By Robert Liu and Anish Vasudevan
Panda Express, Olive Garden and Chipotle.
Despite their Chinese, Italian and Mexican influence, these restaurants are commonly regarded as mere “Americanized” efforts to create authentic cuisines from different cultures.
Senior Antoni Kalkowski, a line chef at Japanese restaurant Uzumakiya, believes a common motive among restaurants that stray from culturally authentic flavors is to maintain public interest and stay afloat financially. But those who oppose their tactics of simplification and fusion, according to Kalkowski, desire the more nostalgic tastes from these cultural restaurants.
Kalkowski explains that this clash between American and foreign palates inevitably leads to simplification in inherently cultural dishes.
"Authentic Asian cuisine might not be what we like because there's too little fat; there's too little sugar, too little salt." - Senior Antoni Kalkowski
“The American culture is different because we're exposed throughout our childhood to very fatty, salty and sugary foods, and very starchy foods,” Kalkowski said. “Authentic Asian cuisine might not be what we like because there's too little fat; there's too little sugar, too little salt. So when someone tries to start up a business that's authentic Asian cuisine in America, they quickly realized that it's really hard because the American palate is not what they're used to.”
In order to appeal to customers, a majority of whom are accustomed to eating traditionally “Americanized” foods, Kalkowski says that many food companies find themselves with no choice but to adjust those flavors from other cuisines.
“Companies such as Panda Express realize this and they [ask], ‘Okay, what if we Americanize these things?’” Kalkowski said. “What if we add more fat? What if we add more sugar? What if we make it more palatable to the American public? And then what's interesting is that once they make that palatable to the American public, that might consequently not be palatable to, like, [the] Japanese public, because they now find the food Americanized.”
Math teacher Josh Kuo explains that this business strategy for Panda Express is valid and understandable since they don’t have to cater themselves solely to people of Asian descent to be successful.
“A lot of authentic Chinese food, American people wouldn't like,” Kuo said. “They're authentic, but they won't sell if they only cater to Asian people — Asian people are [the] minority after all. That's why it's sometimes more sweet, or maybe it's more fried or less spicy. I don't view Panda [Express] as authentic Chinese food, but I still eat [it].”
However, junior Anshul Dash views simplification as an obstacle to understanding and appreciating the intricacies of different cultures and cuisines. Despite the basic intent of simplification — to gently introduce new cultures — Dash believes that it can potentially lead to inaccuracies in the representation of certain cultures.
"they only experience a brief part of it, which I think is incomplete and misrepresents Chinese culture as a whole because [they think] simplification is part of Chinese culture." - Junior Anshul Dash
“[Simplification] is also bad because it doesn’t have the full authenticity that the similar dish from China would have,” Dash said. “They don’t get to experience the complete aspects of Chinese culture; they only experience a brief part of it, which I think is incomplete and misrepresents Chinese culture as a whole because [they think] simplification is part of Chinese culture."
According to Kalkowski, the practice of modifying authentic cultural flavors is not unique to only large, colloquial chains like Panda Express, but also nearly all restaurants that serve seemingly authentic dishes from different cultures. Even the restaurant Kalkowski works at, Uzumakiya, has made slight alterations to their traditional Japanese dishes to better suit the American palate.
“There's definitely both [a] traditional and an American twist in the restaurant,” Kalkowski said. “You can feel it right away [in] the udon — [it’s] a Japanese dish by itself, but they add a scoop of fat first, and then the broth and the noodles and all that. It's different because in traditional Japanese cuisine, you wouldn't ever be putting fat first, or fat in general, unless [if] it's from maybe sesame oil or chili oil.”
Dash also sees the practical value in altering aspects of cultural foods, especially when doing so can simplify the cooking and preparation process for typically complicated foods. Dash explains how his family would buy frozen Indian foods from Costco, but because the dishes were simplified and their ingredients changed, the flavors would evidently taste different.
“The thing is, Indian food [all has] ingredients to it that each represent something significant, and [in] simplification of Indian food, some of those ingredients are not added to the dish, so it’s incomplete,” Dash said. “It doesn’t show how the food item actually tastes.”
Kalkowski acknowledges that there are benefits to combining cuisine styles. He believes that better, improved flavors can be achieved by fusing aspects from certain cuisines.
“For example, dry-aged steak — that's a good example of a fusion between Western and Asian cultures; usually you do that in very high-end, fancy restaurants,” Kalkowski said. “But some people have found out that if they use Koji rice, which is Japanese rice inoculated with fungi, they can make the exact same dried steak. But instead of 48 days, it takes them three days. So you definitely see people trying to experiment and find new ways to achieve a desired taste for food.”
Kalkowski says that the intersection of cultures, even in the realm of cuisine, is inevitable in an increasingly globalized world. As a person of Polish descent, Kalkowski has experimented with mixing flavors and techniques from both European and Asian cuisine.
“[There’s] a new wave of people [who] have started to really experiment with, especially in terms of Asian and Western culture, [fusion],” Kalkowski said. “Because for a very long time, for example, Japan [had] lots of isolationism and they didn't really intermingle with other cultures, and that would prevent their cuisine from being influenced by other people and other people being influenced by their cuisine. But now, globalization has started to kick in … the internet's popped up, everybody [is] starting to intermingle and share their recipes.”
From his experience with fusion cooking, Kalkowski believes that blending different cultures is appropriate for maintaining a fresh, novel feel in his food.
"if you stick [to the] traditional basis, then the whole art becomes stagnant — you're not really developing or progressing in any kind of way, you're just cooking the same things over and over." - Senior Antoni Kalkowski
“I believe that it's warranted to do fusion cooking because if you stick [to the] traditional basis, then the whole art becomes stagnant — you're not really developing or progressing in any kind of way, you're just cooking the same things over and over,” Kalkowski said. “And you're not really experimenting with all these different ingredients of the world — especially now that we have globalization, we've got access to all these different ingredients.”