Our Chinese Food Is, Too, Authentic!

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According to liberal blogger Matt Yglesias--a food enthusiast who recently went to China with fellow blogger Ezra Klein--"all mildly well-informed Americans" are "well aware that the 'Chinese food' served in the United States is not the food Chinese people eat." Yglesias may have been tongue-in-cheek there, but it's true: foodies are forever agonizing over "authenticity" in ethnic food.

Imagine Yglesias's astonishment to discover that Ameircan Chinese food is "in some ways more authentic than [he] realized." Revelation number one: "Kung pao chicken, for example, is a totally authentic Chinese dish."

But Yglesias also makes a broader point, citing renowned chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain: "authenticity" in food isn't just about tracing a dish to its historical origin. Rather, as Bourdain comments, "the history of food is the history of migrating ingredients and occupation and foreign influences and accommodation." Getting back to Yglesias's Kung pao chicken example:
In China it's a dish that’s prepared with sichuan peppercorns, which for many years were unavailable in the U.S. which led to the creation of a somewhat different American version of the dish, but I’ve had it both ways in the United States and even the non-peppercorn version is quite recognizable as the same food. And more to the point, substituting for unavailable ingredients is just integral to the concept of cooking, not some kind of nutty Americanism.
Will this reduce yuppie guilt over enjoying a plate of the corner take-out joint's lo mein?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.