On Food Authenticity – a lie?

By Lucas Ngai

“…look, when you don’t have 15 minutes to cook rice, it [microwave rice] can come in real handy,” I sheepishly remarked during a conversation with friends about university meals. 

Before you witness my crucifixion by my brethren from Hong Kong, I beg you, my reader, to hear me out. You have to understand that there are a few mildly frustrating properties about catered halls, to say the least: the absence of a proper kitchen, AND a ban of using cooking equipment in rooms (nope, not even kettles)! Sure, I can be quite lazy and can’t be bothered to cook most of the time, but to remove cooking as an option save the grubby microwave and limescale-laden kettle in the god-forsaken pantry, to deprive a chicken of its proverbial feathers and leave them helplessly dependent on the caterer – now that is truly a crime, a blatant violation of my God-given rights to culinary freedom. But I digress.  

It makes me think: why are foods like microwaved rice so contemptible? The alleged adulteration of nutrient composition in microwave food? Uncle Roger’s culture-defining culinary condemnation? A sense of security in Asian cultural heritage? The microwave was very positively received during the 70s: people were raving about its magical ability to cook dinners that would have taken hours in a matter of minutes. The fact that by the 90s, around 1 in 4 households owned a microwave speaks for itself. The same could be said for the rice cooker that was first released to the Japanese public in the fifties. God forbid, it isn’t some mythical, ancient, 100% authentic Asian tradition passed down through the ages… did you hear about old geezer Japanese men complaining about how “back in my day, we used to heat the rice pot over the fire!” when the rice cooker was invented? No! They happily embraced the convenience of preparing hassle-free rice in their culture, as we should now.  

Yet why doesn’t anyone complain about how instant ramen makes a mockery of the “authentic” ramen tradition? After all, is it not a travesty that hours upon hours of cooking the richest ramen broth and hand-tossing ramen noodles is reduced to a chemically-spiked powder and deep-fried flour? No! Rather, it became a staple of Japanese (and even Korean) culture. In this way, why does microwave rice get so much hate? Why does such a ridiculous double standard exist, where authenticity is conflated with “storied” traditional preparation methods and “superior taste” only when people like it? Perhaps it’s an argument on a different topic entirely, about the yearning for traditional homemade food against the backdrop of modernity’s processed convenience foods. 

It is ironic how your stereotypical ramen shop makes you believe that ramen had centuries or even millennia of Japanese tradition (with the obligatory Great Wave of Kanagawa woodblock print in the background), when Japan remained predominantly vegetarian for most of its history until the Meiji Restoration. Long story short, ramen in its modern form was brought to Japan by Chinese immigrants during the Meiji Restoration as a working-class meal (and even then, Chinese culture and cuisine was an amalgamation of different cultures in East and Central Asia). Its popularity experienced a dip in the World War years, then resurrected thanks to the abundance of US-exported flour at the time that allowed instant ramen to be created, which achieved global success. The rise of the modern ramen shop was helped by the boom in tourism in the late 20th century, where the government leveraged ramen as a symbol of Japanese heritage to attract tourists. 

 From a brief examination of ramen, our definition of “Japanese” food is far more than meets the eye: it is a product of numerous complex cultural interactions and even politically or economically motivated agendas. Many foods we define as part of a “culture” have been around for much less time than we like to think. Why, then, do we draw such arbitrary lines to what some dogmatically define as being part of a culture with a “rich” culinary history?  

To answer this question, we can look to the notoriously purist Italian cuisine, which was shaped by, as food historian Alberto Grandi aptly coins the term, “gastronationalism”. Grandi not only claims that our perception of Italian food is mostly shaped by American Italian immigrants, but also that the narrative of a historically rich Italian cuisine was constructed due to the desire for a national identity. So it isn’t surprising that many of his claims – including the fact that the most authentic parmesan cheese is found in Wisconsin – have received backlash on the national level, which has been applying to classify Italian food as a piece of UNESCO cultural heritage (food comprises one-quarter of Italy’s GDP). In his interview with the Financial Times, he claims that pizza was only found in a few cities in Southern Italy where it was eaten by the lower classes until the American soldiers came back from Italy, and the first pizza restaurant, in fact, opened in New York instead of Italy. It isn’t surprising, as America experienced a significant wave of Italian migrants in the 20th century that has evidently created a gastronomic culture so complex it became extremely difficult to ascertain the food’s “origin”. Carbonara is a case in point. Another food historian, Luca Cesari, author of A Brief History of Pasta, says that carbonara was “an American dish born in Italy”. He claims it was created by Italian chef Renato Gualandi, who made the dish in 1944 for the U.S. army after Rome had been liberated. However, a more prevalent theory claims the dish’s conception among Italian charcoal workers, which Cesari dismissed as “ahistorical”. 

It is clear that food history is far more complex and contentious than most think: we tend to compartmentalise these histories into small, bite-sized components through our conceptions of “Italian” or “Japanese” food. As established, these boundaries are very arbitrary when these food cultures experience influence from so many different cultures and political agendas that it is, dare I say, impossibly difficult to definitively quantify what is “authentic”. Thus, I find no point in being so pedantic and anal about food customs when they are constantly changing. Food should be judged on its taste, and nothing more. Don’t get me wrong, I imagine Italian and Japanese food prepared in their respective countries tastes amazing (though I haven’t been to both countries). While there is value in investigating food history and passing on culinary tradition, I find it irrational and reductive to attribute “taste” to tradition to such a large extent. People’s tastes around the world are very different, and there is nothing wrong with changing some culture’s flavours to cater to a wider audience. Sure, it might not include flavours you like, but those preferences should be respected nonetheless. Perhaps it could make things taste better, like Hong Kong’s soup macaroni (trust me, you should try it sometime!). If it tastes good, then it sticks around until it doesn’t; that’s just how things work. The way these cultures evolve could even tell you more about that country’s history, but that story is best left for another day. 

As a whole, I think that food culture has gone a long way: spices, cultures, and flavours have been exchanged worldwide, adding an unprecedented variety of flavours that have objectively made food a much more enjoyable experience. The creation of these cultures, each with unique tastes, should be judged on taste rather than some arbitrary tradition. If it tastes good, it tastes good! 

I would have to agree with my friends, though, that Sainsbury microwave rice is pretty grim.  

An offhand remark about microwave rice sparks an exploration of the notion of food authenticity


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