Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Chefs grapple with 'authentic' Asian vs. California cuisine

Is "authentic" just a synonym for "traditional," and how does that color restaurant patrons impression of an Asian-American restaurant's menu offerings? This was one of several topics up for discussion during Monday night's Asian Culinary Forum on "Talking 'bout My Generation: Asian Chefs Reinventing Asian Cuisine."

It was easy for me to catch the ferry in Larkspur, Calif. and cruise on over to the Asian Culinary Form meeting in the San Francisco Ferry Building. (Tammy Quackenbush photo)

A small crowd of about 50 people gathered Monday night in a large meeting room on the second floor of the San Francisco Ferry Building. Facing off against police below us was a larger group who had overflowed from the Civic Center anti-BART protests. We were far enough away from the din to have our own spirited and passionate discussion about Asian cuisine and the balance between tradition, authenticity and evolution with the culinary times.

The panel included:

Thy Tran, founder and director of the Asian Culinary Forum, moderated the discussion.

The definition of "authentic" Asian cuisine dominated much of the evening's conversation. Even as Tran moved the conversation forward to other topics, the panelists kept coming back to what makes a particular dish or restaurant "authentic" and whether Asian restauranteurs who create what some might call fusion cuisine have any right to call their food "authentic."

The word "authentic" can be a codeword for "traditional." For some chefs, patrons' sprouting knowledge of Asian cuisine can be a dangerous thing. For example, some food lovers presume that the word kimchi means "spicy" rather than "pickled vegetable" and disparage any kimchi that doesn't pack enough heat to make them cry for Momma.

"My kimchi is authentic in that it is my great-great-grandmother's recipe, but people will say it's not authentic because it is not spicy enough," said Lee of Namu. "Authenticity is more about doing what you really want to do and doing it with quality."

Using a recipe with technical finesse and skill is a "knockoff" or a "copy-cat" of traditional cuisine but not necessarily an authentic representation of the cuisine or the cook making it, he added.

Later, he said his mother, who came to visit him from Boston was "floored" by the cuisine at his Namu restaurant when it was nearly ready to open its doors.

"She asked me, 'Where did you learn to do this?' I said, 'You.'"

Though his mother and grandmother taught him how to cook, his mother did not recognize herself in his food. This may be the difference between traditional and authentic that Lee was trying to get across.

Asian cuisine in San Francisco goes back to the arrival of Chinese immigrants in the 1850s. Japanese and Korean immigrants came later. Many Asian restaurants in the city have these pioneers to thank for the concentration of core customers.

One way these young Asian-American chefs compete with established and less-expensive Asian restaurants is in quality of ingredients. They often use organic, seasonal, locally grown ingredients to raise the profile of their restaurants.

"In the Bay Area, there's a huge supply of cheap Asian food," said Pacio of Spice Kit. "That's what we have to compete against. We have to educate people every day (about our ingredients) and that's a challenge. We wanted to expose our food to a different audience."

Richie Nakano of Hapa Ramen comments while Sarah Dey of New Delhi Restaurant listens. (Tammy Quackenbush photo)


This can cause a disconnect in customer perceptions of quality related to price. The seeming disconnect is particularly acute for ramen.

Introduced to America from Japan in the 1960s as an instant meal, ramen commonly is sold in small vacuum-sealed bags filled with deep fried noodles and a salt- and MSG-laden spice packet. Just add a cup of boiling water and wait two minutes for the meal. 

This inexpensive grocery store ramen — a college student staple diet — is what many Americans think of when they hear "ramen." Yet ramen does not have this reputation in Japan.

Hapa Ramen is trying to change ramen's tawdry reputation in the San Francisco Bay area, but it can be an uphill battle, Nakano said.

"People think of ramen as 99 cent (food) and complain that my ramen costs $9," he said. "If you use higher-quality ingredients, you have to charge more. There's no other way."

Later, Nakano said, "When people have a very specific memory of a food after living in Japan for a semester, it's hard to compete against that."

Lee added, "Everyone thinks they're an expert on ramen."

The evening began with an informal reception, including a spread of wine (Bex Reisling), sake and crudités. The latter, made by the panelists themselves, included tiny samosas filled with lightly spiced potatoes and peas, eel braised in Korean chili paste and served with soy sauce–bathed pickles, brown sugar–cured ham and crisp-fried lotus root chips sprinkled with shredded nori. The food was a blend of traditional Asian and American cuisine but totally authentic.

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