In a New York Times op-ed piece, Fred Ferretti decries both the lack of authentic Chinese food in America and the misinformation about Chinese food conveyed by various news organizations and cookbook authors. He ends up challenging the talented Chinese chefs cooking in America to "step up" in so many words and challenge our palates by cooking authentic Chinese food.
How is Ferretti wrong? Let me count the ways.
Number one, there is good authentic Chinese food in various New York Chinatowns and in Monterey Park in Los Angeles, and in Daly City, near San Francisco. When Chinese cookbook author Fuschsia Dunlop (Land of Plenty and Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook), who went to cooking school in Sichuan province, came to New York a few years ago, she was struck by how authentic and how good the Sichuan cooking was at two or three New York Sichuan restaurants. Monterey Park in the Los Angeles area is the home of hundreds of thousands of discerning middle-class Chinese who demand authentic and delicious Chinese food when they go out.
Secondly, there is both authentic Chinese food and authentic Chinese-American food in America the same way there is authentic Italian food and Italian-American food in this country. And I for one love carefully cooked Chinese-American foods like egg rolls, spare ribs, and egg foo young—and I also love the authentic Cantonese, Shanghai and Sichuan food I have discovered here.
Thirdly, sometimes authentic food is not delicious or is so foreign to American tastes and palates we can't get past its authenticity. Chicken feet are simply too cartilaginous for most of us, duck's tongues are too weird, and cubes of congealed pig's blood are downright offputting.
Fourthly, this is part of an ongoing argument I have had with about authentic food. If something is delicious, it doesn't matter if it isn't authentic, as long as it's not called "authentic." Authenticity is an overused word by food writers. I'm afraid it's come to convey a snobbiness that I don't think the food world needs or wants.
Fifth, many hybrid cuisines have developed in this country. Italian-American food is not authentically Italian, nor does it claim to be. It is, however, authentically Italian-American and perfectly legitimate in its own right. And there is great, delicious Italian-American food carefully conceived and deftly executed using first-rate ingredients (there is of course lots of lousy Italian-American food as well). Tex-Mex is not authentic Mexican cuisine, but it is authentically Tex-Mex and in the proper hands can be delicious in its own right.
In some cases, like pizza, contemporary hybrids of a traditional ethnic food outshine the original authentic versions. In researching my pizza book I ate in every great traditional pizzeria in Naples, and I can tell you for a fact that the pizza Chris Bianco is making in decidedly un-Neapolitan Phoenix, Arizona, is markedly superior to anything being made anywhere in Italy. Even my friend Jeff Steingarten has admitted that.
Lastly, Ferretti decries the inauthentic substitutions made by Chinese cookbook writers in this country. I have read and heard absolutely authentic Chinese food experts like Fuschia Dunlops making ingredient and cooking implement substitutions routinely. It's ridiculous to expect Chinese chefs not to have to adapt in various ways to produce delicious, "authentic" Chinese food in America. The ingredients aren't the same over here.
Ferretti needs to get over his myopic insistence on authenticity when it comes to Chinese food. To me, deliciousness trumps authenticity any day of the week, month, or even the Chinese New Year of the rat. Authenticity is in the eyes of the beholder, wherever we might find ourselves.
Where do other serious eaters fall on the Authentic-Delicious Divide?
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