Categorized | Global View

Authentic Please, Hold the Spice

A Korean student from Kenya arrived late to college and missed his orientation. Understandably, he was a little bit frustrated; he lost a great opportunity to meet people and adjust to his new life. So when his American roommate suggested he come out to eat with a group of his friends, the exchange student was relieved and gladly took the opportunity. The problem was they were getting pizza, something he never had before. His roommate was astonished and said pizza was as close as one could get to a “purely American” food. Taking a chance and broadening his horizons, he decided to go. When they arrived and settled down into their seats, all eyes were on the Korean student as he took his first bite, then his second, until the piece was gone. When asked if he liked it or not, the critic pondered for awhile before reaching a surprising conclusion. He thought it was pretty good – just not as good as roasted goat leg.
Marilyn McCullough, the assistant director of the Asian Studies Center, told this story and swore it to be true, her own son being the American roommate. While many may cringe at the thought of roasted goat leg, McCullough pointed out the Korean student found it natural. Today, it’s easy to stroll casually down the boardwalk and find oneself amidst an array of restaurants claiming to serve authentic dishes. But how many Korean restaurants serve roasted goat leg as an attraction? It leaves room to wonder whether one can really experience a traditional international dish in America. [intl2]
Restaurants everywhere advertise international food. The eating places are always side by side, competing with each other in the art of decoration to appeal to a hungry customer’s eyes. Huge signs light up to barter their specialties at the best bargain price. The delectable scent of intermingling aromas makes mouths water and stomachs growl in ready anticipation. They promise Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Thai and so many more assortments of selections from Asian cultures. It’s easy to feel as though one is getting exactly what one is paying for – a dish that crosses borders and bridges cultures.
Buying international food is a way to refute or confirm stereotypes. It has the ability to turn a person off to a particular cuisine forever. Some will never make it overseas to experience different cultures first-hand and will base their information on what America imports. “So how am I supposed to know how authentic food is if I’ve never been to the place that it’s from?” journalism freshman Hailey Schaldach said. Schaldach offered her recent experience at Indian Palace, a restaurant located on Albert Avenue, as part of an IAH 202 extra credit assignment. Sure, she ordered Indian food, but it was an Indian restaurant in America. Should the authenticity of the dish be questioned, then, as it crossed land and sea to get to Schaldach’s plate?
Vijay Chaudhary, the manger of Indian Palace, finds international Indian food authentic in America. Chaudhary claims the only difference between Indian food in America and in India is the level of spices used. Most of the dishes that Indian Palace offers are the exact same recipes from India with a slight change – the subtraction of an extremely hot spice or the addition of a particularly sweet one.
[schaldach]In spite of Chaudhary’s conviction it is still the same dish without the added spices, political science freshman Hyung-Joon Jang said most dishes are not genuine at all because of those alterations. “First of all, many people, especially us, tend to think of ethnic food on the globe as something very odd, unpleasant and sometimes nasty to even look at,” Jang said. He recalled many sushi, seaweed and noodle dishes from his childhood in Korea. When he came to America, he found international food that mimicked his home dishes was nothing like what he grew up with. While he felt the sushi looked same or the noodles smelled similar, the taste was always different. It was too bland or lacked something Jang felt was important. Without these flavors, Jang considered the food he grew up with to be completely different in America.
International cuisine is popular to those hoping to experience something new, different and exciting. Why would restaurants tone down a dish if their customers are looking for these qualities? International food used to be more accepted as authentic when people believed ingredients were too hard to gain access to. It used to be America just didn’t have certain spices or herbs available. Kimchi for Korean food was not used because, at the time, it was simply too expensive to import it. Globalization has since changed this. Floods of small Indian, Korean and Japanese shops can be found everywhere today. El Azteco and Indian Palace both are able to ship in spices from places as near as Detroit. While it still may be true some ingredients can only be grown in certain countries, it is no longer that difficult to access these ingredients. [intl1]
Although people are starting to expect restaurants to be more authentic because of this availability factor, restaurants continue to eliminate or substitute ingredients to some degree. The reason for this lies in profits, McCullough said.
Like any restaurant looking for income, international restaurants want repeated customers. In order to have regulars, the owners of the restaurant have to cater to the tastes of the people in the community. While some people claim they want a truly ethic dish, if they are not used to the native spices and ingredients, chances are they won’t like it or come back for more. It is necessary for restaurants to take out the more “exotic tastes,” which would explain why goat leg would not be found in a Korean restaurant in America, McCullough said. While the people might be curious, not many are fully committed to trying authentic international cuisine.
America’s culture is simply prone to blander tastes, McCullough said. While there is no one reason why, Americans prefer sweet to spicy as a culture. Asian cultures, on the other hand, thrive on spicy foods. It is assumed since rice, the base of many Asian meals, is bland, spices are heavy in this cuisine. However, electrical engineering junior Ralph Matthew Prewet IV said there is no reason why Americans should be prone to blander tastes because Americans don’t really have pure American foods. America is a young country, and its culture, including food, is a compilation of other cultures adapted to form a new one.
Prewet gives the example of an ice cream cone, something most consider traditionally American. The ice cream was already there, brought over years ago from another country. The only reason one considers it purely American is because someone decided it would taste good inside a waffle cone. It’s a simple equation, old plus new equals new. Ice cream plus cone equals ice cream cone, which equals American. “It was someone else’s food brought in and combined with something else to make one of nature’s best foods,” Prewet said. This concept can apply to international cuisine brought to America. To Prewet, international foods in America are not authentic because America does what it always does when it comes to food – puts them together. The dishes become “Westernized,” making them less authentic than what might be found in Beijing or New Delhi.
Is it right to label international restaurants in America as serving Korean, Thai or Indian cuisine then? When two cultures collide, the invention of new dishes happens. Restaurants in America often provide a form of a traditional food with a bit of change to it, like the toned-down version of Indian Palace’s extremely hot dish. According to McCullough, this is not unusual and it essentially occurs everywhere. When American food goes to Asia, India, China or anywhere else, it conforms too. For example, if one would go in a McDonald’s in Korea, kimchi is a popular spice placed on a hamburger. In India, the notorious meat-oriented McDonald’s becomes vegetarian. In Muslim countries, there can be no pork.
Jang takes a different point of view. He believes Americans struggle to have purely ethnic food because they approach it with biased perceptions. Therefore, the food represented as international food here is different because the culture refuses to simply try something new. While Jang admits some elderly Koreans eat dogs for health reasons and that few out of the huge Chinese population enjoy cat food, it is not justification to refuse to try any ethnic dishes or change cuisine to suit the public’s tastes. The only thing that differentiates the mass majority of dishes between Western and Eastern food is ingredients and recipes.
To Jang, taste, at first, may seem entirely different. Yet, after further exploration, one would immediately realize these new flavors also carry a somewhat shared taste found in Western dishes. For instance, anyone would admit that Western-style fried chicken resembles Chinese chicken-related food. The only distinction between the two is that the Chinese often add peppers. Also, the American-style noodles are only unlike the “ramen” in Korea because the dish contains, again, more peppers. Steak dinners are dissimilar from the “galbi” in Korean dishes in a sense that Korean galbi contains more sweetening spices.
Zak Eujeland, an employee at El Azteco, disagreed with the idea the only difference is recipes and spices. Eujeland believes if there is a difference, it doesn’t lie in the spices, but instead in the region or province that the food is from. Mexican food, for example, is prepared differently in multiple parts of Mexico. While one is getting an authentic dish when visiting El Azteco, the dish is prepared one of many ways and cannot represent all of Mexican culture.
Many people wouldn’t rely on regional origin when considering whether a restaurant is truly authentic, however. When Schaldach went to Indian Palace, she felt the food was original because her server was of Indian heritage. Likewise, chemistry junior Jacob Wittbrodt thought El Azteco was not authentic until he discovered that it was owned by a person of Mexican heritage. “It brings more legitimacy to it,” Wittbrodt said. [spice3]
Hospitality business junior Nicole Bader preferred to think traditional foods are always presented in a certain way. P.F. Chang’s China Bistro is legitimate to Bader because of the way the table was displayed when she ate there. Since their food was an assortment of dishes presented on her table in an atypical way for her, she felt it was more valid than a mass production method, seen in a meal from Rice Kitchen, for example.
In reality, international food is a process of adapting and conforming to society’s taste. Not everyone can agree upon what is suitable to eat and cook. This question of authenticity is subjective, taking into account any number of factors, including the alteration of the recipe, the area in which the food’s recipe originated or the presentation and decor used to provide customers with a unique cultural experience. In one sense, nothing can ever go untouched among the global exchange of new items. In another, Western versions are as traditional as one can experience without going to the native countries. The real importance is recognizing one fact: part of becoming global is experimenting with foreign foods and realizing a goat’s leg may be just as delectable as a slice of pepperoni pizza.

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