I have a confession: I actually like fake Arabic food–the watered-down, whitewashed stuff you find in the US. I know I’m not supposed to, as someone who has experienced the “real thing” on a semi-regular basis. I know I’m supposed to go to dinners here in Lebanon and lament how hard it is to find decent food like that in America and how the stuff there is a sorely lacking substitute.
But alas, I think food truck falafel is pretty good. I can enjoy an embarrassingly generic “Mediterranean pita wrap” as long as it has enough garlic. I even eat that prepackaged Whole Foods “white people hummus”–with it’s lack of tahini and blasphemous infusions of jalepenos or mango-pineapple mix–without the constant feeling that something is missing.
It’s not that I don’t really like the stuff here too (I think NYC could seriously use some manaeesh and laham b’agine, by the way). And it’s not like I can’t tell the difference: I can intellectually identify which is more “authentic” or higher quality, even if my personal tastes are less discriminating.
But when it comes to evoking nostalgia or the “taste of home” (like I hear my parents and other expats talk about here) I might get just as far with the garlic-doused “taouk chicken nuggets” from the Lebanese fast food place in Cary, North Carolina.
Maybe I just have a proclivity for badly-done imitation-Arabic things. Like how even though I’m the worst Arabic speaker in my family, I’m the best at understanding the horribly-accented Arabic of American reporters (e.g. remember when Anderson Cooper was squeezing and shouting through Arab Spring riots?).
But I also wonder whether “authenticity” can be relative. While that under-spiced falafel might do a pretty bad job of authentically representing one person’s home, culture, and history, maybe it authentically represents another’s. Which is real too. Or at least it tastes that way to me . . .