Published for The Berkeley Beacon February 6 2020 Issue
The first time I tried sushi in a Boston restaurant, I noticed something was off — it didn’t taste like the sushi I grew up eating in the Philippines. There was a lack of something but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I was alarmed as my friends enjoyed eating it as if they didn’t even notice it. I thought I was crazy, but my taste buds weren’t lying: American sushi is not real sushi.
America is a melting pot of cultures and while I’m happy that different cuisines are shared, authenticity is often reduced. Authentic food offers a closer understanding of a different culture and brings people together.
In my sophomore year, I reported on a Filipino pop-up food event in Cambridge’s Lamplight Brewery. I was excited to eat Filipino food again but was perplexed when I saw the menu. One of the items was a pork longganisa dog with furikake and banana ketchup. Longganisa is traditionally served at breakfast with rice and egg.
“It was a good idea to make it like a longganisa hotdog so people would understand ‘Oh, it’s a hotdog’ and they can piece that together,” Justin Vistro, one of the organizers for the pop-up event said. He said the mix of language would help familiarize Americans to try Filipino food.
Vistro said people were receptive to the food because of this approach. While the event was a success, I’d rather have my longganisa breakfast instead. Maybe I’m being ambitious and nationalistic, but I would rather showcase my culture’s food as what it truly is. It’s unfair that chefs have to tweak their dishes to please an American crowd.
American sushi also used this concept to appeal to their American consumers. Sushi is also known as vinegar rice. This type of rice is smaller in grain and seasoned with rice wine vinegar, sugar, and salt. However, the sushi I ate in that Boston restaurant were bigger in size and didn’t have the slightest hint of the vinegary and sweet flavor I expected. At some restaurants, sushirritos were also introduced to appeal to America’s large portion size despite the dish made to enjoy in one bite.
These practices introduced American people a range of food that is not authentic to their culture, and thus made the authentic foods seem weird and confusing. I once went on a date to China Pearl Restaurant. My date was confused as to why there was a server going around the restaurant pushing a cart full of steamed baskets. I ordered spare ribs, and my date said he’s never heard of the dish before. I was shocked he had never eaten my favorite Chinese dish before, so when I asked him what his favorite dishes were, he basically listed the Panda Express menu.
Panda Express is delicious, but it’s not real Chinese food. General Tso’s chicken, orange chicken, and even fortune cookies originated in America, not China. ChowHound said lo mein noodles are traditionally cooked in a lighter and thinner sauce made with soy sauce and rice vinegar, but lo mein in the U.S. is cooked in a thick, brown sauce made with chicken broth, soy sauce, hoisin, ginger, oyster sauce, sesame oil, rice wine, and cornstarch.
My date looked at me and said he didn’t know how to eat the spare ribs. I giggled to myself but was happy to show him. In retrospect, I was lucky to go on a date with someone who was willing to try something new. I believe Americans’ perception of what is good and real food is unfortunately not true. The real challenge is trying something you’ve never had before.
Senegal’s national dish, ceebu jen, meaning rice and fish, is in the menu of former South End restaurant Teranga. When I interviewed owner Marie-Laude Mendy for an article, she said it was hard to serve the dish to customers because the fish is served bone-in. Customers would complain and ask her to serve the fish without the bones, but Mendy wanted to keep to tradition. Unfortunately, the restaurant is now permanently closed.
When my current boyfriend and I ordered takeout with his parents from Somerville’s DAKZEN, his father said he didn’t want to order pad thai. “Pad thai is too sweet,” he said. If he tried true pad thai like I, fortunately, was able to, I’m sure he’d say something else. It saddens me to think that Americanized food has created a different taste palate. The food might taste good, but the true taste is lost.
In an episode of The F Word, Gordon Ramsay cooked his “quick and easy” pad thai. He wanted to serve it to the Buddhist monks in a Thai temple in London, but Thai chef Chang said he wanted to taste it first.
He gave Ramsay a blank stare and said, “This is not pad thai at all. Pad thai has to be sweet, sour, and salty.” Ramsay tasted the dish and replied, “I think that doesn’t taste too bad.” Chang’s final words: “For you, but not for me.”
Cuisines shouldn’t adapt to cater to Americans. If Americans want to be more cultured and explore different types of food, they should taste dishes in their true form. Look for Chinese restaurants where there are predominantly Chinese guests, research authentic restaurants in your area, order something off the menu you haven’t tried before, and ask for recommendations from friends.
No matter how foreign and unappetizing the food may look or smell, or difficult to eat, there is no harm in exploring your palate. You can always spit something out, but you can never taste something authentic if you haven’t tried it.