Why debates over culinary ‘authenticity’ may miss the point 

The ‘A’ word

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHRIS MIELE.
  • Photo by Chris Miele.

For many of us, the word "authentic" conjures up memories of Grandma's cooking. It's personal: from the type of sauerkraut she used to fill her pierogi, or season that sopa de pollo, or the lengths she took to make chili soybean paste. Whatever your family's roots, you've come to judge anything that falls outside of what you grew up with as inauthentic.

That right there sets us up for disappointment. After all, no one makes anything quite like Grandma.

But while you may never find that generations-old family recipe for lamb korma in any restaurant, we in southeast Michigan do enjoy a dining scene that pays respect to something more fundamental and attainable: tradition.

We've come a long way from the days of Americanized versions of Mexican or Greek.

Metro Detroit is home to countless variations of Middle Eastern cuisine, like the James Beard Foundation America's Classic winner Al Ameer. It also has a sizeable pocket of delicious pho shops in Madison Heights, an eclectic number of interesting Mexican restaurants in Southwest Detroit and Downriver, and to the west, toward Ann Arbor, an array of restaurants that specialize in Chinese, Korean, Indian, and other global cuisines.

This year, we've welcomed a number of inspired new eateries that have proven capable of following time-honored tradition, while making only minor tweaks to account for local ingredients and tastes.

There's the sensuality of northern Thai from Katoi, the nostalgia-inducing Chinese-American menu at the Peterboro, the careful study of Southeast Asian cooking at Flowers of Vietnam.

Among the up-and-coming dining destinations aspiring to offer just the right balance of authenticity and approachability is Ji Hye Kim, who was, as of press time, prepping to open Miss Kim, a Korean restaurant, in Ann Arbor's Kerrytown neighborhood.

The eatery is the evolution of the South Korean native's San Street Food cart and subsequent pop-up that featured a variety of Korean street food like pork buns and spring rolls. With buy-in from the Zingerman's family of companies, Kim wants to give diners more of a sit-down experience, reminiscent of the tastes of her home country.

Previously an insurance executive, Kim tells us she found herself yearning for something more visceral, more straightforward, and honest in her profession. Food, she reasoned, was just that.

"Food is simple, it's either good or it's bad," said Kim, who relocated from New Jersey to Michigan to get married. It was when she arrived that she began transitioning toward a career in restaurants.

Kim's cooking is inspired by her mother, who stood by her traditional methods of cooking, even long after the family had immigrated to urban New Jersey.

"I was blessed that way," Kim says. "She wouldn't let me cook, the reasoning being she was going to do it better, but she taught me how to eat, which would prove to be valuable because I knew the standard I was going for."

Kim honed her skills at the cheese counter at Zingerman's, studied cooking in Tuscany and Rome, and has traveled numerous times to Korea, Taiwan, New York, and Hong Kong.

What she learned through her travels were a number of similarities in cooking. There's the braising of beef and vegetables, the way that both Korean noodles and Italian pasta are rolled out and cut in a similar way.

"I started seeing all these connections, when food is made homemade with the simplest of techniques, it's all very similar," she says.

It's a story that resembles Katoi chef Brad Greenhill's start in cooking Thai food. Before partnering with the restaurant's co-owners, Courtney Henriette and Phil Kafka, he spent several years specializing in Italian cuisine. After learning about Thai cooking, he made that connection too.

Greenhill was also able to find a link between northern Thailand and Detroit dining. Both have an affinity for pork and deep-frying.

Combining ingredients unique to each locale also seemed an organic fit, such as in its crispy spare ribs, in which fish sauce, pickled papaya, and Thai basil (Thailand) are blended with caramel and apples (Michigan) – creating finger-licking ribs with an Asian twist.

For Peterboro chef Brion Wong, who grew up in New York to Chinese parents, his menu draws from the duality of his upbringing. There, you'll find a marriage of fine dining as with his scallop crudo, American influence in the cheeseburger spring rolls, and his mom's uniquely Chinese-New York comfort foods, such as his take on her roast pork.

As Korean-American Los Angeles restaurateur Roy Choi explains the concept of authenticity in a recent interview with Eater: "For me, it's just about representing more of a micro-authenticity of where you're from ... I grew up around a lot of different people, and I'm Korean, but I don't speak Korean and I'm Asian but when I look in the mirror I think I see a Latino dude. I don't know — I'm all mixed up."

It's a sentiment that chef George Azar, owner of Flowers of Vietnam, identifies with.

The Palestinian-American grew up in Southwest Detroit, where English and Spanish and Arabic all intermingle. He left his hometown for a spell to work for a number of restaurants across the country, where he developed a love for Vietnamese food.

It's that multicultural existence that has given Azar a perspective he applied when he decided to teach himself to cook Vietnamese cuisine.

The result is a flavorful menu that enlightens the senses all set inside Vernor Coney Island. His food balances sweet, crunchy, spicy, and bitter with dishes like the sườn ram mặn — caramelized rib tips, with broke rice, sesame, and scallion.

Of course, there remains a faction of foodies who insist that truly authentic cuisine can only be found in ethnic enclaves and is only prepared by chefs of that ethnic or racial background (as well as the common implication that it must be inexpensive as well).

Kim, the Korean restaurateur in Ann Arbor, is a friend of Azar's and hears about the criticism he sometimes gets because he's not Vietnamese. It's the same criticism she hears from fellow Koreans when they dismiss restaurants trying different approaches to Korean food.

"Having respect and taking the time and effort to dig deep is what's really important," she says.

As Detroit's dining scene continues to evolve, the rise of this kind of restaurant will continue to challenge and elevate our understanding of authenticity. n

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