One of the measures of whether a restaurant’s food is good is whether it’s “authentic” — a term that’s a particular favourite of armchair food critics the world over.
Now, as a former Malaysian restaurateur and professional cook, I’ve received my fair share of accolades and criticisms about my own food over the last 27 years.
I generally ignore the opinion and scorecard ratings of self-appointed experts (ie. most Instagrammers and food bloggers) who have never cooked a plate of food for willing, paying customers themselves, and who seem to think we restaurateurs are basically a bunch of soulless, talentless hacks rolling around in beds of cash while laughing all the way to the bank.
Nonetheless I’ve decided it’s time I put my thoughts on paper (well, the internet) so I can, frankly, move on to more important things in life (like, whether MIB International is worth watching on the big screen, or if I should wait for it to come out on Netflix, etc.).
First of all, what do you mean by “authentic”?
According to the dictionary (ie. Google), in the context of food, it means -
“made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original”.
On its face, that sounds reasonable and obvious — but can you see the problem?
By one definition, it means that food that’s authentic must be prepared in the “traditional or original” way — does it mean, unless you pound your spice paste in a mortar and pestle, or cook with wood or charcoal fire etc. — your food can’t be “authentic”?
I’ve had people argue this point with me, pointing out that char kway teows cooked with charcoal fire have a superior je ne sais quoi, and that spice pastes absolutely have to be pounded by hand, while humble bragging that they spend all weekend tending to their bone stock before it’s ready for their “authentic” har mee (prawn noodle) cook-athon.
In other words, you need to throw out your food processor, pressure cooker, dough mixer, slow cooker, Thermomix, gas or electric stove & oven etc. — or you’re basically a fake or a sellout. No cheating, now — it’s all or nothing!
But let’s say you’re one of the less-hardcore so-called food experts, and you subscribe to the second definition, ie. that “authentic” simply means food that “faithfully resembles an original”.
My problem then is with the term “original” — what is the definitive timestamp and geographic location of any dish’s origin?
I’ve seen it claimed that the aforementioned har mee is not authentic if it comes with boiled egg, because back in the old days, it was served without. I would wager that it probably didn’t come with a whole host of other things that it is generally served with nowadays — because, guess what, folks — food evolves!
Let’s pick another example — my signature dish, Char Kway Teow (CKT) — the Malaysian stir-fried fresh rice noodles commonly cooked using pork lard, and containing blood cockles, Chinese sausage, pork crisps, prawns and fishcake slices.
My Char Kway Teow contains none of the above except for prawns (and then only if you choose the seafood option). In fact, I even offer — quelle horreur — a Chicken Char Kway Teow — which your sage “expert” will remind you, does not exist in Malaysia.
So why this abomination?
Firstly, no pork lard or pork crisps or Chinese sausage — because I’m one of about six Chinese people on the planet who don’t eat pork.
Secondly, if you can find decent quality and cost-effective blood cockles in Sydney (not the gigantic, rubbery-textured and expensive stuff I’ve seen on and off in a select few fish shops), and convince Aussies that biting into bloody & slimy-looking semi-raw cockles in your noodles is actually quite delicious — I’m totally going to start using it.
Thirdly, Aussies (my customer base) like to segment their diets — some are vegetarian, some will eat white meat but not red meat, some will eat seafood but not other meat, etc. — so, pro tip — by having everything in the one dish you’re simply alienating a large chunk of would-be customers.
And finally, based on the fact that about 8 in ten orders are for Chicken Char Kway Teow — most people like their chicken — take it from someone who’s cooked upwards of 100,000 serves of this dish to paying customers over my food career.
Then, there’s the question of what you consider is the “original” Char Kway Teow, on which you base the “authenticity” of what you just ate.
That depends on which end of the Malaysian peninsula you grew up in — or in the case of Westerners, where you spent your Malaysian/Singaporean vacation.
With apologies to Malaysians everywhere, since I’m writing this for my Australian audience (who are very familiar with Thai food but generally clueless about Malaysian), Penang Char Kway Teow looks like Pad Thai, whereas Southern (ie. KL/Singapore) Char Kway Teow looks like Pad See Ew with Hokkien noodles thrown into the mix.
I remember that time at Orange Grove Farmers’ Market, when this Aussie guy tried to challenge me on the “authenticity” of my CKT which he’d already paid for, as I was cooking it up.
Enraged that I added Hokkien noodles to the wok, he accused me of lying about there being a Penang version and a Southern version — he knew because, apparently, he had spent 30 years in Bangkok.
Sadly, he stormed off without his food before I had the time to point out that Bangkok was not, in fact, in Malaysia.
I got into this whole “food” thing because I wanted to recreate my culinary memories of Malaysia, so yes, of course I care about faithfully replicating the flavours, ingredients and styles of the cuisine of my childhood in the food I cook.
But in all honesty, in the ongoing debates about authenticity, I’ve come to see the term as nothing but a platitude.
It doesn’t mean anything, and if I’ve claimed it about my food in the past, I no longer care to do so — try it yourself sometime — it’s liberating.
Or if you want me to take your opinion of my food seriously, come back after you’ve served up your 100,000th plate of CKT to a paying customer. In the meantime, I’m going to go for a roll in my bed of cash before I head out and laugh all the way to the bank.
(PS. This doesn’t mean that I’m letting all those Western “celebrity chefs” off the hook, who can’t tell a nasi lemak from a nasi goreng, or who think that rendang should be crispy — that’s another post for another day.)
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Jackie M is an ex-restaurateur and sole parent of Baby Noah, who was born with Down Syndrome and some very complex medical issues that saw him spend the first 217 days of his life in hospital. She is also the founder of WokAroundAsia.com — an online Asian culinary coaching course where she teaches her students to master Malaysian street food using her proprietary EATS Framework.