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Off The Menu: Realness Is A Matter Of Taste

What kind of red wine pairs well with Chinese takeout?
Matthew Mead
What kind of red wine pairs well with Chinese takeout?

Over at Colorlines, Julianne Hing has an essay on Off The Menu: Asian America, a new documentary on the spread of Asian-American cultures through the spread of Asian cuisine. The film's director, Grace Lee, follows chefs and food companies that are remixing their recipes for broader American appetites and consumption habits — including a Chinese-American chef who brings his training in French cuisine to Chinese staples and a Houston-based conglomerate that mass-produces tofu. At the center of the film is a question that lots of food-lovers subconsciously wrestle with: what does it mean for food to be authentic?

Here's Hing:

"Some might deride those mass-market creations as a reductive cheapening of refined cuisines. Instead, Lee asks viewers: What is authentic Chinese or Japanese food when you're an Asian entrepreneur in a Southern U.S. city? Differentiating the authentic good from the inauthentic crap often feels like a mean contest only the snobby play. When it comes to culture, after all, authenticity is a subjective and ever-shifting standard. Yet Lee admits in the film, and I agree, that we're each prone to such snobbiness ourselves, especially when it comes to the respective cuisines we grew up eating and claim as our own.

Hing and Lee are right — lots of us do this kind of parsing and delineating when it comes to our food. You can hear it in the tepid reviews that many famous sit-down soul food restaurants get from black patrons; the thing they're competing with isn't simply taste, but something ineffable and intensely personal. (Because for real: whose baked macaroni and cheese/chaat masala/pierogies are really messing with your auntie's?)

Kat Chow, my partner in crime here at Code Switch, used to work at a Chinese restaurant in high school. She said the dishes the workers ate after they closed up shop for the evening were things they'd never serve to their customers. And Carline Watson, my boss, was raised in Jamaica, and said the jerk chicken you might buy there from a hole-in-the-wall spot in town was only notionally the same dish as the jerk chicken served in a white-table, $30-entree establishment that tourists went to.

It's also why BuzzFeed's recent video, Mexicans Try Taco Bell for The First Time, is so funny.

Of course, most Americans' experiences with Mexican fare are probably not too dissimilar to Taco Bell. (Except for the folks in the Southwest and California. Please don't get them started.)

And that's why food, in particular, remains such a useful way to think about the spread of culture, its malleabillity, and all these attendant anxieties. Even within cultures, there are debates about the proper way to serve different foods — barbecue can sometimes feel like one of the most partisan issues of our times — but once any piece of culture moves into a different context, it is fundamentally changed, even when all the actual ingredients stay the same.

When does a piece of culture become so far removed from its point of origin that it's a different thing altogether? (I'm looking at you, Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos Tacos Supreme.) Who is allowed to tinker with/profit from/consume/police those pieces of culture? What does it mean to do culture wrong? Those are questions way bigger and thornier than dim sum.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 13, 2015 at 9:00 PM PDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Carline Watson was born in Jamaica. She was born in England, but raised in Jamaica.
Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.