Food Origins is a series of articles that aims to explore the history of a named dish, its origins, possible variations.
We truly live in the best time so far in history. You can look up recipes of unique dishes you never seen before on the internet, order an ingredient you can’t physically find in your country, and replicate whatever dish you can imagine. There are countless people promoting about their cultures on blogs, YouTube, social medias, resulting in the cross pollination of culinary ideas and various food dishes.
This also means that there is more and more a blurring of “what makes a dish”. The good news is we have more variations to eat. The bad news is that you don’t really know if you’re really eating what people might claim you are eating.
When tackling a topic like “Food origins”, the question of “authenticity” is bound to come up. At present, after having written a few origin articles, and read the opinions of others regarding authenticity (Life in Chains: Finding Home at Taco Bell is a must read), I think that an “authentic dish” is very hard to define, if it even exists. Something that is “authentic” simply means that it is real. But how far do you need to go to define something like that? If you want to eat “authentic” Chicken Rice, does it mean that you need to buy a hawker stall, wear some old clothes, use the pots and pans from the 1950s, follow a traditional recipe, hire a Singaporean uncle to cook it in Singapore? By that definition, any restaurant/chef that aspires to elevate their craft or experience by borrowing techniques from what they learnt leaves everything they do to be “non-authentic”.
I don’t really have a satisfactory answer to what makes something “authentic”. But I can say this: If a paying customer requests for a dish that a food establishment produces, then the food establishment would be expected to produce the food as they advertised or show (I am looking at you, Egg Stop). When a name is given to a dish, there is an expectation for a dish to be prepared a certain way or taste a certain way. There are organizations in EU that are set up to how certain named products should be, so I think that is a fair enough criteria.
An example: KFC sells KFC-style fried chicken. When you order KFC, you are getting an authentic taste of KFC-style fried chicken. Fast food restaurants certainly don’t advertise to be healthy, or having the taste of “Kentucky”. They sell Colonel Sander’s fried chicken. So while I can criticize them for not following the standards of the Colonel, I wouldn’t say that I didn’t get what I paid for when they produce exactly what I ordered. Now given an instance where Gordon Ramsay somehow hijacked my order of KFC, looked at the Colonel’s recipe, made some adjustments for a personal flair, personally breaded and fried my order, then have it served it to me. It will still be a KFC-style chicken, but a damn good one. Contrast that with the more likely case of having an underpaid worker fry it KFC-style. In both cases I paid and got what I ordered, but the quality is obviously very different. Yet in both cases, they are “authentic” KFC.
The bottom line is this: for someone to be asking for something authentic, it helps to be very specific. E.g. I want Hainanese Chicken Rice that can be found in a typical hawker center, during modern, about year 2018, Singapore. If you say that you want authentic Chicken Rice, people wouldn’t know if you are referring to WenChang chicken rice in Hainan, or Singapore’s Hainanese Chicken Rice, or French Chicken rice, or Thai Chicken rice. Yes, all of those are quite similar, but also different.
Taste of Home
A common theme for the Food Origins series: a dish originates from country A, immigrants from country A, move to country B, and in some effort to produce a taste of home, make a dish that goes through some modification either due to lack of ingredients or to suit palates of country B. The fact is most of culinary history is about using “what we have”, and less of “how creative can we be” in terms of food. This was how American Chinese cuisine came to be; Chinese immigrants creating new dishes to suit local taste palates. For the purpose of Food Origins, these are considered “new dishes”, for the simple reason that they taste different, and are unlikely to be found in their original country.
My country, Singapore, is one that is made up of immigrants. A country that hasn’t even reached a century old, there isn’t a lot of interesting happenings historically. The food though, is interesting. Bunch of immigrants bring over their food, they see other immigrants from elsewhere have certain techniques, adapt that and utilize the limited resources in terms of ingredients or tools. Boom! New dishes are created.
But most of these food are slowly getting washed out by the influx of international cuisines and the wants of the new generation to eat more exciting, different foods of the world. Most current generation also aren’t really willing to be hawkers or care enough about “old fashioned” food. That hawker stall manned by a 80 year old uncle selling unique kuehs and traditional pastries? Soon to be gone forever without a successor. The Hor Fun stall with an old uncle and auntie? Gone!
Food Origins aim to look at the unique dishes we currently have, and also where they could have possibly came from to gain an appreciation of the food cultures of the world.
Or so the above would seem like a good backstory/motivation.
I’m Just a Fat Boi who wants to eat.