Vichet Eats Things - A Series on Food - Part One: "Authenticity"
I have a couple problems with the notion of authenticity when it comes to food.
Authenticity in cuisine usually follows this definition:
Authenticity (food); noun
A magical ingredient that makes people who don't know anything about the cuisine in which it appears feel good about spending their money on it
In a big food city like Philly, "authenticity" sells like goddamned metaphorical (and authentic!) hot cakes.
Authenticity itself, when it comes to cuisine, is kind of like a koan - one's definition of "authenticity" will likely tell you more about the person defining it than it will about the concept of "authenticity" itself.
So I guess now you know a little bit about me.
Here's a little more.
Every time I go to a Vietnamese or Khmer restaurant, I have a plate of fried pork spring rolls (cha gio) to start my meal. Here's a picture of my homemade versions of the same.
Note: the weird diagonal cutting is something I learned from my favorite Viet spot in South Philly (Pho & Cafe Viet Huong, word to the wise). It helps keep the spring rolls crispy, while also giving them adequate length to make a lettuce/cabbage wrap with them. Innovation!
Due to a whole bunch of societal factors that influence the decision for refugees and their children and grandchildren to open a restaurant (by the numbers, Khmer folks say "nah" to that idea more than Viet folks), I have these little treats most often at Vietnamese restaurants when I'm not making them myself.
In the strictest (real, not by Vichet) definition of "authenticity" - the quality of being authentic, which is to say "of undisputed origin" - you wouldn't be able to call cha gio an example of "authentic" Khmer cuisine.
Anyway, "cha gio" is how it's spelled in Vietnamese, only with a bunch of diacritics that I can't read because that's not a language I know. Khmer people call it a few things: cha gio, sey yua, nem chien.
Whatever they're called, they all refer to some version of fried spring rolls filled with a mix of minced pork, shallot, tree ear fungus, bean thread noodles, carrot, and whatever mix of seasonings the restaurant or family likes best - if you're wondering, it's ginger, black pepper, and fish sauce for me and mine.
In restaurants, they usually feature as an appetizer. But if you see how my plate is loaded up, or if you grew up in a Khmer household, you'd know that if you have these bad boys with a side of leafy vegetables, herbs, and pickled carrot and daikon, they're a meal in and of themselves.
And so, this is a food that is not uniquely Khmer and doesn't only belong to Khmer people.
So, if I were trying to sell some folks on authentic Khmer food, I probably wouldn't start here, right?
This dish is in the soul and memory of every single Khmer person, and not just because they could order it at Vietnamese restaurants for a taste of home without having to bust their asses getting 20 ingredients and check if there's enough frying oil.
And you bet your ass every Khmer person you know knows how to make these, exactly what they taste like, and has some memories associated with scalding themselves with oil because they didn't wrap 'em tight enough and they exploded in the fryer.
And if you grew up in a household that made this little guys, they're more than just an appetizer. They're an entire sense and muscle memory.
You wanna eat? You gotta help.
When we made cha gio, we never made 6, or 12, or even 24. Not worth it.
We made them by the kilo.
This was a party food. How many people coming over? 40? Guess we're making 10 kilos of cha gio.
We'd make the finger-food sized tiny ones by cutting the spring roll sheets into quarters. It kept us from over-eating because you could have maybe 12 of them and still have only consumed 2-3 restaurant size portions.
And it didn't matter what age you were. If these needed to be out by lunchtime, you were up at 8am sharp with a job.
Mine? Washing, drying (to this day, vegetable spinners are my favorite kitchen gadget for no reason other than "strainer go brrr"), and picking herbs. Mostly mint, Asian coriander (often referred to in the West as Vietnamese coriander), and fish wort. I'd have a giant bowl of them put in front of me and I had to process them all into serving trays.
We had cousins rolling the rolls. We had in laws cutting up fresh veggies to accompany like green leaf lettuce and cucumbers. We had aunts and uncles working the fryer.
And this was for just ONE of the foods at the party!
Yet, when you order them at a restaurant, all you get is a delicious fried pork spring roll,
Is the experience I had on the menu? Probably not unless you wanna work in a restaurant and get poverty wages (see also reasons why Khmer people generally didn't open restaurants in Philly). Or just be Khmer and grow up poor (and even I got the watered down "inauthentic" version of growing up poor. My parents could afford discount NEW shoes for me).
A food like cha gio can't capture the experience of authenticity that most people are buying, because what most people are buying is some arbitrary level of assurance that whatever money they spent was "worth it."
As far as I'm concerned, even BUYING these bad boys fails to capture a sense of authenticity because no one who hasn't sweat it out in a summer-hot kitchen with no AC making these can fully appreciate that they just skipped 5 hours of labor to get all they could eat for $5.
So I guess my question is, how can we get a more complete sense of authenticity and knowledge of other peoples' foods and cultures out there?
Not an easy question to answer. I'm not really trying to gatekeep - if anything I want to open a side door. I DO want people to understand the foods they're eating, and by extension the people preparing them.
I wanna blow up authenticity because most of the time, the notion isn't used to the benefit of people who look like me - the ones making the food.
I guess that's where we're starting off this series on Vichet Eats Things.