Chris Cheung at the Happy Family Night Market.
Food

What do you mean when you call a dish 'authentic'?

Sep 14, 2018

Throughout history, overseas Chinese have relied on their kitchen acumen to sustain themselves and their families, often amid virulent social conditions. They survived by adapting their food to the local palate, devising culinary offshoots like Chinese-American chop suey, Chinese-Indian chicken lollipops, and Chinese-Peruvian chaufa.

The hyphenated diaspora foods they created are frequently maligned as inauthentic or watered-down, a narrative that Peter Kim, executive director of Brooklyn's Museum of Food and Drink, is eager to subvert. Kim says, "The question really ought not be, 'Is this food authentic?' but rather, 'For whom is this food authentic? And for what time is this food authentic?'"

From "Chow: Making of the Chinese American Restaurant"
From "Chow: Making of the Chinese American Restaurant" / Photo: Daniel Krieger / Museum of Food and Drink

But first, what does the word "authentic" mean? Even the most seemingly authentic Chinese regional cuisines are marked by trade and immigration. Chengdu-based chef and entrepreneur Jenny Gao describes Sichuan food as "a fusion cuisine from the beginning." Thanks to its position on the overland trade routes, Sichuan was uniquely well-suited to adopt foreign ingredients like fava beans and chilli peppers and turn them into something utterly new and indelibly Chinese.

"Many of the things we think of as uniquely Sichuanese emerged from the blend of Western ingredients with the culinary techniques from northern and eastern China," says Gao, citing doubanjiang 豆瓣酱, the fermented fava bean paste described as the soul of Sichuan food.

(Read more: Inside the spice rack of a Chinese chef)

Likewise, chop suey evolved from the marriage of American ingredients with Chinese techniques. At the turn of the last century, chop suey houses across the U.S. replaced pig hearts with chicken breast, wood ear mushrooms with button mushrooms, and created a nationwide phenomenon. "Chop suey supplied the blueprint for what later grew into Chinese-American cuisine," says Kim. "Take a traditional Chinese dish, adapt it with new ingredients for new tastes, and market it to non-Chinese consumers."

It's entrepreneurship.

Is that a blueprint for bastardization or for acculturation? Hong Kong-born chef Lucas Sin suggests another term: entrepreneurship.

Sin notes that by tailoring menus to the local palate, Chinese business owners gained an edge over their competitors. There was no market segment too narrow to target. Cross-cultural encounters in the Caribbean gave birth to chofan, Chinese-Dominican fried rice. And when Dominicans immigrated to New York, Chinese restaurateurs produced "a hybridization not just of Chinese with Dominican flavors, but Chinese-American flavors with Dominican flavors."

A combo meal from a Mexican-Chinese restaurant in Arizona.
A combo meal from a Mexican-Chinese restaurant in Arizona. / Photo: The Cleaver Quarterly
A Chinese-Antillean dish called Chicken Nancy Glory
A Chinese-Antillean dish called Chicken Nancy Glory / Photo: The Cleaver Quarterly

Today, diaspora restaurateurs continue to tweak their menus in order to stay afloat in markets with varying degrees of exposure to Chinese culture. When New York-based chef Chris Cheung designed the menu for a restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee, he knew certain ingredients would give local diners pause. "One challenge I encountered was melding seafood into dishes that weren't primarily labeled as seafood," says Cheung. "Like, beef and broccoli with housemade oyster sauce. They couldn't grasp oysters in a beef dish."

Cheung continues, "We take seriously our duties to help our customer base understand where we're coming from with our culture. But we also have to appreciate that they're coming from a totally different culture, so we have to start at square one, introducing our cuisine little by little."

Chris Cheung at the Happy Family Night Market.
Chris Cheung at the Happy Family Night Market. / Photo: An Rong Xu / Happy Family Night Market

Sometimes, the mechanism of hybridization can be as prosaic as kitchen equipment. Cheung notes the difference between a commercial sauté line, which turns out a dozen individual dishes simultaneously, versus high-speed wok cooking which churns through family-style orders two to three dishes at a time.

Lien Lin, a chef of Vietnamese-Chinese ancestry, once contributed a cauliflower stir-fry in a cast iron skillet to a recipe anthology of Chinese food from around the world. Most home kitchens lack the firepower to achieve the breath of the wok, Lin says, "but cast iron comes close, and holds the heat so well that you can get a good sear even if you have a crappy stove."

Do we call that a watered-down version of wok cooking? Or a gateway for the uninitiated to explore otherwise inaccessible foods? When you get down to it, is a skillet stir-fry...authentic?

One of Lien Lin's dishes from Bricolage NYC
One of Lien Lin's dishes from Bricolage NYC / Photo: Bricolage NYC

Lin doesn't agonize over such questions. "Food and culture don't always stay the same. They're evolving. For me, personally, I've lost many of the traditions of my family—ancestor worship, language, all those things. I'm not going to carry that on. My son won't. His son won't."

"The only way I stay true to my culture and my family is through its food. So I'm actually really interested to see when my son grows up what he's going to be cooking and eating. By embracing that culture and cuisine is ever-changing, we can keep those traditions close to our hearts."

Loempia, a huge Chinees-Indisch spring roll.
Loempia, a huge Chinees-Indisch spring roll. / Photo: Iain Shaw / The Cleaver Quarterly

This story was produced for Goldthread, based on a roundtable discussion at the Happy Family Night Market about hybridized Chinese food in history and today. The full transcript is available at The Cleaver Quarterly.