The Real Thing


I’ve been thinking recently about the notion of “authentic” food.

There’s an interesting story in Singapore’s Straits Times today about foreign eateries trying to bring authentic takes on their native cuisines to Singapore. French boulangerie Le Grenier à Pain, for example, apparently stuck to its crusty baguettes even though Singaporeans typically favor softer versions that local bakeries serve up. Ditto for Quiznos and its authenticity. (Yes, this article actually cites the American food-court sandwich chain in its roundup.)

Nonetheless, there are some Singaporeans who disagree with this business strategy — one is quoted as saying that restaurants should take local preferences into account since “the customer picks what he likes most, whether or not it’s true to the original taste.”

The story made me think of the tale a friend recently told me of taking his Beijing girlfriend to Italy. There, she sniffed at the way Italians do Italian pasta dishes, finding them lacking when compared with the versions she’s had in China.

Sure, cuisines get altered all the time when they migrate from country to country — ingredients are added, steps are subtracted. But what happens when the tweaked, polyglot product ends up being what people believe to be authentic?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a rigid purist. I embrace — crave, to be precise – inventiveness on menus. 

I was recently bowled over by a laksa panna cotta served at a New York dinner party, for example. And although the proud Singaporean in me first bristled when I saw that Manhattan restaurant Double Crown‘s version of the spicy, coconut milk-based dish involved green-tea noodles instead of the traditional egg noodles, I fell in love at first bite. (Since then, I’ve even risked having my Singaporean citizenship revoked simply by suggesting that perhaps all laksa should be made with green-tea noodles.)

So, in the face of such creativity, why be inflexible?

When it comes to the cuisine I grew up with, there is no real substitute for Singaporean food in Manhattan. There are places that come pretty close. (When the hankering for Singaporean-style noodles or Teochew oyster omelettes becomes bone-gnawing, I usually head to Nyonya in Chinatown or Cafe Asean in the West Village.)

But there also are places that have gotten rave reviews and inordinate amounts of attention for touting “real” Malaysian and Singaporean dishes they’re introducing to Manhattanites — one in particular evokes gag-me-now expressions from just about everyone I know from either of those countries.

(In fact, in Calvin Trillin‘s 2007 New Yorker piece on Singaporean food, he mentions taking Singapore food celebrity KF Seetoh to check out this restaurant and says, “I sampled some of the Singaporean dishes on the menu and he responded more or less the way you’d expect a barbecue nut from Tennessee to respond to what was advertised as a pulled-pork-shoulder sandwich in, say, Helsinki or Leeds.” I won’t name the restaurant but I will note for the record that it is not Jean-Georges Vongerichten‘s Spice Market, which I respect a great deal.)

When I think about these restaurants and the Word on my native cuisine they’re propagating, I think of my friend and his “Italians-don’t-know-how-to-do-pasta-right” girlfriend.

It’s true that at the end of the day, it’s what enchants your tastebuds that matters.

But I can’t help but chuckle when I imagine New Yorkers coming to Singapore or Malaysia and complaining to people about how the locals here do their nasi lemak or Malay chicken wings.

Knowing full well the culinary pride of my people, I’d just like to see them try.

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4 thoughts on “The Real Thing

  1. When I started reading this article, my knee-jerk reaction was “Authenticity is absolutely important”! Your article highlights the answer to that question depends on the diner.
    If the eatery or restaurant is targeting locals (who were local to the food), authenticity is necessary. After all, when someone who knows a dish well and eagerly orders it from the menu at a restaurant, there is an expectation that needs to be met.
    However, if the restaurant is trying to be creative and attract new diners or non-local diners, that’s perfectly fine, but they may be well-served to identify themselves as Asian-fusion cuisine.

  2. You bring up a good point, how important is authenticity and is it possible to be authentic using ingredients that are grown locally. If you think about this craze for real “Napoletana” pizza, and if you were to look back at the history, to my knowledge pizza was consider a peasant/street food, how many of them could really afford buffalo mozzarella?
    It would be interesting to see how the burgers at Botak Jones taste, I’m guessing they’ll probably get their beef from Australia, which is quite different from the American steer.

  3. Just give me an authentic McDonald’s hamburger and I’ll be happy.
    Actually, there’s truth to it. Living in HK I’d regularly go to Mickey D’s, because it reminded me of home, even though at home I never went there. Can something be comfort food even if it has no associations of comfort? More importantly, no shamrock shakes in HK? Where’s the authenticity in THAT??
    But I digress. The bottom line is, obey your taste buds.

  4. Great point on “authentic” pizza. On burgers, the Botak Jones “authentic American” burger wasn’t bad. I’m pretty sure it was Australian beef.
    Speaking of burgers, I’ve actually been tempted to get a McDonald’s quarter-pounder this week in Singapore. But I can just imagine what my friends would say if they saw me eating one…I’d never live it down!

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