Eating food is not only linked to the intake of nutrients, but also to expressing a part of the food’s culture and how the food came to be. It can be a reflection of the local geographical situation or the types of raw materials available, and can also be linked to religion. There are many cultural cuisines around the world. Even though some are more well-known than others, they all share the same trait of being a proud representation of the cultures they are from. Many people want to experience eating the most culturally authentic version of a particular food, but what does it really mean for a dish to be authentic?
Ramen is seen as a traditional Japanese food. When compared to the pre-packaged and easy-to-make instant ramen, the ones from special ramen shops seem more culturally authentic. Still, many more people would travel to Japan just to taste the “real” thing. In the end, what really makes ramen taste or feel authentic? Is it the ingredients used? The amount of time spent preparing it? The temperature of the water used to cook the noodles? Whether the noodles were handmade or machine-produced? Whether the meal is eaten at home or at a restaurant? The quality of the broth? Or does the chef need to be Japanese to even call the noodles ramen? All of these philosophical questions will go unanswered. Though for the last question, it seems the chef can be either Chinese or Japanese, considering that ramen most likely originated from Chinese workers in Japan who wanted a cheap and quick culinary option, which led to the widespread cuisine of ramen and various broths. Who would make the most authentic ramen? The Japanese chef who has been running a Tokyo ramen shop for 30 years, or the Chinese worker who first cooked ramen?
Since cooking is a part of culture, it is constantly evolving. The people who first ate ramen in the early 1900s probably wouldn’t have dreamed that it would someday be prepared in minutes just by using hot water. For the true way of making ramen, is there a point where it derails from the true authentic thing, or do new ramen flavours, created by everyone’s unique tastes and demands, still have a place amongst the old culinary original?
Is one food more authentic than the other? (Image Source: mashed)
Would food recreated in vastly different cultures and different times not be considered authentic? Not necessarily. If one were to get a “New York slice” or a “Chicago deep dish” pizza, is there not a level of local authenticity and cultural uniqueness that has been added to these dishes? After all, these places and their cultures have become associated with it. Another point of interest is the idea of fusion cuisine, which can bring multiple cultures together on the same plate. Think of a Korean-style bulgogi BBQ hamburger. Although food critics may be quick to label these variations as “gimmicks” and not true to their perspective cultures, other places that claim to be “authentic” often fall under many of the same pitfalls(such as Chinese restaurants serving lemon chicken, a dish created and popularized in the west). After all, the term “authentic” itself started to be used more often in the 21st century as a way for restaurants, and even mass frozen food companies, to stand out from their competition and present a certain “real” product. These meals are often made by those with varying degrees of, if any, cultural ties. They too have often been adapted over time or were made with the intention of, or reached higher popularity by, their immediate surrounding culture, such as ramen.
What does it really mean for food to be authentic? (Image Source: FOOD navigator-usa)
All this is not to say we should diminish the idea of culinary and cultural worlds being connected to one another. Biting into a dish can transport us to another location or time, bring us feelings of nostalgia, and tell us of the chef’s personal taste. Food is, by nature, like the multicultural world we live in- always adapting. The truth is, there really is no such thing as authenticity when it comes to food. We are really looking for a meal that can transport us to another time and/or place, however made-up, idealized or different than reality it may be. It is not the creator trying to replicate a dish that is truly valued, but their commitment to tradition or the forging of new ones.