Throughout this semester, I explored and tried to find the answer to what is real Chinese food. In the beginning, I was hopeful we would collectively find an answer. However, as the semester continued, I realized we were actually getting farther and farther away from the answer. And by the end of the semester, I realized that there is no answer.
A sad but true realization, these past couple of months of learning, reading, and watching movies have helped me understand that authenticity does not exist with food. But before we jump into the conclusion, let us go through my past projects so you can come along the ride with me to understanding that authenticity is a blurred term.
The first of my seeking authenticity adventure is my egg tart project. With my partner, Xue, we picked four bakeries that apparently serve some of the best egg tarts (according to Yelp reviewers). Xue and I are huge fans of egg tarts so being able to eat many egg tarts, was a dream come true. We both have eaten egg tarts from China and I have eaten egg tarts from Macau and Hong Kong, which are considered the originals of Chinese egg tarts.
Every time I took a bite of a new egg tart, Xue would eagerly ask, “What do you think? Does it taste like a real egg tart?” Almost with every egg tart, I excitedly said “yes!”. But, I was soon realizing that I was not sure why I keep nodding my head. Every egg tart was clearly a bit different, some were with more of an egg taste and others were sweeter. However, there were no specific categories or tastes I was searching for in order for the “authentic” egg tart.
To be honest, as Xue and I tried to find the most perfect egg tart, we were a bit confused ourselves. We tried looking online for recipes and did not realize that every single recipe was a little different. We could not even find an original story of how egg tarts came to be in Hong Kong. At the time, I did not realize that this egg tart project was the beginning of my realization that authenticity in cuisine does not exist.
My next project was the geography project in which I mapped the most popular Chinese eateries in the Bi-Co area. Travelling through restaurants on Lancaster and even through our own college dining halls (Bryn Mawr’s Haffner and Haverford’s Dining Center), I continued my search for authentic Chinese food. What I learned, though, is that Chinese American food has become a cuisine itself that is barely related to “real” Chinese food. Almost all but one (Sang Kee) of the eateries in the Bi-Co area serve Chinese food that Chinese people would consider somewhat like what they would eat in China.
This project proved to me that Chinese American cuisine is more popular than Chinese food and that it is a cuisine itself. There is not one authentic Chinese dish in the Chinese American foods and in fact, there is not one authentic Chinese American food. Every dish was cooked different. With a menu that overlaps with many different dishes – sesame chicken, general tso’s, beef with broccoli, lo mein, hot and sour soup, etc – each tasted and looked differently. Diners in the area are loyal to a specific Chinese American restaurant or delivery place claiming one is better than another. However, which Chinese American place was the most authentic Chinese American place? I guess, we will leave the Mainline and Bi-Co students to continue to fight each other for that answer.
My third project was the group cooking project. For that, we decided to cook a dish from New York Public Library’s archive of Chinese restaurants menus. We read Yutang’s Chinatown Family and chose a dish that we thought the family in the novel would eat during the Chinese Exclusion act period (1882 – 1943). We ended up choosing Moo Goo Gai Fan as a group after noticing that it is repeated on many Chinese menus in New York’s Chinatown. It was also at a reasonable price that we thought the Fong family could afford.
By the end of this cooking project, we returned to the question – what makes something authentic? We were having trouble on finding the original Moo Goo Gai Fan recipe and figuring out the history of it. All we knew is that it was from the Canton region and it means mushroom chicken rice in Chinese. Other than that, this popular dish seemed to have pop out of nowhere and become family’s favorites. There were and also still are different interpretations with different meats, different vegetables, and soup versions of it. However, it all somewhat shares the same taste.
We accepted with the answer that the history of Moo Goo Gai Fan is too complicated and we will never be able to find the authentic version. This adaptable and easy to cook yet rich and thick Chinese dish has landed its way into Chinese American menus and earned its way into a classic Chinese American favorite. It seems as if though the flexibility and variations of this dish is what makes it a classic on every Chinese American menu.
My very last project was the creative project. My inspiration came from the popular journal among artists, “Wreck This Journal”. It is an illustrated book with a collection of different prompts. It asks readers to draw various things, write whatever they think of, and essentially, experiment with their creativity. It takes years to finish usually and the only goal of the book is to finish it. The book is carried along with the artists at all times until done. It is a way for people who do not usually have a creative outlet to let them experiment with their thoughts. With fun prompts like, put your book on a leash and walk it around and dribble your morning caffeine on this page, it is the perfect way for non-creative people to let loose and fully engage in a thoughtful yet easy and creative process. That being said, this is why I decided to follow a similar concept for my creative project.
“Feed This Journal” is my version of it. I had the intention of carrying it around with me for two weeks and fill it in with prompts about East Asian food that I made up. Then, I also wanted to ask my friends so I can continue to explore if there is a possibility of an authentic dish.
I started with making the journal itself. I bound some pages together and made a mini journal. I decorated the exterior of it before touching the inside. Then, I quickly gave myself 30 minutes to write down prompts and questions for my journal. When I had a list of about twenty, I chose my favorites and started jotting them down leaving the first few pages blank for mini biographies and explanations and the last few pages blanks for finishing thoughts.
Like “Wreck This Journal”, I put in instructions in the book to make it clear for my friends on what to do. I never told my friends what to do; I just told them to read the instructions and to have fun. The next page, I gave a little blurb on who I am and my food identity (naming some of my favorite food categories). Then, it was my friends’ turns to write mini biographies and their favorite food categories. I had thought my friends would choose different categories, but I guess I did not make it explicitly clear and after one person wrote “favorite flavor” as his favorite food category, others did as well.
I kind of failed with my first creative prompt. Using the page as a napkin with Chinese food or Chinese American food only turned out to be disgusting. So, I immediately stopped and filled in the other pages with my answers before asking my friends to fill it in with theirs. It took me over a course of a week to fill it in and so; I started handing out my journal to my friends over the course of the second week. Some friends had it overnight while some had it for just 20 minutes. The average time spent on it with my friends was about 40 minutes as they diligently colored each one.
I learned that I have such creative and good friends for helping me out with this creative experiment, but I also learned more about authenticity! This final project was the last project I needed to help me finally understand and accept that there is no authentic dish or food cuisine. Every friend had something different. The only answers that were the same were my sister’s and mine! We had many of the same answers that were related to our mom’s cooking.
I concluded and learned that food identity is not based on your race or ethnicity; it is based on your upbringing. This also further helped me understand that just like every identity is different, every food and dish is different.
In readings like Rice as Self and The Rice Economies, we learn about food and identity. How food becomes the core of our identity and also is used as a bond to glue our communities. Nationality exists in Japan because of their rice and rice-based foods, like ramen. In Let’s Cook Thai, Of Hamburger and Social Space, and Who’s Irish, we learn about the fusion of different cultures and cuisines to make up and create a new identity. With Kamome Diner and Chungking Express, we continue to see how food plays into our identities and the concept of a foreign identity and cuisine entering a familiar one. In both movies, we see how these foreign identities play out and become part of a new identity.
And last but not least, The Search for General Tso’s was the final source I needed to confidently conclude that there is no such thing as an authentic dish or cuisine. Like in the documentary stated, I believe that we have a desire to find the original whether it be a product or a dish. Some adopted children want to find out who their birth parents are to see where they “really” come from. Many people want to figure out their families’ pasts and find out their ancestors’ stories because they think it will give them a better understanding of their identity.
I believe that we make authenticity a bigger deal than it is. We like the idea of authenticity because it is mysterious and suspenseful. However, authenticity will never exist because of the constant change that exists in societies. Every generation is different leading to a different person every generation. Not only people change, but also foods will change too as people’s taste buds and interests change as the time changes.
Originality may be definitive, however, authenticity is not since it is constantly changing. And as time continues to tick, we become farther and farther away from the supposedly “original and authentic” dish. Like a simple math equation, as times and people change, so do our identities. And because food is an integral part of our identities, our foods will change as well, which explains why there will never be and never was an authentic dish.