First appeared on Food Riot, by Amanda Feifer
Recently a friend told me he would never try the not-trying-to-be-authentic-just-trying-to-be-amazing Philly ramen spot, CheU Noodle Bar, despite glowing recommendations from all of his food-loving friends. Aforementioned food-loving friends drool over CheU's housemade kimchi, curds, fermented winter squash and the perfectly chewy (thus the establishment's name) noodles. "I've had ramen in Japan," he said. "I just can't eat the stuff in the States." He looked at me as if I would understand. I hope my blank stare communicated that I thought that was complete bullshit. I've had amazing pasta in Italy, perfect baguettes in France, generations-tested chicha in Peru, expertly-flipped tortillas in Spain and the cheesiest fondue and roastiest rösti a girl could want in the Swiss Alps and valleys. And if I said to anyone, ever, "Oh, I don't eat bread in the U.S. Once you've had it in France, you can never go back," I would be widely, and rightfully, mocked. To act as if the magic of a food can't be adapted from the location of its conception or from the people who make it is the epitome of close-minded snobbery. To assume that the "original" is the only acceptable version is limiting in a way that is, in my opinion, unworthy of the daring foodie.
Good food is good food, and pretension and pedigree doesn't change that. There can be bad food that doesn't taste good, or food that tries to be authentic and fails. But refusing to even try a food because it isn't made by the people that come from that culture or tradition is boring, snobby and possibly racist. I will never argue that there isn't such a thing as terroir; that food having a sense of place isn't a part of the food. It is. As a fermenter, I'm keenly aware that the microbes in my specific square footage have a major impact on how the foods I make taste in the end. But I'm arguing that a fixation on so-called authenticity ignores that food, like everything wonderful about life, evolves and changes. It ignores that your grandmother's kimchi likely has some differences from her great-great-grandmother's kimchi. It ignores that while my house-baked baguettes are wildly different from those of my favorite Parisian boulangerie's, they are tasty in their own right, and are certainly not even attempting to be the real thing. They are their own creation, born of the ingredients and resources I have available to me where I live and I think that's good and right.
I am by no means suggesting that tradition, specialization and craft are useless (fermenter here, remember). I value tradition, generational knowledge and cultural ownership. There are likely foods that should stay only in their home environment. I'm merely suggesting that to allow oneself to appreciate only foods that were prepared by the hands of people whose ancestors made those same foods is the best way I can think of to miss out on other kinds of goodness. To be a snob about so-called inauthentic cuisine is a way of closing yourself off from the world and saying, before you've even dipped a toe in, "I've already decided and the answer is no." Variety is the spice of life and though sometimes imitations and even adaptations do indeed fall short of the original, there are other times when that adaptation or evolution can have a beauty of its own that is definitely worth checking out.
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