I can’t help but inwardly roll my eyes whenever I hear someone talk about where to find “authentic” burritos around town. As much as I love those foil-wrapped cylinders of goodness, they’re as much a part of traditional Mexican cuisine as Taco Bell’s nacho-cheese-laden Gorditas. You won’t find them south of the border, just as you won’t find massive piles of spaghetti and baseball-sized meatballs on the same plate in Italy like you do in every Italian restaurant in the United States. This country embraces a variety of cuisines from different countries, with sit-down eateries and fast-food joints alike putting Americanized spins on everything from Indian curry to Japanese sushi. But what we’re served in America is often a far cry from what’s served in Rome, Beijing, and other places around the world. So what do authentic ethnic foods look like compared to what we eat here?
A typical complaint about Mexican food in the States is that it’s greasy and heavy, but that’s because it’s almost always topped with too much sour cream and four kinds of cheese. In Mexico, sour cream and queso fresco (white cheese) are used sparingly. Almost every meal includes corn tortillas and/or rice, beans (refried or plain), eggs, and vegetables. Pozole and menudo are popular menu items, as are Mexico’s myriad of mole variations, sauces usually served with chicken. Street-food vendors sell tacos, tamales, and blue corn tlacoyos (masa cakes stuffed with beans, cheese, and meat and topped with cabbage). The tacos are simple but flavorful, usually involving nothing more than shredded meat, cabbage or lettuce, and a sprinkle of cilantro and salsa.
Don’t look for Moo Shoo Pork or Orange Chicken at any eateries in China, though you’ll find many other vegetable- and noodle-dominated dishes on the menus. Don’t wait for fortune cookies to end the meal, either; that’s an American invention. Cuisine preferences vary greatly among China’s different regions. Shanghai locals enjoy dishes like drunken shrimp, small meatballs, and xiaolongbao, steamed buns made with unleavened flour and filled with vegetables and meat. Sichuan chefs specialize in spicy, flavorful foods like Gong Bao Ji Ding (kung pao chicken) and Hot and Sour Soup. Meat is more likely to be smoked or roasted in Beijing, where Peking Duck and short ribs are especially popular. Dim sum is all the rage in Cantonese cuisine, with leavened-flour steamed buns served alongside small portions of congee (savory rice porridge) and dumplings.
Like China, Italy’s many regions have different cooking methods. You’ll find that risotto and pasta e fagioli (pasta and beans) reign supreme in Venetian cuisine, whereas Neapolitans love pizza, and Tuscany favors dishes with tomato bases and penne pasta. What you won’t find is chicken parmesan or huge plates of pasta at dinner like you see in the United States; locals prefer lighter meals in the evening rather than Olive Garden–style carbohydrate overloads, as well as small amounts of strong cheeses as opposed to heavy doses of grated Parmesan. Italian cuisine in general focuses on meats like veal, fish, lamb, or ham, on all kinds of pasta, and on the freshest of produce. Also, pasta and meat are usually two separate courses at authentic Italian restaurants; you probably won’t find something like shrimp fettuccine Alfredo on their menus.
Sushi in the United States is jam-packed with as many ingredients as possible, few of which are all that healthful: imitation crab mixed with mayo, “spicy sauce” (also mayo-based), fried vegetable bits, and cream cheese, to name a few of the worst offenders. But in Japan, sushi sticks to its simple, comparatively low-calorie roots by letting raw fish shine through instead. Also, unlike the plethora of choices on the menus at Japanese restaurants here, shops in Japan are more specialized; the Frommer’s guide for Japan says that tempura and sushi are sold in different places. Like Chinese food, Japanese cuisine revolves around noodles, rice, all sorts of meat and seafood, tofu, and vegetables. Common street-food offerings range from ramen shops and yakitori (skewered tofu or meat) to savory pancakes and takoyaki, octopus dumplings topped with mayo and grated fish.
Surprisingly, much of what you see on the menu at Indian restaurants around here is similar to what you’d get in India, though the latter might be a bit spicier and less rich. Staples include rice, roti (bread), and legumes like lentils and chickpeas. Many Indians are vegetarian for religious reasons, but you can find lamb and chicken in kabob form or fresh from tandoor (clay pot) ovens. The eastern part of India tends to favor rice and fish, whereas tandoori meats are more popular in the north. The south is known for dosas, a crepe-like wrap that can be sweet or savory. While Indians use spices like turmeric and garam masala (a mixture of spices) liberally, they don’t use the curry powder we see on supermarket shelves here. Tikka masala, one of the best-known variants of Indian cooking, isn’t authentic either—its origins are in Glasgow, or so the story goes.
Many food enthusiasts clamor for the most authentic versions of foreign foods, but I wonder just how popular—or even possible—that would be here. After all, can any food with outside origins stay traditional in new settings? Cultures intermingle and food represents that fusion, sometimes successfully (burritos) and sometimes not (the Olive Garden). Inauthentic needn’t always be associated with inferior. But if you do enjoy these cuisines, it’s worth knowing their traditional sides, if only to make you appreciate your favorite neighborhood joints all the more—or to inspire your next trip abroad.