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Monday, 4 August 2014

The Importance of Authenticity

I'm currently reading Sushi and Beyond, by the British food/travel writer Michael Booth, wherein he travels to Japan to learn about the food culture there. It's a fascinating book (I'm about halfway through), which takes in both the basic building blocks of Japanese cuisine, such as dashi, as well as the more esoteric stuff, like nagashi-somen, a noodle dish prepared by launching a handful of somen down a river to the waiting diners. I'm less taken with his weird racism against Italians, but so be it, I guess.

It's also full of insights into how Japanese food is truly meant to be served. For instance, apparently miso soup belongs at the end of a meal, rather than the beginning - the way it's served in the West is how Chinese or Korean restaurant owners do it. It's a little like how Anglo-Saxon people serve salad as an appetizer, but for Italians it's served after the main course.

Naturally, when I read this little factoid about miso soup I got excited, and imagined myself saving my miso until the end of a Japanese meal - not to impress the staff with my authentic knowledge (the folks who run my local bento place in Mountain View speak Chinese to each other), but to experience the food the way it's meant to be experienced.

I can be kind of a douche like that sometimes.

The next thing that occurred to me was that saving my miso soup for last would probably mean drinking cold miso soup, which sounds kind of gross, and not particularly authentic either. And with that thought came the realization that it probably doesn't actually matter that much.

Any Japanese chefs who read this blog have probably removed me from their RSS readers by now, while the less insane among the remaining readers is likely wondering what the big deal is. But I sometimes think we're a little too obsessed with authenticity, and maybe a good meal (or book, or movie, or other experience) doesn't need to be so completely true to life that any variation is immediately suspect.

Here's another quick example: there's a Chinese market on the corner of the block where I work. In addition to Asian groceries and cheap little tea-sets, it also sells little statues. Some are likenesses of the Qin First Emperor's terracotta soldiers; others are of Hanuman the monkey-god, or of various other bodhisattvas.

They're clearly not genuine, I think every time I walk by. But what does "genuine" even mean in this context? The terracotta warriors are clearly not the ones dug from the earth in Xi'an - they're too small, and even if they were real, exporting them would probably carry the death penalty in China. Seems unlikely a bunch of hot 2,000 year old artifacts would find themselves in a shop window on Castro Street.

As for the Hanuman statues (which I think would enliven up my desk, if anyone's trying to think what to buy me for Christmas), I assume those are made in some factory in Macau, but if you're Buddhist, does that mean you can't pray to them? I don't get the sense the owners are trying to pass them off as genuine Ming-era statues or whatever (I have my suspicions about another shop just up the road, though).

I suppose it's the same with Christian artifacts - is a crucifix assembled in China last year less important than one made in Venice four hundred years ago? If you want them as decoration, maybe the older versions are more impressive, as far as bragging rights go. But if you want to use them as they were meant to be used - as devotional objects - the new ones probably do the job just as well.

The difference is probably that the Hanuman statues, like the Japanese meals, come from a different culture than the one us Westerners grew up with, no matter how comfortable we are with other cuisines or religions. It's easy to feel clever and worldly when you, say, get really good at using chopsticks, and it's just as easy to get all snotty and remind people that Thai food isn't eaten with chopsticks, so the fork and knife are fine (yep, I do that one all the time).

In the end the important thing is really how good the meal was, right? The fact that an authentic Japanese meal features miso soup at the end doesn't invalidate all the really good (but Westernized) meals I've had where it was served first. The experience may be better with the more authentic version; or it might not be. Same with those dodgy Hanuman statues - it may be cooler to have one that comes from the 14th century, but for my purposes (having a conversation piece on my desk) the one assembled in Macau two months ago does the job just as well.

Which isn't to say that I don't want to experience the real thing, at least as regards the food (I'm not quite rich enough to blow loads of cash on Buddhist statuary). It's good to know the difference between the authentic and the fake, just so you can say you've had it.

And honestly? I'm still really taken with that nagashi-somen river noodles idea. There must be some way to get that here, even if it isn't exactly perfect.