The virtual reality of the genuine article
The other day, the tables were turned, and rather than being the one interviewing someone, a journalist interviewed me. Peter wanted to know about dim sum, asking my advice on what tourists could do to make sure they were getting a meal that's more 'authentic' than they could get in their own country.
I asked him to define the word authentic. Cuisines are continually evolving - what's innovative and modern now might, in 30 or 40 years, be such a common part of the culinary vernacular of a particular country that children who grew up within that time frame might think it has been around forever.
And at what point does it make the transition from 'new' to 'standard'? Lobster with noodles and cheese has been a popular dish at many Hong Kong Cantonese seafood restaurants for at least 15 years - it's a 'standard' dish here. But about five years ago, when my mother was planning a banquet at a Chinese restaurant in Monterey Park, California, she requested the dish because I had told her how delicious it was, and she wanted something 'new'.
The restaurant manager said it was the first time any customer had asked for it; the dish hadn't made the leap from here to Monterey Park, although it's a town with a large population of Hong Kong immigrants.
The Chinese egg tart has been around for so long that most of us can't remember a time when it wasn't available. But it's not indigenous to Chinese cuisine - both custard and baked pastry have a British influence. Bo lo char siu bao - which contains the topping of pineapple buns with baked roasted pork buns - has, if my memory is correct, only been around for 10 years - probably less, and it's a common item at high-end dim sum places. Someone trying it at a small-town Chinatown restaurant might think it's inauthentic because it's new to them, but it's Hong Kong born and bred.
I'm sure Peter thought he would get a simple answer to what seemed a simple question. But it's not simple, something he realised (again) when I asked if by authentic, he meant traditional. He was surprised when I told him that overseas cities with a stagnant population of Chinese who had immigrated long ago would probably be much more traditional and old-fashioned than Hong Kong or other places with a continuing influx of newer immigrants who bring with them some of the more up-to-date parts of Chinese culture, including music, films and, of course, food.
Peter changed his question: how could tourists be sure of a 'good' dim sum meal in Hong Kong? I was tempted to ask him to define good, but took pity, rattled off the names of a few of my favourite places and advised tourists to check the foodie websites. Most importantly, they should come here with an open mind and be willing to try things that might not fit their interpretation of authentic, but which could very well be delicious.