Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Authenticity Of Culture, Not Cuisine

Cheuk Kwan's series at first glance looks like a profile of Chinese cuisine in different places around the world, but as I watched the series, I think that the cuisine, or the authenticity of the cuisine, was not very relevant to consider, but the story and the history of the people behind the restaurants was rather more important. This was true particularly in the countries where most of the restaurants were profiled, because these were not places where people were familiar with the original flavors and incarnations of Chinese cuisine, but rather most people's experience with Chinese cuisine was limited to these restaurants. What that means to me is that evaluating the strength and extent to which Chinese tradition and history is preserved in these restaurants is not related to what is cooked in the restaurant. For example, in Cuba, the Cuban government can send however many people to China to train in the ways of Chinese cooking, but the restaurant that would be subsequently opened does not have necessarily the Chinese history and tradition behind it, at least not in the same way that the restaurant in Mauritius or even the one in Canada does, because the latter restaurants represent a part of Chinese history abroad, and not a conscious attempt to create authenticity.

In looking for an authentic Chinese overseas history in many countries however, I feel that looking to restaurants is particularly effective, because many new immigrants tend to open restaurants, which makes a lot of sense, because cooking is a skill that is very translatable to different places. As an immigrant, you know your own culture and your own cuisine the best, so it seems to be one of the most obvious ways to make a living. However, what I found most interesting was the dichotomy of motivations between restaurants run by first generation immigrants and restaurants run by descendants of immigrants. The former group seem to open restaurants by necessity, again referring back to the transferable skills theme, and they also don't want their children to take over the restaurants either. Restaurateurs who are descendants of immigrants however, seem to engage in the restaurant business more because they feel a need to represent their heritage and introduce their Chinese cultural roots into their non Chinese familiar homelands. It is the second (and beyond) generation that is more concerned about authenticity than first generation immigrants because latter generations strive to fortify connections to traditions that they feel affinity for; it is they who strive to reconcile two cultures, while first generation immigrants are more concerned with making a living before exactly preserving their culture. I would say that in the U.S., this same trend is also true. Consider chop suey, the chow mein sandwich, and other Americanized Chinese foods, which were created in the original immigrant run Chinese restaurants to make Chinese food more accessible to the American population. However, now that Chinese food is established in the American food culture, there has been a surge in demand for "authenticity", often headed by a new generation of chefs in Chinese cuisine who are decidedly not immigrant, but rather more global and fusion prone in their cuisines, such as chefs we have mentioned such as Ming Tsai or Masaharu Morimoto (the Japanese Iron Chef). I think it is for the reason that Chinese cuisine is well established in the U.S. that we can have restaurants like Blue Ginger, Nobu (in New York City), and other high end Asian restaurants, where the wait staff does not have to be Asian for people to consider the food there "authentically" Asian. This is in contrast to restaurants in the countries we saw in Kwan's series, where the presence of Chinese staff or Chinese cultural themes in the restaurant was a major factor in people accepting the cuisine to be "truly" Chinese.

Ultimately, the convoluted paragraph I typed above was meant to point out that looking at differences in the Chinese restaurants and the people that run them is a microcosm where we can look at some of the differences in experience between different generations of Chinese that live overseas. If we are looking at Asian American popular culture, I feel that this is extremely relevant because different generations of Asian Americans are in completely different demographics these days, with different motivations, different priorities, and different consumer patterns. In the United States, the growing demand for "authenticity" makes me optimistic about the state of Asian Americans, because to me, I feel that it means people are willing to learn about and aware of Asian traditions, values, and cultures.

1 comment:

Salvo said...

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