Happy Foodie Friday! I was asked to give some restaurant recommendations to a friend who will be traveling in a month or two. They’re going to a couple of cities I know pretty well and wanted me to tell them where they could get “authentic” cuisine. That got me thinking about the whole authenticity thing and I realized that maybe what many of us say we want isn’t really exactly what we mean.
They wanted to see NYC’s Chinatown and I told them about one of my favorite places there. It’s been there forever (always a good sign) and serves authentic Chinese food. Oh sure, you can get the American/Chinese stuff that’s available elsewhere but you can find things here like snails that you won’t find at P.F. Chang’s. They serve 24 different soups – I’m pretty sure your local place might serve 5 or 6. A lot of the “good” stuff isn’t even on the menu.
Of course, to try some of these “authentic” dishes, you have to put aside your preconceptions. Even some of the standards – Kung Pao Chicken, for example (known as Gung Bo Gai Ding here) – are different from what you’re used to. Authentic, yes, but is that really what you’re after?
They also asked for some recommendations in Rome. I am pulling together a list of places I like there but cautioned them to stay away from places that offer a tourist menu. They inevitably dumb down the food and in some cases, Olive Garden would be an upgrade. Of course, one place I love has no English menu and the last time I was there my friend ordered a plate of what I told him translated to “guts”. That was exactly what it was – liver, kidneys, etc. It was delicious and very authentic but is that really what most people want? Sanguinaccio isn’t exactly on the tourist menu (it’s a blood sausage).
InterContinental Hotels did a survey asking travelers in major destinations to select the sights, sounds, tastes, touches, and scents from a selection that provide the best experience for a traveler visiting their city. The answer for New York was fresh bagels from a West Village shop and summer rays while sunbathing in Central Park on a Sunday. I can tell you that while that may be true, most visitors would have a hard time dealing with Central Park on a Sunday and there are endless arguments in my hometown about where the best bagel can be found. Personally, I’d opt for a bodega bacon egg and cheese as being authentic, along with the lesser-known chop cheese. Good luck finding tourists who are wanting those authentic gut bombs (they’re SO good!).
Authenticity may not always be what we want. Honesty, yes. Transparency, of course. But authenticity can be something altogether disturbing. It can precipitate a massive attack of cognitive dissonance (I want the real thing but the real thing is not what I want!). Careful what you wish for!