A tourist in New York City stops a man on the street and asks, “Can you direct me to the nearest Olive Garden?”
The man replies, “No, but I can direct you to a real Italian restaurant.”
You can never really eat the same meal twice—every time you prepare a certain dish, there will be some slight difference in its quality, whether in how long you take to prepare it or the measurements you use or even the ingredients themselves. Unless you’re meticulous with your cooking methods, chances are that the meal you eat today will be just a little different the next time you prepare it.
It’s easy, then, to imagine how the same is true when it comes to preparing food from different countries around the world. With such a wide range of dishes, and an even wider range of ingredients needed to prepare them, it’s virtually impossible for the average person to accurately recreate many dishes from the comfort of home, particularly when it comes to more “exotic” meals—a person in the U.S. would be hard pressed to find the main ingredient for khash, a traditional Middle Eastern dish made from a cow’s feet and head, or find someone who sells balut, a common Filipino street food prepared by boiling a duck embryo alive and eating it in the eggshell.
Ingredient inaccessibility is a problem many restaurant owners might face when they begin compiling their menus. So are the tastes of their customers, which may differ greatly from the tastes of people in their home country. These two factors are a significant reason that an ethnic dish in the U.S. might be totally unrecognizable when compared to the same dish in its country of origin.
It’s no mystery that you’re more far likely to get an authentic dish at an immigrant-owned restaurant than at a chain restaurant dedicated to selling supposed “ethnic” food. Still, restaurants like Taco Bell, Olive Garden, and P.F. Chang’s remain ever popular among Americans. What do these establishments do that make them favorites, even in situations where authentic cuisine is an option?
While it’s impossible to compare the menus of chain restaurants to every supposedly authentic restaurant in New York City, it is possible to get an idea of what some broad differences might be between a national chain restaurant and a small, local restaurant.