are adamant about getting a simplistic, yes-or-no answer, I would probably sigh and lower my estimation of them and say something like, "I think anything that Americans eat and enjoy is authentic American food" and leave it at that, but that's easy for me to do from my position of privilege.

Well yeah! Seriously, I think that's a great response -- "I just eat what tastes good."

I'll ask my Mexican friend if he knows any Mexican restaurants in the city that he thinks are good, sure. I won't use the word 'authentic'; I just want to know what tastes good to him, and what he enjoys. And as he grew up in Mexico, maybe I'm hoping that he has more nuanced senses of what a good mole poblano should taste like, to him. Another Mexican friend might absolutely disagree with my former friend's opinion. And that's fine.

My point, and I think the comic's point, is that being interested in other cultures and their food is awesome. But looking for an "truly authentic" version of that culture is like trying to access some kind of 'real kernel' of culture that is singular and homogeneous (hence the cartoon of the 'mee goreng' person).

I'd bet that for most of us, when you go visit family or friends and eat their cooking, the question of authenticity wouldn't even pass your mind in the first place. You would never think, "Is this authentic? Is this the REAL version of this food? How accurate is this?" Rather, you'd be thinking, "Oh, this tastes good to me," or "My aunt's Tuesday Special is kind of weird", or "I really like Janette's cooking style".

The point is to do the latter. Eat what tastes good to you. When you go to a restaurant of a cuisine that you're not familiar with, just figure out if it is good to you or not. Forget authenticity, or how a food "should" taste.
posted by suedehead at 7:43 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Both the comic and the essay make good points about cultural appropriation and the dread word "authenticity", but I wondered about this passage in Ho's essay:

When I take people out to Vietnamese restaurants ... they watch me for behavioral cues, noting how and if I use various condiments and garnishes so they can report back to their friends and family that they learned how to eat this food the “real way” from their real, live Vietnamese friend.

"So they can report back"? What about "so they don't seem impolite"? The dinner table is one of the key places where we learn manners (with young children myself, I'm reminded of this every night), and yet eating an unfamiliar cuisine in an unfamiliar context prompts us to doubt those hard-won lessons and look around for reassurance that we're doing the right thing; not the authentic thing, primarily, but the polite thing. Nobody wants to look gauche in front of their friends, and in this context that means their friend who (they assume) knows the right way to do it. That assumption may be wrong, and there may not even be a single "right" way, but that's what they're most likely doing.

You'd see the same thing if you took most British people to eat at Buckingham Palace. They'd be watching their neighbours carefully to see which cutlery to use when, and how to eat some of the food they're being served. They wouldn't be trying to appropriate the culture of royalty, they'd be trying not to look like plebs. Ho's next sentence is closer to it:

Their desire to be true global citizens, eaters without borders, lies behind their studious gazes.

Yes, they are trying to be good citizens in the broadest sense, and being a good citizen in today's globalized world includes supplementing the parochial table manners of our youth whenever we get the opportunity.
posted by rory at 7:47 AM on February 20, 2014 [14 favorites]


I'm reminded of something I've always remembered from this thing I went to in high school, which dealt with Prejudice And Diversity or whatever. A doctor in our town - a woman of evident Asian descent - was talking about the kinds of subtle prejudices she faced from people who meant well (compliments on how her English is so good, etc.). My favorite was when she said that "I get asked for a lot of recipes." She paused, then said totally deadpan, "I tell them I have a really good recipe for lasagna."

I think that the New Mexican habit of putting green chile in or on everything is an essential part of the authentic experience of the urban NM type who goes out to eat a lot, but there are lots of NM residents living perfectly authentically who don't go out to eat a lot. Because "authentic" is pretty arbitrary anyway.

I kinda got put in my place about "authenticity" by an Irish bookstore owner; I was in college and was way into a Hibernio-phile stage and was pretty insufferable about it. At some point I was in her shop and was browsing in the food section, and made some wry sneering comment about how corned beef and cabbage wasn't really Irish.

"Maybe not," she said calmly, "but if you think about it, it's authentically Irish-American." And she went on to talk about how that combination of foodstuffs was adapted from another Irish dish, but the Famine Emigrants probably couldn't afford the real thing so they went with what was available, and so that dish maybe deserved a place of honor for being a testament to the resolve of the Irish emigrants to try and make it somewhere else and Irish-Americanism is its own ethnic group in its own right after all, and...

....And I realized "y'know, yeah. She's right." And I got a lot more lenient about not being all-fired-up about "authenticity or bust" and focused instead on "does it taste good". (Although I still think corned beef and cabbage sucks, but that's more because I just don't like it.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:05 AM on February 20, 2014 [6 favorites]


Authenticity as a quick and dirty metric to put a restaurant's food on a continuum. And authenticity as an imagined ideal that essentializes and attempts to stop time.

I can definitely see that. And about it being less about what's delicious for some people and more about kind of this conspicuous consumption of non-mainstream food. "I'm not one of the plebes! I'm so bold and daring I eat this non-American food!" It's a social marker, rather than a taste, and for some people - especially those saying "I spent a few days in X," a sign of wealth - because they had the money to travel to foreign climes, etc. And honestly, I think that stuff kind of perpetuates the shitty food - because even if something tastes objectively bad, if they think it's culturally elite to think it's good, they'll eat even shitty variants without complaining.
posted by corb at 8:11 AM on February 20, 2014


I was going to investigate my English genetic history with a little culinary tour of traditional English food, but, then, it just seemed to be curries and whatnot, which is just a legacy of imperialism, and so I went back further and it was all charred and rolled up boar's faces covered with honey, and then I went back even further and it was dragon scales, and now I don't know what to eat.

It was easier doing my Irish heritage, as it turns out it's mostly selkie, so a lot of seaweed.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:15 AM on February 20, 2014 [7 favorites]


That's the equivalent of the surprised look on a classmate from Mechanicsburg, PA's face, on being confronted with the fact that I eat mayonnaise. My grandfather's favourite breakfast in Calcutta was fried mushrooms on buttered toast.
posted by infini at 8:31 AM on February 20, 2014


There's a Thai restaurant in my neighborhood that has a "secret" second menu comprised of Thai dishes that are apparently known and authentic dishes in Thailand but that aren't what most Americans understand as Thai food, or are based on cuts of meat or offal that Americans are generally squeamish about eating. Now, I haven't been there myself, as I'm not a big fan of Thai flavors, but my understanding (based on when the restaurant was featured on a TV show) is that if you go there and you're a non-Thai person, you're going to have to ask for that menu specially.

When I hear the term "authentic" relating to food, that split between those menus is what I think it means. There's the "version of Thai food that Americans know" and there's "the kinds of food people actually eat in Thailand." Seems to me it's a good thing when people undestand there can be a significant difference, and express a willingness to go outside our American boxes and experience something new and different.

Of course there some folks who are more out to rack up "cultural diversity experience points" as the comic suggests, but ascribing that motive to anyone who wants to try other foods and cultures seems unkind.
posted by dnash at 8:40 AM on February 20, 2014 [11 favorites]


The issue here is that being asked about this stuff is a sore point for some folk. Very much like the "where are you from? No really, I mean where are you from?" issue - it get irritating when you hear it a lot. And it's not a major thing, and it's not as frustrating as full on racism or being hit on by some guy with an asian fetish, but it keeps happening, it's tedious, predictable, and, for the interogatee, is just sort of icing on the bullshit cake of more toxic issues involving race and ethnicity.

Not to diminish your experiences, but this sort of thing happens to everybody.

For example, I am tall and I work in IT - and the number of times I get "do you like to play basketball" or "hey, could you tell me how to fix this computer problem" borders on the maddening. I'm at a backyard BBQ, not working the helpdesk, yanno ? It just gets old.

But, at the same time, each individual person isn't being an asshole. They have no idea how often I hear those things. They can't know. They are (generally) just making conversation by trying to find common ground, and the assholery lies in the aggregate effect. (although, yeah, some people are just being dicks).

So... I dunno. It's a land of contrasts, I guess.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:44 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


When I take people out to Vietnamese restaurants ... they watch me for behavioral cues, noting how and if I use various condiments and garnishes so they can report back to their friends and family that they learned how to eat this food the “real way” from their real, live Vietnamese friend.

When I watch other people eating at Vietnamese restaurants, it's not to report back to friends. It's to attempt to figure out how to eat pho without dripping soup all over my shirt. I've still not figured it out. I should just give up and start wearing a bib.
posted by Daily Alice at 8:44 AM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


Not to diminish your experiences, but this sort of thing happens to everybody.

Sure. But IT people don't have the experience of being a historically disenfranchised minority in America who has been villified and exoticized for a century, so there's some added weight when it happens to people with this sort of background. And that's worth being aware of and respecting.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:46 AM on February 20, 2014 [7 favorites]


Everyone "authentic" knows that "sushi" is the rice, not the entire preparation. And yes, there are traditional and authentic ways to produce that rice. I think people that whine about the word "authentic" are whining against a straw man. I also see nothing wrong with for example meeting a Vietnamese dude for business reasons, he insists on taking you somewhere, and you ask "do you like fuh?" And if he says yes, saying "are there any places nearby you like?"

Coming right out and saying TAKE ME TO AUTHENTIC NOODLE HOUSE NOW SIR is a bit much, and expecting every Vietnamese dude to like pho is naive to racist or something like it but not quite as sinister. Maybe the resentment grows with each generation. Most of the first gen immigrants I've befriended are thrilled to show off some of the foods they like.
posted by lordaych at 9:01 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


I dunno. I can understand how it would be wearing to be constantly turned to as some kind of guarantor of authenticity (as someone who has spent most of his life outside of his birth country I'm familiar with that "so, speak to me as a representative of your entire nation" form of questioning and its discontents; but it's also a country people don't much care about and I'm white, so it doesn't have the same effect of exoticizing interpellation). But on the other hand, hoo-boy, talk about damned if you do and damned if you don't! So you're a jerk if you show interest in other people's cultures/cuisines, try to get the pronunciation of foreign words right, try to learn what different cultural traditions regard as the 'proper' ways of eating their cuisine etc. But you can bet you're also a jerk if you pronounce all foreign words as if they were just "funny-looking" English words, insist on being given ketchup to add to your food no matter what the cuisine is, and freak out of any of the dishes gets too far out of the ambit of your usual tastes?

I'm not sure you really want to push a line which would seem to have "everybody should just stick to their own ethnicity/class/social group and evince no interest in any other ethnicities/classes/social groups" as its logical conclusion.
posted by yoink at 9:11 AM on February 20, 2014 [7 favorites]


I enjoyed this comic when i saw it the first time around. Trying to be discerning about food (liking one thing more than another) while not slopping over into tokenistic fetishization (I am judging this based on criteria I maybe don't understand myself but I believe it to be a high quality indicator) is tricky. I would kill to have a Vietnamese place within an hour from here, is what I am saying and I am sorry this lady's friend was sort of a heel.

I had a peanut butter and banana panini at home today which was only authentic because I made it on the $2 panini press that I got at the thrift store. And it was really good.
posted by jessamyn at 9:13 AM on February 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


I'm not sure you really want to push a line which would seem to have "everybody should just stick to their own ethnicity/class/social group and evince no interest in any other ethnicities/classes/social groups" as its logical conclusion.

Is that the logical conclusion? I think the logical conclusion is "your friends do not exist as tour guides to lead you through signature elements their culture or ethnicity, and probably won't appreciate it if you treat them like that."
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 9:16 AM on February 20, 2014 [6 favorites]


I think the logical conclusion is "your friends do not exist as tour guides to lead you through signature elements their culture or ethnicity"

O.K., so if it is verboten to ask people of other ethnicities to give me some emic insights into their cultural praxis how does that not translate into "just stick to your own ethnicity etc."? I mean, the bar, according to this comic, for not using your friends as "tour guides" is very low--it's just asking them about what is and isn't an "authentic" example of their cultural practice. Now, sure, there are all kinds of problems with the concept of "authenticity" which one can delve into, but the basic question being asked here is going to be the same even that word is eschewed: "how is that you do these things?" And that's the essential starting question for any genuine interest in other cultures and other ways of being. If we adopt the view that it is illegitimate or abusive to simply ask the question then we're saying that it's illegitimate and abusive to evince any interest in cultures--even subcultures--other than one's own.
posted by yoink at 9:25 AM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


I am really getting kind of uncomfortable with the undercurrent of self-righteousness accompanying the "I'm just trying to explore [your | their] culture" line of argument in this thread, like, you know, that's cool that you're trying something new, but it's not like you're doing someone a damn favor by trying a new restaurant.
posted by kagredon at 9:29 AM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


but it's not like you're doing someone a damn favor by trying a new restaurant.

Really? I can think of many people one could be helping, including oneself.

These seemingly trivial acts of cultural exploration can have positive, lasting impact on people.
posted by sutt at 9:32 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


O.K., so if it is verboten to ask people of other ethnicities to give me some emic insights into their cultural praxis how does that not translate into "just stick to your own ethnicity etc."?

Who says it's verboten? There's a lot of defensive assumptions being made here. There are plenty of people who will happily take on the role of tour guide, and they will generally let you know -- I am one of them, and am happy to share what I know about my culture, my ethnicity, and my city (I am literally preparing a tour as we speak).

The issue comes from just assuming that somebody has the knowledge or desire to be a tour guide just because they come from some specific background that you do not share. And, more than that, as these authors make clear, it is giving off the sense that your interest in them is mostly to act as a tour guide, and demanding it of them before finding out if that's a role they want to play.

If you have a friend who is Korean who says to you "I'm going to take you to an authentic Korean restaurant!", there's a good chance that they are happy to walk you through the food. If you say "What do you want to eat?" and your Korean friend says "pizza," they may not appreciate being quizzed about the fine points of seolleongtang.

All that's required is to be a little sensitive.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 9:34 AM on February 20, 2014 [7 favorites]


I am really getting kind of uncomfortable with the undercurrent of self-righteousness underlying the "I"m just trying to explore [your | their] culture in this thread", like, you know, that's cool, but it's not like you're doing someone a damn favor by trying a new restaurant

No, you're not doing them a favor in any personal sense. But do you not feel, personally, that someone who shows a general willingness to explore other cultures and learn to appreciate a wide variety of forms of artistic/cultural expression (cuisine, music, art, literature etc.) is a more admirable person than someone who says "I'm only interested in what is familiar to me and doubt anything of value is to be found in any unfamiliar cultural tradition"? If you do feel that, then, surely, you can't also believe that if that person does start trying to find out about other cultural traditions he's committing some kind of crime?

I mean, obviously there are ways you might engage in such a practice that are abusive. What troubles me about the linked comic is, again, that it doesn't seem to be targeting such egregious cases--it's just taking the degree-zero practice of asking someone about difference per se as somehow transgressive. And that just seems sad and limiting, to me.
posted by yoink at 9:36 AM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


if it is verboten to ask people of other ethnicities to give me some emic insights into their cultural praxis how does that not translate into "just stick to your own ethnicity etc."?

- You can talk about the topic generally without turning mealtime into some sort of show and tell situation
- you can read a book
- you can study YouTube videos or other people who are specifically putting their knowledge into a "Here, learn from me" container
- You can spend some time eating at the places you like to eat and observe
- You can meet other people from those cultures and speak to them in a spirit of open inquiry about how they manage these sorts of things in a way that makes it clear that you understand the way this topic can be fraught and how you want to learn not just appropriate the parts of their culture you find intriguing or convenient

You seem to be saying that if you're not allowed to interrogate people during mealtimes about specifics about their own culture to satisfy your own gaps in your knowledge that the conclusion you are drawing is "Only eat your own food"? That just seems strange to me. Many people manage to interact with people who are not like them (in various ways) all the time and it's fine. Sometimes people are touchy about things. Sometimes this touchiness is enhanced by generations of other people being annoying, disrespectful or occasionally barbaric to them or people like them. It's helpful to be mindful of that sort of thing and not make their dislike for a particular form of interaction all about you.
posted by jessamyn at 9:38 AM on February 20, 2014 [11 favorites]


No, you're not doing them a favor in any personal sense. But do you not feel, personally, that someone who shows a general willingness to explore other cultures and learn to appreciate a wide variety of forms of artistic/cultural expression (cuisine, music, art, literature etc.) is a more admirable person than someone who says "I'm only interested in what is familiar to me and doubt anything of value is to be found in any unfamiliar cultural tradition"? If you do feel that, then, surely, you can't also believe that if that person does start trying to find out about other cultural traditions he's committing some kind of crime?

Lemme put it this way.

If you always ask me about where a good Canadian restaurant is, the reason I'd get annoyed isn't because "how dare they want to try new things". The reason I'd get annoyed is "wait, number one, why do they assume I'd even know, and number two, am I just a personal Zagat's to them and nothing more"?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:39 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


If you have a friend who is Korean who says to you "I'm going to take you to an authentic Korean restaurant!", there's a good chance that they are happy to walk you through the food. If you say "What do you want to eat?" and your Korean friend says "pizza," they may not appreciate being quizzed about the fine points of seolleongtang.

Absolutely, I agree entirely. As I say, though, that doesn't seem to be the fracture-point that the linked comic is focusing on--it's not saying "look at the jerky way some of my friends have interpellated me as Guide to the Exotic" it's saying "asking me about my ethnic background is, in and of itself, abusive." Or, at least, it's not making a sufficient distinction between those two complaints.
posted by yoink at 9:39 AM on February 20, 2014


What troubles me about the linked comic is, again, that it doesn't seem to be targeting such egregious cases--it's just taking the degree-zero practice of asking someone about difference per se as somehow transgressive. And that just seems sad and limiting, to me.

Agreed. My takeaway from the comic, if I come at it from the perspective of someone who might not be comfortable asking a person about their culture or heritage, is that "if you can't do it right, you shouldn't do it at all".
posted by sutt at 9:41 AM on February 20, 2014


I think the logical conclusion is "your friends do not exist as tour guides to lead you through signature elements their culture or ethnicity, and probably won't appreciate it if you treat them like that."

Or perhaps, "I'm such a drip I let my friends treat me as a tour guide etc without ever telling them off about it, so here's a passive-aggressive comic about it".
posted by MartinWisse at 9:45 AM on February 20, 2014 [6 favorites]


I had a peanut butter and banana panini at home today ...

I think the singular is paninus.
posted by Mchelly at 9:45 AM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


Or perhaps, "I'm such a drip I let my friends treat me as a tour guide etc without ever telling them off about it, so here's a passive-aggressive comic about it".

Or perhaps "my friends are so clueless about thinking this is appropriate that they they have a hissy fit when I try to tell them nicely that it isn't, so God knows what they'd have done if I was more direct".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:53 AM on February 20, 2014 [5 favorites]


Hot and Sour soup at a Chinese restaurant in Sweden: hot ketchup. With noodles.

I think, at least for a lot of Americans from suburbs and small towns for whom ethnic cuisines often meant something that, without their knowledge, been tweaked to fit their tastes. I laugh about above mentioned soup (this was in Sundsvald, so maybe big cities have more variety in their 'ethnic' cuisine), but I'm sure most of the cornstarched meats I grew up calling Chinese food would cause some head scratching in Beijing. So, when you grow up and realize what a big wide world of food is out there, you get excited and you want to make sure you're getting it right this time. Now, assuming any member of a certain cultural group is representative of that entire culture is a whole other bucket of worms...
posted by theweasel at 9:57 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


One of the upsides of being of Polish descent is no one ever asks you about the best Polish restaurant in town. Besides, all I can remember from my childhood is pierogies, cabbage and various organ meats.
posted by tommasz at 9:58 AM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


You need to hang out in Greenpoint, tommasz.
posted by jonmc at 10:02 AM on February 20, 2014


Hot and Sour soup at a Chinese restaurant in Sweden: hot ketchup. With noodles.

The only Chinese recipe I do halfway well is scrambled eggs and tomato.
posted by sukeban at 10:20 AM on February 20, 2014


No, you're not doing them a favor in any personal sense. But do you not feel, personally, that someone who shows a general willingness to explore other cultures and learn to appreciate a wide variety of forms of artistic/cultural expression (cuisine, music, art, literature etc.) is a more admirable person than someone who says "I'm only interested in what is familiar to me and doubt anything of value is to be found in any unfamiliar cultural tradition"? If you do feel that, then, surely, you can't also believe that if that person does start trying to find out about other cultural traditions he's committing some kind of crime?

No, frankly, as a non-white person, I don't give a good goddamn what kind of food you like. I give a damn if you're rude to me about food, as some people have talked about, but that's not because I'm personally offended that you aren't embracing ~my culture~, it's because you're not extending me the same courtesy that (I hope) you would extend your white friends eating something you don't like. If we're friends, I'll gladly go out to get Korean food with you, because it's always nice to have more options when we want to get lunch together. I'll share if I find a good new restaurant, but I'd expect you to do the same, because my taste buds are not somehow better at discerning good food than yours just because of where my mother was born. But look, if you're at a baseline level of disposable income/disposable time/access/ability (and there's a lot of assumptions about class and ability to unpack there, too, isn't there?), going to a restaurant isn't exactly difficult. It does not imply that you've conquered racism. It's like people who equate watching anime with some particular fluency in or sympathy to Japanese culture. Sure, there are people who watch anime, and use that as a gateway into learning more about Japanese language and culture, there are people who don't*, and there are people who have no interest in anime but have deep knowledge of other aspects of Japan or Japanese culture. One does not imply the other

*(and to clarify: it's perfectly fine to just want to watch anime for pure entertainment, or to just enjoy a restaurant near your house, and not be interested in investing time into doing deeper study of language or culture, as long as you don't assume that your interest in $THING is a badge of cultural sensitivity or knowledge. It's 2014. Having a greater degree of openness to difference than Archie Bunker is not cause for congratulations.)

Furthermore, while there is an association between openness to new experience and not-being-racist...it's hardly 1:1. Especially when, as I said, it's a new experience with a relatively low bar, like food.

Or perhaps, "I'm such a drip I let my friends treat me as a tour guide etc without ever telling them off about it, so here's a passive-aggressive comic about it".

Well, apparently if she doesn't, she's a racial segregationist.

Someday, some Captain Kirk will figure out how to crash this Kobayashi Maru, but I guess today is not that day.
posted by kagredon at 10:27 AM on February 20, 2014 [9 favorites]


People often are aggressive and argumentative about this stuff in a way that's hard to put into print

I've had people argue with me about whether my grandmother's version of some dish is actually Mexican, because in Oaxaca it is different.

The frustration is that your tastes are not ever going to be "authentic", because it's a nonsense concept, but you're never going to fit in as white, either, obviously, or they wouldn't be asking you.

Note that I'm referencing a subset of questioning and food questions can be done politely.

For example, if you want to know how someone's family cooks a dish, ask that. If you want to know if the restaurants remind them of the food they got when they were visiting their family in Korea, ask them that. If you want to know if they're familiar with the dish you want to order, ask that.

Asking someone to preform for you as a representative and funnel information to you is not nearly as nice as trying to learn more about their individual life and experiences.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:34 AM on February 20, 2014 [10 favorites]


I'm sure most of the cornstarched meats I grew up calling Chinese food would cause some head scratching in Beijing.

A pair of American entrepreneurs launched Fortune Cookie last year to cater to nostalgic expatriates and local Chinese. The venture could be seen as one big prank — the culinary equivalent of coals to Newcastle.
posted by zamboni at 11:01 AM on February 20, 2014


I live in New Orleans and whenever I travel, people ask me about gumbo, jambalaya, and crawfish. And Mardi Gras. People of all nationalities who visit my fair city will stop me on the street to ask if so-and-so has "authentic" Cajun cuisine. I don't think this is just a white people thing. I think this is a people thing.
I'm going to try and be less exasperated in the future when dealing with tourists.
posted by domo at 11:01 AM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


If you drop the "authenticity" thing and instead just look for good food, it removes a whole level of tension and one-upmanship from the discussion.

Asking someone "is this authentic ____ food?" is an awkward question, because it forces them to consider their own ability to evaluate cultural authenticity, and in fact sort of begs a number of important points including: (1) that cultural authenticity is a thing, (2) that they are somehow in a position to evaluate or judge it, perhaps on account of their background or their parents background, and often (3) that "more authentic" = "better". All of those are pretty big assumptions and I can understand why people might take offense at some of them.

Depending on the circumstance it could also be pretty obnoxious to ask someone for restaurant recommendations based purely on their suspected cultural background (e.g. "his name is John Kim and he looks Korean? I'll ask him about a good bulgogi joint,") because it assumes their cultural identity, and it assumes they have expertise that they don't, even if they do identify that way — a lot of second and third-generation children-of-immigrants may not have any particular expertise in their grandparents "native cuisine" sufficient to be comfortable judging it — and it also implies that other people wouldn't be able to answer the question because of equivalent assumptions about their background.

That said, if you know someone has Strong Opinions about a particular cuisine, it becomes a much more fair question to ask. And knowing a lot of friends who are children/grandchildren of immigrants and do have Strong Opinions about a particular ethno-regional cuisine (myself included), it's worth noting that some people actually do like talking about this stuff and view steering people away from shitty food as a sort of mitzvah.

I don't know there's a broad lesson, aside from "don't be a dick" in general and "don't make assumptions about other people particularly with regards to cultural issues" in particular.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:05 AM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


In the abstract I can see it being annoying, but in the specific, wow does Soleil Ho seem like an person I would not care to eat with. It's one thing to get tired of being asked the same questions all the time, but when you voluntarily take someone to a restaurant and then not only are pissed when your guests entirely silently try to not look like a boor while eating the cuisine you chose, but assume that they are spying on you to gossip to other people... I don't think it's your guests being the assholes.
posted by tavella at 11:09 AM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


MartinWisse: "Or perhaps, "I'm such a drip I let my friends treat me as a tour guide etc without ever telling them off about it, so here's a passive-aggressive comic about it"."

What I've learned from this thread is that us angry minorities should not share our perspectives except when white people demand it in a format that conveniences them directly.

Oh wait, I've already learned that by living in the U.S. for most of my life.
posted by danny the boy at 11:12 AM on February 20, 2014 [15 favorites]


If I make food using the most authentic ingredients I can find, the techniques I was taught by the chef and with a mind set of trying to recreate an experience as close to that I had when I ate the food of the chef, then I would say I am attempting authenticity.

I remember Mario Batali saying in his Molto Mario TV show something to the effect that to cook "authentic" Italian cuisine didn't mean having to slavishly replicate the ingredients and other aspects of Italian dishes, but rather to use fresh, local ingredients as much as possible and prepare them in an Italian style.

And "Italian" is as much of a misnomer as "Mexican" or "Indian" or "Chinese" food. There are something like 20 different regions on the peninsula, each using different ingredients and techniques, with variations down to the city and family levels. Over 30 different Mexican states and innumerable regions of India.

The Chinese have a handy Eight Culinary Traditions, but there many regional cuisines.

And all of this is moot, as EmpressCallipygos mentions above, when it comes to hyphen-American foods.
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:16 AM on February 20, 2014 [7 favorites]


In the abstract I can see it being annoying, but in the specific, wow does Soleil Ho seem like an person I would not care to eat with.

I'm sure that sentiment goes both ways.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:08 PM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


valkane: " Even so, people in her restaurant grumble about prices, but even more they are shocked that they don't get free chips and salsa just because they walked in and sat down."

Funny thing about that is that even though it's "not authentic Mexican" to have chips & salsa as the free appetizer, many restaurants I've been to in Mexico do exactly that.

And why not, it probably started in the US as a way to get-rid of stale tortillas, and someones cousin brought it back to Mexico as a cheap way to seem fancier. So in a way, in Mexico, they are serving an American dish.
posted by wcfields at 12:17 PM on February 20, 2014


What I've learned from this thread is that us angry minorities should not share our perspectives except when white people demand it in a format that conveniences them directly.

Yeah I really have no idea how "this is a summary of a small section of a complicated and annoying issue I deal with by virtue of straddling two different cultures and being visibly different than the one I spend most of my time in" quickly turns into whatever the hell assumptions people are making about the individuals responsible for the comic and essay.

I mean half the problem in the first place is that any response to an airing of grievances such as this that starts off with "see what your problem really is..." -- whether it's "you're unpleasant" or "you're not assertive enough" or whatever -- is that there's no way to end the sentiment with words that don't somehow equate to "...you're not a regular person."
posted by griphus at 12:35 PM on February 20, 2014 [5 favorites]


Bunny Ultramod: Probably! But I'm okay with that, because I can do without being the guest of paranoid jerks.
posted by tavella at 12:35 PM on February 20, 2014


In the abstract I can see it being annoying, but in the specific, wow does Soleil Ho seem like an person I would not care to eat with.

not so abstract for others. maybe that's the difference b/t you and ho?
posted by twist my arm at 12:38 PM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


tavella, did you actually read the article or just the pullquotes that people have posted in here? She compares that tentative reaction to her own experiences growing up and trying to assimilate as a 2nd generation immigrant, which is a lot more complicated than "paranoid jerk", but whatever.
posted by kagredon at 12:39 PM on February 20, 2014


But I'm okay with that, because I can do without being the guest of paranoid jerks.

I guess I'm not sure who the paranoid jerks are -- the people who have repeatedly experienced being forced into the position of being a cultural interpreter for any white person who demands it, or the white people who respond to this by complaining that they're being accused of being a racist by somebody who just wants everybody to stay inside their own ethnicity.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:51 PM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


I remember my parents showing off to their friends how much I liked kimchi jigae and other spicy Korean dishes. I remember my U.S.-raised cousins and family friends who didn't like kimchi get grief for being not Korean enough (with an implication of self-hatred even!). I'm not here to take away your bibimbap. But being asked to be the arbiter of authenticity when you grew up feeling not "authentic" enough (within the home) or shamed if you were too visibly ethnic (outside the home) brings up a lot of heavy emotional weirdness around identity and the usages of food as an identity marker for culture or cosmopolitanism*.

*Keywords pulled from this journal article, The Changing Popular Culture of Indian Food

When I think about authenticity as a commodity, I think about the Sundance mail order catalog promising you authentic rugs hand-woven in an authentic village by authentic women villagers. I think about who gets to monetize authenticity. I think about whether I am Korean enough (jury's out on that one).
posted by spamandkimchi at 12:56 PM on February 20, 2014 [7 favorites]


And the thread, along with some others, just demonstrates an increasing parochialism of the userbase.
posted by infini at 12:59 PM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yes, I went to the article to get context, wondering if it was less jerky than I sounded. And it was still deeply jerky. Her comparison is with her childhood learning how to eat pulled pork by watching other people, which she reports neutrally. And then compare to:

There’s a similar kind of self-checking that occurs when I take people out to Vietnamese restaurants: Through unsubtle side glances, they watch me for behavioral cues, noting how and if I use various condiments and garnishes so they can report back to their friends and family that they learned how to eat this food the “real way” from their real, live Vietnamese friend.

First of all, "when I take people out to Vietnamese restaurants" -- i.e., these are _her guests_. She is the one who has chosen the cuisine, this is not a cause of people saying "oh, you are Vietnamese, we'll go to a Vietnamese restaurant". Then look at the language -- her neutral childhood "watching" becomes "unsubtle side glances". Okay, maybe that's observation. Except she then declares that they are only doing this so they can gossip to other people about her, not because they don't want to embarrass themselves _and her_ by doing rude things. That's a very nasty attitude towards your guests. And not only that, she declares that their friendship is false -- they are simply using her as a trophy for the same gossip. Well, okay, maybe everyone she knows is that kind of false jerk, but if that's true WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU TAKING THEM TO DINNER?
posted by tavella at 1:02 PM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


You know, this sort of careful parsing of the precise language used in a column doesn't yield a greater truth, or some hidden detail that's now been unearthed and demonstrates the core failure of the author. It's a crappy tactic used to minimize the voices of minority people ind describing their experience, and I wish it would stop. I am sure you can do better, tavella, then to go for a literal interpretation of every single phrase and word to prove that somebody is a jerk because you don't like what they are saying about something they themselves have experienced and you have not.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:07 PM on February 20, 2014 [5 favorites]


You call it careful parsing, I call it basic reading comprehension.

As I said, I absolutely agree that assuming that someone is a font of knowledge on a cuisine just because they happen to be of the ethnicity is kinda racist, and that even if you _are_ a fount of knowledge it can still be annoying to be supposed to be defining authenticity especially since there's the implication that your own innovations somehow *aren't* authentic and thus you aren't truly X. But in terms of the actual article... I'm still going with the author is still a bit of jerk. As people of any race can be.
posted by tavella at 1:17 PM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


I'm honestly not sure why it's so difficult for you to grasp that an article wherein a person describes their frustrations with being in the minority contains examples of this sort of behavior. Childhood observation of the behavior of the "normal" people you want to be like (and, in many ways, can never actually be like no matter how hard you try) is distinctly different than being treated as Your Guide To Vietnamese Cuisine, whether it's subtle or not and whether it's by the best of intentions or not.

There's no reason that just because the author is taking people to eat the food of her ethnicity means she's not allowed to be annoyed by the curiosity-fueled exoticizing of her, especially when a good chunk of the article is about the stresses of trying her damn best to be like them.

I got to have the delightful experience of going from being white (or white enough) in America to being clearly a foreigner ("are you from Spain?") in certain parts of Europe. People notice and they ask questions and your customs become strange and curious and it leads to a certain degree of self-consciousness. And it's annoying as all get-out and what's worse is that you can't do anything about it. Because when you try to explain it, you get "well, I think you're being way too sensitive about this; no one is treating you poorly!" as a response. It's a constant, uphill battle to feel "normal" if you're, well, not.
posted by griphus at 1:18 PM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Well it is kinda mean to write someone off as a big jerk for one thing they said, that particular passage quoted does seem like one of many problems that there isn't necessarily a good solution to.

If I'm going to a restaurant with someone who knows the cuisine better than I, is the person I'm eating with going to be made to feel more awkward if I wait to see what they do with their food, or should I charge ahead and eat things in a way that seems tasty and then make them feel uncomfortable because the waitstaff pokes gentle fun at me for eating things wrong?

There are all sorts of situations where things end up sorta awkward when two people of slightly different backgrounds do stuff together, and being a first or second generation immigrant means you're going to run into that stuff enough for even the little things to be annoying.

I read Soleil Ho's piece as more of a rumination on her own personal thoughts and feelings on her intersection of food and ethnicity, and for goodness sake, what you feel doesn't have to be rigorously defensible! I thought it did a good job of portraying her perspective and experience.
posted by Zalzidrax at 1:20 PM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


But in terms of the actual article... I'm still going with the author is still a bit of jerk. As people of any race can be.

and clearly the question of whether or not soleil ho is a jerk is the most interesting, important, and relevant piece of information to try to piece together from her essay and is the thing that you want to be your major contribution for this thread.
posted by kagredon at 1:22 PM on February 20, 2014


Hey, I would have been perfectly happy to roll with discussion of the pronunciation of pho and cha gio instead, but people instead got very upset when I said that I don't think I'd like to have dinner with someone who thought that trying to eat like a civilized person and thus be a good and respectful guest meant that I was doing it so I could gossip about her, and in fact I was a fake friend.
posted by tavella at 1:27 PM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


If you can't say something nice about someone...
posted by Zalzidrax at 1:30 PM on February 20, 2014


Yes, why do people insist upon disagreeing with you or even getting emotional about their lived experiences as minorities, why can't they keep to nice light topics of conversation like explaining pronunciation.
posted by kagredon at 1:30 PM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


I was doing it so I could gossip about her, and in fact I was a fake friend.

My apologies. I didn't realize you were the friend discussed in the story and therefore have direct experience with this. I thought you were a stranger on the internet having an opinion about something that doesn't directly affect you.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:32 PM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Well, make up your mind, kagredon. First you are upset because I commented on the meat of the article and you wanted me to talk about something else, and then you are upset because I said I'd be happy to talk about something else because it was too light.
posted by tavella at 1:34 PM on February 20, 2014


The fact that you think parsing one paragraph to try to dissect whether or not the author is a nice person is the "meat of the article" speaks volumes.
posted by kagredon at 1:36 PM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Gosh. And

I absolutely agree that assuming that someone is a font of knowledge on a cuisine just because they happen to be of the ethnicity is kinda racist, and that even if you _are_ a fount of knowledge it can still be annoying to be supposed to be defining authenticity especially since there's the implication that your own innovations somehow *aren't* authentic and thus you aren't truly X.

doesn't go to the meat of the article? Pray tell what does?
posted by tavella at 1:37 PM on February 20, 2014


The rest of us obviously cannot read nor comprehend the English language. We're too busy being taught our place.
posted by infini at 1:38 PM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


"So okay how do I eat this ham-booraga? Do I have that right 'ham-booraga'? Okay so I just firmly grasp it like this or is that too firm? This looks like the chef spent a lot of time on it and I don't want to ruin it by grasping it too tight. Okay now I lower my mouth onto it, not bring it up, right? I heard it's really offensive in your culture to bring food to your mouth so I just want to be sure I don't offend you. Okay, and the fries, how much ketchup do I put on them? Like a whole lot or just a little so I can really taste the fry itself? Oh, and does it matter if I eat it with my hands or a fork? Like I said, I don't want to be rude. Boy this cuisine is so fascinating."
posted by griphus at 1:39 PM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


Yes, tavella, you're absolutely right, after you'd thoroughly succeeded into derailing the thread into a referendum on Soleil Ho's character, you posted one sentence that actually was relevant to the broader discussion at hand. How wrong of me to have neglected to mention that.
posted by kagredon at 1:40 PM on February 20, 2014


[guys, it might be time to step back from this derail and return to the original article]
posted by mathowie (staff) at 1:41 PM on February 20, 2014


Which is relevant to a case where her guests (that she had taken to eat this specific style of food) asked her no questions but simply tried to eat the food in the manner she was demonstrating, exactly how, griphus?

I can tell you that in the culture *I* grew up in, we took the responsibilities of guest and host very seriously. As guest, to follow the etiquette of the table we were at, as demonstrated by our host or hostess; as host, to entertain guests in a generous spirit and not in the assumption that they meant us ill. So when someone describes such a crabbed and unpleasant way of being a host... well, why the fuck are you doing it?
posted by tavella at 1:45 PM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


But being asked to be the arbiter of authenticity when you grew up feeling not "authentic" enough (within the home) or shamed if you were too visibly ethnic (outside the home) brings up a lot of heavy emotional weirdness around identity and the usages of food as an identity marker for culture or cosmopolitanism*.

It's a strange thing, being an immigrant. You become expected to be more like your original home's culture than the people who remained there have become. More traditional. The preserver of a culture that isn't. Everyone in the original country can embrace other influences, but it is supposed to feel like a betrayal if you do. Fortunately, no one fetishizes Nica cuisine, but it may be just because no one has figured out that Latin America is made of different countries.
posted by corb at 1:49 PM on February 20, 2014 [6 favorites]


"So okay how do I eat this ham-booraga? Do I have that right 'ham-booraga'? Okay so I just firmly grasp it like this or is that too firm? This looks like the chef spent a lot of time on it and I don't want to ruin it by grasping it too tight. Okay now I lower my mouth onto it, not bring it up, right? I heard it's really offensive in your culture to bring food to your mouth so I just want to be sure I don't offend you. Okay, and the fries, how much ketchup do I put on them? Like a whole lot or just a little so I can really taste the fry itself? Oh, and does it matter if I eat it with my hands or a fork? Like I said, I don't want to be rude. Boy this cuisine is so fascinating."

There's nothing self-evident about how to eat a hamburger, and if I were taking a friend out to eat who happened to be from a cultural background where they'd never encountered hamburgers, you can bet your bottom dollar I'd expect them to imitate how I did it. There are lots of places I go which serve burgers opened out on a plate (of sorts) and provide flatware--but you are not, of course, really expected to eat the thing with a knife and fork. You're supposed to assemble the opened out burger and eat it with your hands. But in most contexts in Western cuisine, eating with your hands is actually rather frowned on, so I could easily see someone feeling anxious and unsure about what the "right" way to tackle the meal they've been served is and being grateful for guidance. (And that 's not even getting into the adding of condiments, the fact that the condiments are located off at a table somewhere etc. etc. etc.)

Of course, if you want to eat your burger and fries with a knife and fork, or without adding any condiments, or only with a huge pile of relish and with the lettuce and tomato removed or whatever the hell, that's fine, but anyone who is trying the dish for the first time is going to want to know "how is it customarily eaten?" And they're going to want to give that way at least a fair shot. and how on earth are they going to find that out other than by asking friends who are more familiar with the cuisine?
posted by yoink at 1:55 PM on February 20, 2014 [5 favorites]


You ask your friends. Literally nobody has said you can't.

But let's extend this. Let's say you're in a foreign country and have a friend who happens to be the child of American expatriates. Let's say they grew up in the culture of the other country and it's what they are familiar with and how they identify. And let's say that they aren't necessarily sure they really know how to do the hamburger thing, it wasn't something they were really brought up with, and they didn't much like it when they were younger. Now let's say that you expect them to walk you through it, and expect them to know precisely how it's done, and that you will also feel you have gotten a glimpse of some exotic experience as a result of this.

Because that's what's being discussed here, and we're still starting from the presumption that any Vietnamese person in America should be on hand to teach us how to eat and pronounce pho, because of course they know, and how dare they get upset that we haven't bothered to ask if they really want to be or are qualified to be our educators.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 2:00 PM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


I will point out that you don't need anyone else to teach you manners, even in foreign countries. You watch how other people do it, and imitate it. If someone thinks you're being rude, trust me, they'll tell you.
posted by corb at 2:02 PM on February 20, 2014


Fortunately, no one fetishizes Nica cuisine

Hey now, I resemble that remark. I've never been there but the restaurants I ate at in Miami? Total food bliss.
posted by Dip Flash at 2:02 PM on February 20, 2014


...but anyone who is trying the dish for the first time is going to want to know "how is it customarily eaten?"

Ok, now picture that happening every single time you try to do something like "eat a hamburger" with a white person, either subtly or not. It'll get annoying really, really quickly and it doesn't matter if it's fifty different people you ate with and they all asked once. You just can't go out and "have a hamburger" anymore without knowing you're going to be asked questions and watched because hey, you know about hamburgers.

This isn't an simple problem with a quick solution on either end. But just because you take someone out for food that comes from the same background as you do doesn't make you a host.
posted by griphus at 2:03 PM on February 20, 2014 [5 favorites]


Which is relevant to a case where her guests (that she had taken to eat this specific style of food) asked her no questions but simply tried to eat the food in the manner she was demonstrating, exactly how, griphus?

You know, here's the thing: even if Soleil Ho is a big meanie who kicks puppies in her spare time, that doesn't automatically invalidate every word she says. People have commented on parts of her essay that resonated with them, and ignoring that to build a case about whether her etiquette was impeccable is pretty...well, rude.

I could go on and on about how often "niceness" is used as a rhetorical cudgel to silence or ignore women and minorities, but obvs I'm a paranoid jerk whose every word can be disregarded until you need me to read a menu.
posted by kagredon at 2:31 PM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


Ok, now picture that happening every single time you try to do something like "eat a hamburger" with a white person, either subtly or not.

Or picture being the person whose friends seem like they're going out of their way to invite you along when they want to eat hamburgers so you are there to be a refresher course every time. But they never take you out to get tacos or duck confit or lasagna or pizza or anything other than hamburgers because "hey this is my friend the person who knows how to eat hamburgers so they can teach all the rest of us any time".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:32 PM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


This isn't an simple problem with a quick solution on either end.

Indeed not. But that, I think, gets at the heart of my discontent with the linked comic. I think it could have been a lot more aware of how this is just a structurally difficult problem. It's not people being assholes, it is people behaving in perfectly natural and even, to a degree, laudable ways who--because of a set of structural, situational disparities over which they have no personal control--end up making you feel othered and exoticized. I can see that why that becomes a drag, but I don't think the answer to it is to frame all your friends and acquaintances as insensitive assholes.

I guess I feel that the comic lacks "charity" in the technical, rhetorical sense--that is, it lacks a willingness to try to understand what is involved in these exchanges from the "Other's" perspective--which is ironic, really, given the nature of the complaint that the comic is making.
posted by yoink at 2:34 PM on February 20, 2014 [5 favorites]


There's a doppleganger of a comment thread underneath the comic at Bitch Media's site (it was reposted)
posted by spamandkimchi at 2:35 PM on February 20, 2014


I guess I feel that the comic lacks "charity" in the technical, rhetorical sense--that is, it lacks a willingness to try to understand what is involved in these exchanges from the "Other's" perspective--which is ironic, really, given the nature of the complaint that the comic is making.

The thing is, we are all constantly swimming in that perspective. It's considered normalized to ask the kinds of things that the friend in the comic is asking. The good intentions assumed to be underlying it are considered sufficient to outweigh any discomfort felt by the person on the exoticized end of the interactions. FFS, there was a serious discussion in this thread about whether opposing that default position meant endorsing cultural isolation.

I've been thinking about this comment, the last paragraph in particular. The interactions described in the FPP aren't aggravating and hurtful because of being determined to "frame all your friends and acquaintances as assholes." The thing that makes them hurt is that they come from people you like, from people who you want to see you as a whole person and not as a collection of cultural cues. And it keeps happening, and you wonder: okay, is this just part of the cost of being me? Is this something that I'm going to invite more of if I openly express interest or pride in my heritage?
posted by kagredon at 2:46 PM on February 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


...which is ironic, really, given the nature of the complaint that the comic is making.

But that expectation in itself -- that venting grievances as a minority must necessarily come with charitable caveats allowing white people (or whomever) a way to save face when confronted -- is in many ways the same problem: having to accomodate the majority or face being minimized because you hurt their feelings because they didn't mean it.

Problems aren't any less valid if they're presented without a solution or way out for the accused.
posted by griphus at 2:49 PM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


yoink, I understand why you are discontent. But I think the comic is personal, partial, and not trying to be a comprehensive discussion of the matter.

I hope people can separate out the discomfort of feeling judged (this thing you do bugs me and I feel like you are trying to eat my identity) from the discontent of incompleteness (how do we navigate a multiethnic society in good faith and emotional honesty, knowing that some people are food nerds and some people are food snobs and some people make mistakes and some people are imposing some problematic notions of race and some people just want to eat lunch).

And with that I'm offline for lunch. I'm eating some Americanized pad thai take out from a Laotian run restaurant in a neighborhood of Honolulu dominated by Korean restaurants.
posted by spamandkimchi at 2:50 PM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


nooo take me with youuuu that sounds delicious. as does your username...
posted by twist my arm at 3:17 PM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Venting from a position of polish white American privilege. I don't mention the Polish part much but...

Of all the shit to get bent out of shape about. It's not a a symbol of anything sinister, people are sometimes tactless and we really don't give a shit whether you feel ingratiated by us respecting your opinion either. Maybe we're making conversation, maybe we want your opinion, maybe you fawn about your culture's food stylings constantly and we want a peek. I guess I haven't been around truly painfully tactless interactions enough, usually all "ethnic food" conversations I've had with "foreigners," are initiated by them offering me an "exotic" snack or inviting me out.. Maybe I'm needlessly speaking out for other dicks who do the "where you from?" thing.

You can manage to educate "true friends" without being passive aggressive (though this is euphemistically called politeness around the world including the US) and expect to to deal with buffoons often. Welcome to America, be a little culturally sensitive that you're in buffoon country.

Go to any other country as a foreigner and expect it too. I actually got an earful from from a Czech dude about Americans being stoners. Whatever, where's my bong..

Just my parochial opinion. I'm open to learning more about where I go wrong...
posted by lordaych at 3:23 PM on February 20, 2014


> a target like "French cuisine" or "a pastie" is too broad or inspecific

I've found the French can be very specific about some things.

Uh, good on you for being all worldly and cosmopolitan and familiar with EU food regulation, but a kind of food tied down to a specific place name is the exact opposite of what I was describing in what you quoted. I didn't mention a particular region of France nor Cornish pastie versus a Karelian pastie, etc.
posted by XMLicious at 3:26 PM on February 20, 2014


I will definitely be more sensitive to this knowing how it makes others feel, but also appreciate the opportunity to somewhat politely put forward my perspective.

My most recent incident with this was in fact with a South Vietnamese guy who moved here as a boy, with a sad / amazing story involving dismantling a boat so that he could technically be rescued by another country rather than left to die in the ocean, but that doesn't make me white-boy-admiring-Asian-boy-condescendingly for saying so, or maybe it does, I dunno, it's exhausting.

I've eaten pho years due to a "Fawning Fanatic" second-generation woman that my wife was friends with, but when I traveled out to California on business and he asked me what I wanted to eat, I said "do you like pho?" Rather than "take me to your pho!" And he was a little taken aback expecting me to want a steak dinner or what have you, and then drove me off for like 45 minutes to a little Vietnam section of Orange County. I didn't feel like a badass for liking "his" food but I was intrigued with watching him essentially pickle and sugar up his raw onions before adding them to the bowl, and realized "maybe I haven't been paying attention all of this time! Maybe it's just the way he likes it! Who cares, I hate raw or pickled onions!"

I don't think it's shouting anyone down for people to respond to this with some defensiveness and don't appreciate comments to the effect of "unless you have something to say in favor of this person's comic you don't need to comment here." Sorry, no, this is how we have a dialog and maybe make some progress rather than having a circle jerk.

I don't see a lot of overt dickishness and probably my "bent out of shape" exaggeration was the least charitable, but I'll have to re-read the thread more closely and pick up better on it.
posted by lordaych at 3:44 PM on February 20, 2014


I want to make it clear that this comic is not representative of the attitudes held by many people of colour, for example: me, my extended family and most of my friends from various heritages.

You know when someone comes up to you and asks you, "Excuse me, do you know how to get to [your local big name tourist trap]?"

You know how you might be like, "Sure, just go left that way, and by the way, if you buy tickets online on your phone now, you'll save like fifteen bucks, compared to if you try to buy tickets at the venue. Hope you guys have a good time!", and you know how when you were travelling overseas, how good it was to bump into hospitable people like that?

Or alternatively, you might be like, "Aw, shit, here's another dumbass tourist getting in my way on the sidewalk, blocking my path at the subway looking around and taking photos of stuff I see every day".

Me, my family, most of my friends try to be welcoming people. We can't always be, but most of the time we are, and we like it when other people are welcoming back to us. We are not like this comic artist, and you should know that we're not the only ones.
posted by surenoproblem at 4:23 PM on February 20, 2014 [6 favorites]


surenoproblem: "Me, my family, most of my friends try to be welcoming people. We can't always be, but most of the time we are, and we like it when other people are welcoming back to us. We are not like this comic artist, and you should know that we're not the only ones."

Well good for you and your friends, I guess? It doesn't make you a better person, and it doesn't make the two authors worse people.

Like, I don't have a problem introducing others to my food culture, but I recognize that is precisely because I haven't had the same lifetime of experiences these two women have had (Chinese food isn't really considered "exotic" any more, so no foodie badges to earn). I'm not going to throw anyone under the bus just because I haven't personally had their challenges.
posted by danny the boy at 5:03 PM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


As someone who:

a) Took Malaysian food largely for granted until I came to Australia and wondered why affordable food is blah and good food is overpriced
b) has a Lot Of Strong Feelings about Malaysian food particularly when it relates to White people making money off it (god that one Masterchef episode when they complained that one contestant's satay sauce is too lumpy to eat it like a soup THAT IS THE POINT YOU IDIOT IT'S BBQ SAUCE NOT CURRY)
c) is in an area where the closest thing to Malaysian food is an Indonesian restaurant that I can't go to anymore because it reminds me too much of my ex as well as a weekly food truck kind of far away from me
d) was ostracised from Malaysia for being the Other and yet the only thing I miss about the country is the food
e) loves durian and is considered a weirdo for doing so
f) could not tackle spicy food AT ALL until I spent a summer in the US and poured hot sauce on everything because it was so bland

I really appreciated this article, and a lot of the comments on here are giving me a headache.

There's a difference between you asking me about Malaysian food because you know that's important to me and you're willing to accept my answer, and you asking me because you think I'm some sort of Oracle and when I either give you an unexpected answer or just plain don't know the answer you get upset and angry at me for my lack of knowledge.

I actually get the latter reaction more when people try to ask me about Bangladeshi food and culture, because that's where my parents are from. (People don't tend to believe me about being Malaysian to start with.) I was raised primarily outside Bangladesh; I'm a foreigner there. My mum does cook Bengali food, but it's also often fusioned with various forms of Malaysian cooking, and there are some things that are special tricks of hers. She would be happy to chat to you about it if there's a genuine interest and you're not trying to quiz her for her True Bangla Points. I wouldn't know enough to help you.

What people like sawdustbear are trying to get across is that no one is entitled to this information. We don't exist to be Wikipedias for your exotic cultural needs. We may not have the Exotic Cultural Information you have. That shouldn't be the only reason you talk to us.

And there's a difference between "hey, I'm not sure how to eat this, any pointers?" and taking their answer as is, and either staring at them trying to reverse engineer their moves or pestering them on The One True Way Surely There Is One True Way Why Are You Holding Back From Me.
posted by divabat at 5:06 PM on February 20, 2014 [5 favorites]


Since [paella] was created in one of the poorest regions of Valencia, the original recipe included marsh rat, for starters.

Yes! The authenticity issue gets a lot clearer and easier to understand once you think about cultures of food scarcity.

I spent a month once travelling through Newfoundland, and from a food perspective it was an A+ for authenticity and for quality maybe a D. There wasn't much to eat apart from stuff like fish & brewies, which is salt cod mixed with bread and pork fat, all boiled together. It's visually boring and has zero flavour, but it's super-authentic. Same goes, in Newfoundland, for boiled corned beef and cabbage, frozen orange juice, and a general lack of vegetables. (The lobster was great though :-))

So yeah, authenticity is orthogonal to quality. And as per the comic, I can totally see how weird it could be to feel pushed to act as a tour guide for the awesomeness of the particular cuisine someone wants you to "represent." The assumptions that seem to underpin that are annoying to me.
* that authenticity=quality
* that your culture is simple and knowable and you must be its ambassador (I feel this way from a gender perspective sometimes, on the rare occasions when I feel I'm being expected to speak on behalf of All Women Everywhere.)
* that you, the tour guide, are "other" -- that any sense of yourself as American (or whatever the majority culture is) is being erased
* that you, the tour guide, share a bunch of the other person's implicit but unarticulated values (probably e.g. appreciation for diversity, worldliness, travel, novelty, openness, tradition, craftsmanship, authenticity, etc. -- although now that I write them down, I realize it looks like the majority culture is supposed to value e.g. diversity, and the minority culture is supposed to value e.g. tradition. Weird!)
* and that you, the tour guide, are willing to participate in the majority-culture person's status self-enhancement.

In writing this, I don't mean to be shaming of anybody searching for the world's best pho or whatever --- I have done my share of that for sure, and there's obviously nothing wrong with it. But reading this comic definitely gave me stuff to think about. I'm glad Shing Yin Khor made it, and thanks to spamandkimchi for posting it.
posted by Susan PG at 5:24 PM on February 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


Really good comic. Thanks for the post.
posted by salvia at 6:44 PM on February 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Parts of this comic struck close to home for me, being a Thai-Chinese-American (not making up the triple-hyphenated ethnicity, it's a thing, I explained it in the other "where are you really from" comic thread...)

I actually don't mind people seeking out "authenticity" nor do I mind people asking for my opinion on foods. I mean it does sometimes get weird when my opinion is asked for any Asian food - it's not like I should know any more about the best Japanese or Korean food than a random white dude - but in general if I know about the food I'm happy to share what I know.

If anything, recently I've heard more people saying things like "Authentic doesn't matter, taste matters." I get their point that authenticity does not equal superiority, and of course "authentic" is a vague concept. But it does matter because I want to know if a Chinese restaurant is serving General Tso's and other Americanized stuff, or food similar to what would be served in China. It doesn't mean I think any "authentic" Chinese dish is inherently superior to any "Americanized" Chinese dish, it just means I don't want to eat Americanized Chinese food. And what tastes good is obviously more subjective than what is "authentic."

And I can never watch those "Bizarre Food" shows when it's my food that the host is proclaiming as bizarre and disgusting before "bravely" eating it.
posted by pravit at 6:48 PM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


I'm sort of depressed that links like this on MeFi are starting to fall for me under the Internet maxim "great content, just make sure not to read the comments".
posted by threeants at 8:10 PM on February 20, 2014 [5 favorites]


I couldn't decide whether it was clever or oblivious that Shing Yin Khor's favourite sauce, cited in the context of "authentic immigrant experience" and "adopted expertise", is from Marcella Hazan, a first-generation Italian-American who made a living by selling her expertise in Italian and Italian-American cooking, via a Jewish American blogger (Deb Perelman). I wondered if she thinks of Italian Americans as culturally separate from the white people who ask for her expertise, or as the culturally lost children of immigrants. I wondered if she thinks of her favorite sauce as cultural appropriation, or if, because "Italian food" is so integrated into American culture, and Italians are Western Europeans, and anti-Italian violence is a thing of the past, she doesn't think of it at all.

Thought-provoking stuff.
posted by gingerest at 9:41 PM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


Yes! The authenticity issue gets a lot clearer and easier to understand once you think about cultures of food scarcity.

Rural anywhere in the developing world. Rice with the brine from a can of sardines being extended to feed 10, the prize cockerel (who is old and tough) being slaughtered for your farewell so you chew down for the next hour or so, the lump of maize porridge with kale and a sliver of some sort of meat, the borrowed eggs used to make you, the honoured guest, an omelet...
posted by infini at 1:48 AM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


And everyone ate organ meats, yeah. It's just that nowadays we're too refined for (the local equivalent of) cucina povera.
posted by sukeban at 2:33 AM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


I thought the article "Craving the Other" was interesting but failed to really understand WHY westerners have now become obsessed with "Authentic Foreign Cultures"...
which seems simultaneously an internalization of liberal notions of "multi-culturalism" being a good thing and the continual search for social / class distinction.

These days a reasonable knowledge of foreign food and culture is necessary for securing a solid middle class socio-economic position,(i.e. getting a good middle class job, and the respect of your peers) in the same way that a good grounding in the "the Classics" used to be necessary.

White Middle class people worry about knowing how to pronounce Pho because it has the potential to directly impact on their future economic possibilities and chances.

And actually you can see that those who are actually "embedded" in that culture have a particular disadvantage because they are not able to use correct pronunciation of Pho as a marker of distinction in the same way.

In my personal experience though "Foodism" is also even more strongly prevalent amongst second generation middle-class Asian immigrants than whites. Perhaps because they have an interest in elevating this form of distinction over say Wordsworth.
posted by mary8nne at 3:59 AM on February 21, 2014


In my personal experience though "Foodism" is also even more strongly prevalent amongst second generation middle-class Asian immigrants than whites. Perhaps because they have an interest in elevating this form of distinction over say Wordsworth.

Would you care to elaborate on what exactly that "interest" would be?
posted by kagredon at 5:06 AM on February 21, 2014


Since you'll never understand the Classics, you may as well eat cake.
posted by infini at 5:18 AM on February 21, 2014


I mean that second generation immigrants have "broadly economic" interests in displacing the traditional markers of western cultural distinction. (art, literature, western pop culture etc). Because in general they are likely to have a deficit of knowledge and acclimation to western cultural affectations.

By virtue of being "2nd generation" they are brought up in an environment where their parents are not "natively" conversant in the local (western) cultural values. Hence their parents are unable to provide the kind of naturalised immersion in western culture that middle-class white parents do (unconsciously).

Second generation immigrants are actually very aware of this deficit, this quote from Soleil Ho seems to illustrate this perfectly: What I don’t tell them is, “It’s because I wanted to be like you.”

I think its wrong to think that these things are merely surface issues - instead these cultural deficits have directly economic consequences in terms of career prospects through interviews, and examinations etc.

Thus I mean that elevating "foodism" provides an opportunity for 2nd generation immigrants to exhibit fluency in a valued cultural affectation that both themselves and white middle-class folk are more evenly situated.
posted by mary8nne at 5:39 AM on February 21, 2014


I have to be honest, I did not expect this thread to detour into yellow peril.
posted by kagredon at 5:42 AM on February 21, 2014 [4 favorites]


What do you mean "yellow peril"? I am not fear-mongering. I think its all perfectly fine. cultural values are always in flux. Foodism is merely one of the latest developments in cultural distinction.

I don't mean to suggest there is any objective value in "traditional western culture" - it is intended as more of a Bourdieuian analysis of the situation. That all individuals under capitalism are forced into a competitive cultural relations with one another for various economic prospects.
posted by mary8nne at 5:51 AM on February 21, 2014


Or to put it another way, something that used to be a source of anxiety (not fitting in) is now something that makes them cool.
Some people will embrace this, and others will be suspicious of people suddenly turning to them as the gatekeepers of their culture. Both are valid responses.
posted by domo at 5:56 AM on February 21, 2014


The "Off the Great Wall" YouTube series is a great example of people taking this gatekeeper role and running with it. I've learned a lot about dim sum from them. But not everyone is going to be so happy to show you how to tell good chicken feet from bad.
posted by domo at 6:01 AM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


[We seem to be getting into some fairly bizarre/offensive stuff here. I'd urge folks to recognize that the "they" under discussion is actual real people really participating right here, right now. In this thread. So maybe discuss inclusively or ask questions rather than dropping a painful ton of "My-Theory-Which-Is-Mine" brick-like assumptions into the middle of the discussion?]
posted by taz (staff) at 6:06 AM on February 21, 2014 [4 favorites]


These days a reasonable knowledge of foreign food and culture is necessary for securing a solid middle class socio-economic position,(i.e. getting a good middle class job, and the respect of your peers) in the same way that a good grounding in the "the Classics" used to be necessary.

I am not sure I understand what you mean by that. It has certainly never been my experience, at least. I think perhaps a willingness to just be open to things that may be strange to you may be necessary, but I have never heard or seen that cultural competency in various types of Asian cuisine is necessary to get a job or a promotion. I am, additionally, fairly sure there is no widespread Asian conspiracy in bringing delicious food to the rest of us and/or making our careers dependent on it.
posted by corb at 6:36 AM on February 21, 2014 [2 favorites]


fairly sure there is no widespread Asian conspiracy in bringing delicious food to the rest of us and/or making our careers dependent on it.

hah yeah, of course not .. but my actual point is that there SHOULD BE! Well more broadly that all "ethnic minorities" should embrace "authentic foodism" because it provides an alternative and more democratic mechanism to exhibit cultural fluency.

Although the focus on "authenticity" does tend to skew it all towards those with the ability to travel - which requires a certain level of wealth that is generally only the possession of the established middle-class.
posted by mary8nne at 6:57 AM on February 21, 2014


What do you mean "yellow peril"? I am not fear-mongering. I think its all perfectly fine. cultural values are always in flux[...]I don't mean to suggest there is any objective value in "traditional western culture"

Yeah, and early 20th century pundits frequently expressed their grudging admiration for the "work ethic" of immigrants, but it's still deeply creepy to position Asian immigrants (like...all of us? Across how many different languages and cultures?) as a monolithic economic competitor that seeks to displace the (also monolithic, apparently) dominant culture.

But anyway, if you really want to turn this into an academic discussion:

The premise that second-generation immigrants would necessarily have deeper knowledge of the finer points of a particular cuisine than Wordsworth is invalid, as Khor ("my immigrant experience doesn't have a curry recipe") and several in-thread comments (one example) point out. There are all kinds of reasons--conscious efforts to assimilate, lack of money or time, lack of access to a larger immigrant community, parents who just plain don't like to cook, etc., why second-generation children wouldn't have particular access to that knowledge.

Look at this as well (and more comments):

I don't understand your obsession with authenticity, but perhaps it's because I don't know what you're using to measure authenticity

That is, while there's an expectation that minorities be familiar with "authenticity", control of the definition of authenticity remains out of their hands. See also the paragraph in Ho's essay about the influx of "contemporary Asian" high-end restaurants, primarily owned by chefs who aren't particularly studied in the cuisine in question, but are well-recognized names for their previous restaurants in French or Italian cuisine. Because there is still the perception that the "canon" of haute cuisine is primarily defined by French and Italian food.
(I grant that this is less true than it used to be--thanks, David Chang--but still.)
posted by kagredon at 7:52 AM on February 21, 2014 [6 favorites]


That is, while there's an expectation that minorities be familiar with "authenticity", control of the definition of authenticity remains out of their hands.

It seems wrong though to think that the anyone single person or even a group can self-consciously (or cynically) define an "authentic culture". When groups attempt to do so it usually feels transparently inauthentic. Individuals can sort of lead practices in a particular direction but not really push them.

And practitioners seem to need to engage in the activity with a certain level of "sincerity" to create "authenticity". There seems to be some connection with religious practice. Can one really effectively lead a church as a priest or so, without believing in god?
posted by mary8nne at 9:47 AM on February 21, 2014


In my personal experience though "Foodism" is also even more strongly prevalent amongst second generation middle-class Asian immigrants than whites. Perhaps because they have an interest in elevating this form of distinction over say Wordsworth.


It seems wrong though to think that the anyone single person or even a group can self-consciously (or cynically) define an "authentic culture".


Wait, so which is it? Is your opinion that a group can define whatever vague notions you're equating with cultural currency, or not?
posted by kagredon at 10:43 AM on February 21, 2014


And practitioners seem to need to engage in the activity with a certain level of "sincerity" to create "authenticity". There seems to be some connection with religious practice.

Why? Why is this expectation only placed on some people (do you really expect "sincerity" from the person making your diner breakfast?) And who gets to decide if something is sufficiently "sincere" to be authentic?

(not really related, but it's an interesting read.)
posted by kagredon at 10:49 AM on February 21, 2014


So pretty much every Thai person I've ever met has considered ketchup as being exactly the same as pizza sauce and would use it on their pizza. In fact, I went to an American pizza chain in Bangkok when feeling nostalgic for "American" food and they had ketchup bottles on every table.

I gave up trying to explain why ketchup does not equal pizza sauce and I realize it was the authenticity of pizza as I understood it that I was arguing despite the fact their palette made no distinction. So there's that.
posted by loquat at 1:20 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


South East Asians invented ketchup, so as far as I'm concerned they are the proper authorities on how to use it.
posted by sukeban at 1:47 AM on February 22, 2014 [2 favorites]


Loquat, judging from the Pizza Hut menu in Chiang Mai I saw, ketchup is the least of it.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 10:56 AM on February 22, 2014


So pretty much every Thai person I've ever met has considered ketchup as being exactly the same as pizza sauce and would use it on their pizza. In fact, I went to an American pizza chain in Bangkok when feeling nostalgic for "American" food and they had ketchup bottles on every table.

I gave up trying to explain why ketchup does not equal pizza sauce and I realize it was the authenticity of pizza as I understood it that I was arguing despite the fact their palette made no distinction. So there's that.


Well, I am Thai-American and my relatives are Thais living in Thailand and they like to put ketchup on their pizza. But they know ketchup isn't the same thing as the actual sauce underneath the cheese. They just like putting on ketchup because they think it complements the flavor.

As you probably noticed in Thailand, Thais love condiments. Every time you go out to eat there a couple little saucers filled with dipping sauces and a caddy of various jars with vinegar, fried garlic, and other condiments to put on your food.

So putting ketchup on pizza is just a natural extension of what Thais do with other food. If they called it "pizza sauce", it was probably a linguistic misunderstanding on their part, in the sense that you have hot sauce, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, ok, well then the condiment you use for pizza is "pizza sauce." Some Thais are unaware that Americans don't have a special condiment sauce to eat with pizza, and that in English "pizza sauce" refers to the base sauce used to make the pizza itself - it doesn't mean they can't taste the difference.

Oh, and if you think ketchup on pizza is bad, some Brits (and Americans!) have been known to put ketchup on pasta. But I'm pretty sure they do it because they like it, not because their palates can't distinguish the difference between ketchup and marinara sauce.
posted by pravit at 12:04 PM on February 22, 2014 [8 favorites]


Well more broadly that all "ethnic minorities" should embrace "authentic foodism" because it provides an alternative and more democratic mechanism to exhibit cultural fluency.

No and no and no. This is as much of a step 'backward' as saying that all "ethnic minorities" should embrace "self-exoticization" because it provides an tactical alternative against colonialism/racism by highly valuing those minorities.

IMO, the notion of "authenticity" is a symptom that only arises when one is unable to view a group of people as a multitude of people, but instead views it as a singular mass. "The Chinese". "The Asians". I don't go to friends' houses and ask if their food is authentic. I don't go to the various cities that I consider my home and start questioning if what I'm eating is authentic ________ food. I doubt that you do, either; why should you?
posted by suedehead at 12:35 PM on February 22, 2014 [4 favorites]


When I end up at a "Boston Market" franchise in New England or anywhere else I say to myself, "This is crap. It doesn't have anything in particular to do with Boston-area food." I don't think it's because I have any difficulty regarding Bostonians as a group composed of individual Massholes.

I don't doubt that such pathologies exist, of course, but I don't think that being able to question whether Panda Express represents authentic Chinese food (or even an authentic version of the food created by Chinese-American establishments catering to non-Chinese customers during the past couple of centuries) or whether the "American gobstopper" you find in a London candy shop actually resembles any confection Americans eat is exclusively a symptom of some pathology that causes an inability view a group of people as a multitude of people.
posted by XMLicious at 1:54 PM on February 22, 2014


Wow, many threads on the perspectives of ethnic minorities contain some offensive comments, but I am honestly pretty surprised at the comments that Asians don't have the cultural legacy of a Wordsworth so should welcome the opportunity to be relevant to white majority culture in the US by explaining how to hold chopsticks or where to buy curry.
posted by sweetkid at 2:26 PM on February 22, 2014 [8 favorites]


but I don't think that being able to question whether Panda Express represents authentic Chinese food (or even an authentic version of the food created by Chinese-American establishments catering to non-Chinese customers during the past couple of centuries) or whether the "American gobstopper" you find in a London candy shop actually resembles any confection Americans eat is exclusively a symptom of some pathology that causes an inability view a group of people as a multitude of people.

Again, I'd ask the question: what do you mean by authentic, and where is this authentic to be found? Can you give me an example of authentic American food?

And then - once that "authentic american dish" is found; if an American person modifies that dish by putting sriracha or cholula hot sauce on it, or cooks it badly, or undersalts it, or makes it vegetarian/vegan -- is that not "authentic" anymore?

So if one is a bad cook and an American, is one being inauthentic all the time? Failing to make a proper omelet = making an 'inauthentic' omelet?

Or if I make a super weird dish and make up my own version of an omelet or lasagna or a steak dinner, am I being 'inauthentic'?

I mean, imagine the stress! How do I know whether I am eating an authentic American meal? I live in NYC; how can I be sure that when I got to a burger place, I'm eating an authentic burger? This bothers me constantly, because I just want to make sure I'm eating the right food, because I wouldn't want to eat a burger that tastes great to me but is inauthentic. Like - what if they use arugula instead of lettuce, and blue cheese instead of american? Is that okay? What if it's a turkey burger? Is that authentic? I mean, turkeys are American, right? Or is it inauthentic?

This stresses me out constantly, so I try to make a list of authentic burger places, and sometimes I even ask other Americans where the authentic American burger is, so I don't accidentally eat an inauthentic burger. The other day I found this restaurant that had a "Greek burger" - feta cheese, olive tapenade, raw onions, arugula, toasted bun, and a patty! I would never eat that - it sounded so inauthentic - everyone knows that burgers are American, not Greek. After all, I just want to know that I'm eating the right thing, and that when I eat a burger, I'm tasting it the way it should taste.

--

Sarcasm aside:

Once I was couchsurfing in Japan, and hung out with these two women, born and bred in Tokyo. I had contacted one person last-minute, so we didn't know that we were going to meet until the afternoon of, and she brought along her friend that she had planned to eat dinner with anyways. But we hung out, and all hit it off, and they were friendly and interesting. Eventually it was dinnertime, and we decided to go eat dinner.

They asked me what I wanted to eat, since I was visiting Tokyo. I told them: "Well, since you guys were planning on hanging out anyways, why don't we go to wherever you were planning on going?

They looked at each other, and one of them said, "Well, we were planning on going to this really good burrito place..."

"Great! Let's do that!"

"But don't you want to get some traditional Japanese food, since you're visiting Japan?"

"Well, how often do you get burritos?"

"The place is great, so we go there pretty often. Maybe once a week?"

And so I explained: "Let's do that, because I'd rather experience in Tokyo as you do, not trying to fulfill an image of Tokyo in my mind."

And so we went to this burrito place and had burritos.

And personally, I didn't think that they were that great. But that was just my opinion, based on my experience of a certain concoction that I call "burrito". Who am I to say that eating burritos in Tokyo is "inauthentic", if I meet two wonderful people who eat burritos every week? Is it any more intelligent for someone to visit Tokyo and to be surprised that a Japanese person eats a "burrito" than for a Japanese person to visit the US and to be surprised that Americans eat "Chinese food", Panda Express?
posted by suedehead at 2:52 PM on February 22, 2014 [2 favorites]


Well, are we confusing the words "authentic" with "traditional" ?

Certain foods are "traditional" here in the south. Grits, to use a prime example.


It is NOT authentic in my view to put sugar or syrup on grits. The authentic way to eat them is heavy salt, heavy butter or margarine.

Now, do people eat grits and do abominable things to them? Sure. But if I am explaining grits to a native Israeli-which I have done, back in the old Waffle House days, I am going to explain the CORRECT southern way to eat them.

I think most of the time when people want to know if something is authentic, they just want to know if the item is traditional to the culture and is it prepared the way someone in the culture would think it should be prepared? OR was it "americanized" for US palates?

There is nothing wrong with wanting to know the answer to those questions. It was enlightening, for example, when a new Japanese friend explained to me that the sushi I got here in the States was Americanized (the question I had for her was how is it properly eaten.) It was helpful, and I don't think she was insulted. We were both eating Italian food at the time. ;-)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:02 PM on February 22, 2014 [2 favorites]


( And as someone who puts ketchup on her hot dogs and has been accused of being a Communist for it, I have no ground to object to Thais enjoying their pizza with ketchup. Or mayonnaise, although THAT takes a bit more effort.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:04 PM on February 22, 2014


Again, I'd ask the question: what do you mean by authentic, and where is this authentic to be found?

Ah, you're the one making definitions here, not me. I can see that you've got a bunch of prepared scripts about how someone who disagrees with you must think and act and how amazed and confounded they would be by all the cosmopolitan anecdotes you can tell about your globetrotting experiences. But I've already used the term "authentic" in this thread, and since you've declared that accepting it as a notion can only arise from a certain mental aberration, you're going to have to work to prove your claim off of what I've already said - you probably should have figured out the range of meanings the word can have before you started psychoanalyzing people based upon its use, rather than trying to build your case afterwards.

It's great that you've come to terms with your inadequacy as an arbiter over whether or not some burritos you had in Japan could be described as authentic, but that accomplishes the opposite of lending you credence when you sweepingly diagnose character issues in groups of people. You're not inclining me to think you've got more of a burning insight into the souls of others than you do into burritos.
posted by XMLicious at 6:17 PM on February 22, 2014


So... if you want to know of a good restaurant that isn't Americanized or fast-food-ized, how are you supposed to ask? "What's a good Vietnamese restaurant that isn't like Taco Bell is to Mexican restaurants?"

Is there a reason you can't just ask, "Do you know a good Vietnamese restaurant?"
posted by straight at 7:12 PM on February 22, 2014


...prepared scripts ... mental aberration .. psychoanalyizing people ... inadequacy as an arbiter... burning insight ...

wow
such hostility
much scarecrow
very ad hominem
wow

Sigh. As an Asian-American / Korean-American, I'm tired of talking about "authentic" Korean food, or "authentic" Asian food. I'd rather have people enjoy food, and think about good food. Or I like St. Alia's distinction - we can go look for "traditional" food. There's lots of good food out there from many different places.

But in my experience, in my lived experience, the term "authentic" has similar connotations and similar usages as the word "exotic". I haven't heard people question the 'authenticity' about things that are not 'exotic', ever.

Oh, and of course, "Exotic" is also a symptom of a specific kind of mindset. Orientalism, exoticization, etc. etc. If you don't understand why the word 'exotic' is problematic, and if you're also going to defend the right to use the word, then go ahead and do so. Can't help you here. Maybe this place can.
posted by suedehead at 12:35 AM on February 23, 2014 [5 favorites]


Oh, nothing about rights, I was reacting to your statement about the inabilities of people who might be willing to use the word "authentic", of whom I know a few. If you genuinely have only heard people argue about what the "authentic" or "real" version of a dish or cuisine is when it's something exotic and not, say, pizza or hamburgers, or anything else people really like, and stridently denounce the authenticity of the sort they don't favor, that is a radically different experience from my own.

"Exotic" is something I can understand better; it seems to have similar connotations to me that it does to you, so I can understand why you would sigh and have all sorts of expectations about the character of someone who would use it. If you have the same feeling about "authentic" and hear it as often as I do, I'm sorry you have to go through that on a regular basis. After this thread, I'm certainly inclined to try to do without it in my vocabulary whenever I can.
posted by XMLicious at 1:41 AM on February 23, 2014


I think I was suspect of trying to find "real Japanese food" (ie sushi) for a short time while living here in Japan. That is, until I had a number of bowls of noodles, seared liver and heart on a stick with some kind of plum sauce, cow tongue, and all sorts of mainly-veggie based bento boxes. There's no such thing as "authentic". There's no REAL sake. There's just stuff you like, and stuff you're not sure about but it could grow on you?, and stuff you dislike.

I'm sure there's a fairly common way to eat different food, but I think my fellow Americans are assholes when they feel the need to point out "you don't dip that food in that sauce!" Bitch, I know it's probably "wrong", but it's about flavor and trying new things, isn't it? I appreciate a cultural tip, but there's the way it's said. But then my parents are supposed to come around sometime for a visit and they'll just assume I know "the way" to eat something or that I'll have a favorite sake or ramen place, like it's a token thing that gives me Japan LVL Expert! status.

Things felt really awkward when my boyfriend exclaimed excitedly that he was looking forward to having me take him to a "real ramen place."
He's only eaten ramen out of microwaveable bowls and so did I before getting here. That's still delicious and I still adore what we Americans think of as ramen, but how do I explain my undoubtedly limited experience with the food? I said "Um, babe, it's an often giant bowl of often soupy noodles of various thicknesses and flavors all tangled up with what tend to be vegetables and other things I don't know of, and sometimes there's a boiled egg or pork or whatever in it, and you'll just have to go exploring with me and on your own because you can't even find the same thing in the same town, and sometimes not even on the same street."

If I'm sneaking peeks at how locals eat their food, it's because I might never have thought about a more delicious way to eat that funky bit of eggplant-thing, or I need some tips on handling it with chopsticks (because I've flipped soy sauce on myself way too many times while trying to grip a thin slice of whatever), or "I didn't order this bowl of unknown substance but I see SHE got one too so...." Growing up with potatoes and spinach dishes and beef, I like learning about new foods and new-to-me ways to eat food because I'd eventually like to cook meals that don't have "themes".

I dunno. I just think it's best to ask people who you respect or are interested in where their favorite restaurants are, and if the Indian guy gives you recommendations for a place that serves great gumbo or pizza or curry then just go with it. There's a restaurant here in Japan that serves some insanely good bucket-style fried chicken (dear god, finger-lickin' good to the max).
posted by DisreputableDog at 6:53 AM on February 23, 2014 [2 favorites]


Interestingly, I was just reading something an acquaintance of mine posted on Facebook. He is from China, but lived in San Francisco for several years and is now back in China. He was super excited to see that an "American Chinese" restaurant had opened in his neighborhood and couldn't wait to go eat food that reminded him of his time in America.

"Orange Chicken! American food! So excited!"
posted by sweetkid at 2:27 PM on February 23, 2014 [6 favorites]


sweetkid: He was super excited to see that an "American Chinese" restaurant had opened in his neighborhood and couldn't wait to go eat food that reminded him of his time in America.

That is so fantastic. I imagine, if it is successful, that there will be more "American Chinese" restaurants in China, and over time, I suspect that their flavors, techniques, and other foodways will tend to diverge from what we are beginning to call in the US "Chinese-American" restaurants, and that eventually someone will open a "Chinese Chinese-American" restaurant that specializes in maybe General Sanders Chicken or something.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:05 AM on February 24, 2014 [4 favorites]


I don't know if I could live without fried rice, and apparently that's a Chinese-American meal and not common in China, although I hear it's become something of a street food staple in southeast Asia.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:26 AM on February 24, 2014


A friend of many years has recently become very weird about my Asianness. Every time I see him lately, I swear he brings up some cultural thing and then focuses intently on my answer. Mostly I'm okay with it, but last week he handed me a pamphlet advertising some Chinese acrobats and asked if I'd ever heard of them. I said no, are they going to be at the auditorium? No, he said, they're not coming to town. WTF, dude, I am holding a fiddle and we're both about to play Irish music in this bar in America, and what am I supposed to do with this pamphlet? Besides leave it on the table next to my drink, to remind me of what I look like, which is a damn Asian weirdo trying to play Irish music.

His surname is German. I may need to start quizzing him on fine points of his exotic German culture.
posted by salix at 11:34 PM on February 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


Sigh. As an Asian-American / Korean-American, I'm tired of talking about "authentic" Korean food, or "authentic" Asian food.

Is there a way to say, "food that is designed specifically for an American palate, and is super bland and shitty"? Because that's what I usually mean when I say I want "real Korean food", is, "not that." I sometimes shorten it as "not a restaurant for meguks," but I'm not sure if that's a terrible thing to say.
posted by corb at 11:54 AM on February 25, 2014


What's wrong with saying "food that isn't super bland and shitty"?
posted by kagredon at 1:20 PM on February 25, 2014


What's wrong with saying "food that isn't super bland and shitty"?

Well, the problem with that is that there can be really great fusion food. But if what you're interested in is what different traditions are being "fused" in the "fusion" you need some kind of concept of "traditional" or "typical" or even "authentic" regional cuisines.

"Authenticity" is obviously a deeply problematic concept and anyone insisting strongly on the "authenticity" of any cultural product is almost certainly making a claim that can't really be substantiated. But while that's true, I feel that people are throwing the baby out with the bathwater in this thread. Sure, nothing is "purely authentic" and if you do real research into regional cuisines you'll always find lots of fine-grained variation within the supposedly "traditional" way of doing things. But that isn't, on the other hand, to say that, for example, Hunan cuisine is indistinguishable from Hokkaido cuisine or from French Provencal cuisine or from Gujurati cuisine etc. etc. etc. And it's not a stupid or insensitive or culturally reifying thing to be interested in what is and is not typical of those different cuisines and to seek examples of dishes that are genuinely representative of those traditions to see how they each differ from the others and what kinds of approaches they take. It doesn't mean you have to fetishize them or try to preserve them in amber or deny their necessarily historically contingent formation etc. etc. etc. It just means you're interested in the fact that the different peoples of the world have approached major cultural practices (food, death, birth, marriage, song, story etc. etc.) in different ways and you'd like to gain some understanding and insight into them.
posted by yoink at 2:20 PM on February 25, 2014 [5 favorites]


That was really well said, yoink.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:49 PM on February 25, 2014


It just means you're interested in the fact that the different peoples of the world have approached major cultural practices (food, death, birth, marriage, song, story etc. etc.) in different ways and you'd like to gain some understanding and insight into them.

Sure, but some people in this thread seem to want to rationalize "I'm curious" as a way to make it ok to quiz people about authentic food/cultural practice/etc. It can be OK in some cases, with certain people. We have a few people (not many) in this thread who are of Asian or other so-called foreign origin to the US who don't mind being asked these questions, but many have said that they do mind. Whether "authentic" is important or not is kind of an interesting topic, sure, because there is so much cultural mixing and regionally specific tastes.

But the main topic of this comic isn't really "what do we mean when we say authentic food," although she does use that to make a different point. The main topic is that it's really annoying when people turn to you and ask all sorts of questions because you're "different" and they're "curious."

People say they're just curious about culture, but I think what they're forgetting is that they're not consulting a textbook, they're talking to a person. To me, constant othering and bizarre questions about my culture are so much a part of daily life that I would consider it part of my experience as an Asian American in America. I would even consider it part of my "culture." It's part of my cultural experience. My connection to my Indianness isn't just "namaste" and saris and food and things about the culture I should be expected to teach non Indian American people on command. It's also the constant setting-apart, stereotyping, jokes, etc.

When people share their experience about culture, it's not always going to be something you like and find super enlightening.
posted by sweetkid at 7:23 PM on February 25, 2014 [6 favorites]


Just came across this Arby's commercial, of all things, in which "authentic" is used, to give an example of how it isn't always in connection with exoticism. (In my part of the country where it aired, at least, where a Reuben sandwich isn't exotic.)
posted by XMLicious at 7:06 PM on March 10, 2014


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