A few months ago I was asked to opine on Chinese food and authenticity.


Growing up in Hong Kong, Szechuan food was more foreign to me than Italian food. Cantonese food, especially my family's Hakka dishes, were not spicy. There may be a mild hot sauce (along with hot mustard) at dim sum or fresh red chiles served with soy sauce for a steamed prawn dish - but the blistering heat that's the defining characteristics of Szechuan food was not prevalent. However, would we consider Szechuan food as inauthentic because it's unfamiliar and not the same as what we normally eat?  No, the counter argument would prevail - which is that us Hong Kong Cantonese didn't know how to eat spicy.  The burden of authenticity is on the diner, not on the cook.

Yet, Chinese food in American is treated differently. Our dishes are derided as inauthentic because people in China did not eat them. The burden is on our cooking, not you as the diner. Our dishes are too sweet not because that's our local taste but because we don't know how to cook real Chinese food.

Let's go back to Szechuan food for a second. The defining chiles in Szechuan cuisine was not widely adapted until the 1800s. The numbing peppercorn is indigenous to Szechuan but chiles wasn't introduced to the Old World until well European's venture into the New World. Here we are then - what we consider as 'authentic' Szechuan cuisine - hot, spicy - didn't happen until 1800s... about the same time as Chinese people came to the US and started adapting local ingredients to their familiar southern Chinese cooking.

There are now more than 35,000 Chinese restaurants in America. An often quoted stats is that there are more Chinese restaurants than McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King combined in the US. What I find even more fascinating is that there are more Chinese restaurants in US than there are McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut in CHINA. In as much as American fast food cuisine has established themselves in China, they are still catching up to the 150 year of history and 35,000+ Chinese restaurants in the US.