That’s not authentic

Singapore-style noodles are a staple item on the “noodles” section of any Asian restaurant menu, or even supermarket aisles. Feeling homesick, I decided to order a plate for a taste of home, but was sorely disappointed to find that Singapore-style noodles are not, in fact, Singapore-style. Growing up in Singapore, I had not once tasted or even heard of this alien-looking dish until I came to the UK. It was completely different from any ‘authentic’ noodle dish you would find back home. As it turns out, the Singapore-style noodles are a Cantonese creation, commonly found in takeaway restaurants in Hong Kong. The dish was invented post-World War II, by local chefs who were finding ways to use up excess curry powder that the British had introduced during their colonial rule. It’s funny to think of a dish born in Hong Kong, whose main ingredient is curry powder brought from India by the British, and named after Singapore. One could argue that the Singapore-style noodles are inauthentic, but I disagree. It is a product of true innovation, which authentically reflects the circumstances and history in South East Asia, and embodies the spirit of interconnectedness between the various parts of the world. 


Taking a step back, it seems that every dish that we now deem to be traditional has seen a long history of evolution and modification. Even a dish as quintessentially Italian as pizza, finds its roots elsewhere. Historians suspect that when the ancient Greeks settled in Naples during the 8th century BCE, they brought with them plakous, a Greek flatbread which inspired the invention of pizza. Up till the 16th century, ‘pizzas’ were very much different from what we know them to be today. Then, pizzas referred to a galette-like flatbread, which only the poor enjoyed. It was only when the Spanish introduced tomatoes from the Americas that the modern pizza was invented and introduced onto menus. Today, we find ‘spin-offs’ of the traditional pizza – whether it is American-style pizza, or sushi pizza which originated in Canada. Clearly, pizzas have seen a long history of evolution which has yet to come to a halt. 


Halfway across the globe in Asia, the same phenomenon occurs where traditional foods from foreign cultures evolve to incorporate local character. The banh mi, a classic Vietnamese street food, is a local twist on the baguette, which the French brought over during their colonial rule. Vietnam saw an influx of French soldiers during the first World War, which led to an increase in demand for baguettes. To cater to this demand, local bakers started using inexpensive rice flour to replace more expensive wheat flour, and produced fluffier, less French-like baguettes. Given the reduced cost of production, the bread became more affordable and hence accessible to Vietnamese locals. While the bread was typically enjoyed ‘French style’ with butter and sugar, or a liver pâté spread, this changed in the 1950s. Locals began to add their own unique flair to the dish, adding meats, vegetables and local spices to create the iconic Vietnamese banh mi. With its French influence, the banh mi may not fit the criteria of ‘authenticity’, but it is the product of Vietnam’s colonial history, and its vibrant local flavours. It tells the story of survival and adaptation, and authentically reflects the circumstance of the Vietnamese people during the time. 

Today, we continue to see many traditional foods from various cultures being tailored to suit the taste of the modern consumer. Californian sushi is an obviously Western take on the traditional Japanese delicacy. Meanwhile, the popular cream-based carbonara with ham and mushroom is an abomination by the Italians’ standard, given that carbonara is traditionally made with only egg, pecorino cheese and guanciale. Similarly, British curries are a watered down version of Indian curries that are far stronger in spice and flavour profile. Despite their popularity, these dishes often receive backlash for being adulterated from their original form. How, though, is the Californian sushi, cream-based Carbonara, or sweet British curry, any different from the Italian style pizza or banh mi, which have similarly evolved from foods of foreign cultures? I think they are all equally authentic, or inauthentic, to the extent that they tell the story of innovators, who have tried, been inspired by, and subsequently adapted various components of the ‘original’ dish to suit their tastes and circumstances. They make foreign flavours more accessible to locals, and they beautifully signify the embracement of foreign cultures on home soil. Perhaps then we should welcome innovation and abandon the notion that we must make and eat authentic food only.

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