When my husband and I lived in Japan, we used to laugh at how the food was “Japanesed” in every non-Japanese restaurant we tried. Chefs doctored Mexican, Indian, and Italian food to include traditional Japanese ingredients and to suit Japanese palates. Not even American fast food chains were exempt from tampering—McDonald’s offered an ebi (shrimp) filet and a “juicy” chicken sandwich made from the fattiest, gnarliest dark meat you’d ever want to see, and Pizza Hut’s menu was a complete shock to an American searching for a taste of home. Who ever heard of putting tuna, mayo, and corn on a pizza…much less squid, seaweed, and fish eggs?
Now that we’re living in a small village in England, eating out has generally been limited to the nearby traditional English pubs where we’ve been sampling what we assume to be traditional English food (meaning loads of delicious, fresh, local ingredients seasoned with a dash of salt and maybe a flake or two of pepper if the chef is really daring). Lately though, our travels have taken us to some larger towns and cities where we’ve encountered a more exotic variety of dining choices, and sure enough, the English corrupt ethnic cuisine as well. In our tourist adventures this weekend, for example, we found ourselves an “authentic” Indian restaurant owned and operated by “authentic” Indians (and not second or third generation UK citizens, judging by their accents) where I could have supplemented any of the “authentic” entrées (i.e. prepared with something approaching the correct amount of spice, which is the equivalent of adding napalm for most Brits) with a side of chips (complete with malt vinegar). We also tried an Italian establishment, where my starter of creamy garlic mushrooms (garlic is also considered heavy artillery in the spice arsenal) was served on top of a Yorkshire pudding. I’m willing to bet I couldn’t walk into a true Thai restaurant in Bangkok and expect to order a sticky toffee pudding for dessert.
Please don’t think that for one second I believe ethnic cuisine in America is unmolested. I knew that Taco Bell was not Mexican food, but until I lived and travelled overseas, I didn’t realize to what extent we’d adapted foreign foods to meet our gastronomic expectations. I’ve been to Hong Kong, where despite their autonomy from the mainland nation, they eat a lot of Chinese food, and they’ve never even heard of General Tso’s chicken. In three years in Japan, I didn’t see a single Japanese steakhouse where a Chinese “chef,” assisted by a Mexican “sous-chef” would toss eggs into his tall white hat, build a flaming volcano of onion rings, or toss grilled shrimp into the open mouths of sixteen strangers seated around a scorching hot griddle-cum-table. However, I think despite its reputation as a cultural melting pot and an abundance of Americanized dining establishments, the US does still offer plenty of opportunities to find authentic ethnic cuisine. Thanks to immigrants who have held fiercely to their native customs and been willing to share their dietary traditions with their adopted homeland, Americans with an adventurous appetite can travel the culinary world without even applying for a passport.
Thus begins the April A to Z Challenge. A big thanks to challenge founder Arlee Bird for inspiring a legion of bloggers to expand their creative horizons, and for fostering a supportive community where they can also receive encouragement and feedback!