Chowing down on exotic dishes is an inexpensive way of seeming urbane. But oftentimes, it is the very conspicuous dippings into this vicarious indulgence that creates the “monster” of counterfeit that accompany the hunt to find genuine culinary delights.
Chop Suey and Fortune Cookies are not really Chinese, so they don’t matter. On the other hand, Szechwan cuisine, spicy in its original form, but so adapted to the American palate it might be unrecognizable in China, does. And who is General Tso to have had a popular “Chinese” dish named after him? This overly fried chicken doused with “Chinese” sauce, the same fried chicken used in other chicken dishes but smothered in different tasting sauces, one hopes, to give it a new flavor, remains a favorite. For the sake of full disclosure though, the Chinese kitchen is not the only gastronomic pursuit that is “deceitful” in the restaurant trade.
Indian food, notoriously spicy, has also gone through metamorphosed preparation. Just the idea that Indian restaurants offer spicy dishes in mild, medium and hot versions is enough to tell about the offerings’ authenticity. Like Chinese fare, many staples of Indian food are prepared in advance, and then drenched with sauces depending upon the advertised dish. The labor intensive nature of preparing authentic Indian cuisine notwithstanding, does not justify the pretense entirely. In fairness though, many of the cookie cutter restaurants prepare meats and pastas way in advance and then sauce up as needed. Aside from the logistics of making a restaurant profitable whether it is Indian, Chinese, Hungarian, Polish, Greek, you name it, the advantage that the restaurateur has in offering “exotic” dishes is the patron’s inherent ignorance.
How many of us really know how foods from foreign countries are supposed to taste? This is the advantage that exotic food purveyors have. It’s easy enough to express dislike for a hamburger, or a steak and potato dinner since with these our taste buds rule the day. But how does the ordinary American argue about the authenticity of an Indian dish; Makhani Murgh over Murgh Kari, a Chinese Chow Fun over Xiao Long Bao, or an Italian Bigoli in Salsa over Spaghetti Carbonara? Real or improvised, what passes for “exotic” foods appears to satisfy; it is one of those little white lies that make life interesting for many who live in quiet desperation and occasionally yearn for what seems a little sophisticated.