Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Deepest Authenticity

Today I chopped up a couple leftover broiled chicken thighs, and stir-fried them in a wok with garlic and a few handfuls of chopped kale. A bit later I added some leftover roast potato chunks and some chopped mini San Marzano tomatoes from TJ's (being well-seasoned, my iron wok can handle some tomato). Finally, a sprinkling of Penzey's Aleppo pepper flakes, my default source of chili heat.

I served it all over a bed of hummus, and it was delicious. Obviously, this didn't taste like anything one would label as "Chinese", even though I'd prepared this much as a Chinese grandmother might handle these same ingredients. The wok added its magic without leaving palpably "ethnic" traces...but no grandma aims to be "ethnic"!

Because this is how a Chinese grandma would do it, it was incontestably Chinese. If you assume Chinese food needs to have white pepper, scallions, rice wine, and soy sauce...and never ingredients like roast potatoes, chopped kale, hummus, or leftover chicken, that's on you, gringo! This was not "fusion", this was pure Chinese food, prepared with a Chinese mindset on Chinese equipment. I'd nailed it just as squarely as if I'd prepared proper beef chow fun (here's my rendition of that, fwiw).

The food you think of when you think of as Chinese food is a set of popular moves, not a universe of possible moves. I was shocked when I first learned that Ovaltine is a very insider-ish Chinese thing to order in Hong Kong-style cafes, but it's only shocking if you imagined there were boundaries. There are no boundaries. This is the biggest mistake people make in ethnology: cultures don't exist in cages, with neat nameplates. They're as open-ended as your own culture! Study the perspective, not the materiality. To really get it, you must learn to reframe your focus.

Earlier this week, I quickly reheated some chopped roast turkey on a hot Mexican comal, along with a few dabs of stuffing, wilted some baby spinach over it, and stuffed it all into righteous nixtamal tortillas properly warmed on that same comal. With no lime, salsa or coriander, and no crema or queso, the result might have seemed far from Mexican food.

But Mexicans don't know they're eating Mexican food! They're taking whatever they've got...with tortillas (sometimes pre-stuffing those tortillas into "tacos" - a medium, not a dish). Ingredients are mere variables. They don't need to be carnitas or al pastor; nearly anything can feel like dinner. This is what a Mexican grandma might have done with these ingredients, so the result was extremely Mexican, though no foodie would have considered it as such.

There is a deeper level of authenticity that transcends academic notions of authenticity. I aspire to that level.

Whether or not my guests recognize the pedigree, results carry a certain spin that parses as deliciousness.

No comments:

Blog Archive