The Myth of Authenticity

The Myth of Authenticity

When you visit an ‘ethnic’ restaurant, you’re often looking for it to be ‘authentic.’ You want the cooks to look ‘authentic.’ And the clientele to look ‘authentic.’ I’m guilty of it, too. If I go to a Vietnamese restaurant, and there are more white people than Vietnamese people, and the decor is new and fancy, I leave. Because I assume it can’t be authentic, or even good.

But, what do we mean by traditional or authentic food? The food ‘original’ to a certain people or area? Is there even such a thing? For example, while we heavily associate Ireland and Russia with potatoes, potatoes are not native to those areas, but to Peru. Furthermore, these cultures and nations have not always existed, so what time period are we looking to as the ‘original,’ ‘most authentic’ time? Cultures are always changing, evolving and mixing, and as the cultures and people mix, the food mixes.

Hierarchy of Food

What do you think when you hear the phrase “ethnic food?” Let’s be honest, you’re probably thinking of some run-down, cheap Chinese or Vietnamese shop. But, when we think of French, or even Japanese food now, that’s expensive foreign food. Why do we often assume there can’t be fine dining versions of Indian food or Chinese food? “The Chinese have been writing about food since long before the French, a thousand years before the French were writing about food extensively.”

So, why DO we think of some ethnic food as cheap, and food from other cultures as expensive and foreign?

  • Economics. If a country’s economy is doing well, and those immigrants in our own country are doing well, we think more highly of the food. As GDP and socioec levels increase, the food is somehow elevated, as well.
  • Immigration. If immigration from a country is low and slowing, we tend to think of their food more highly.
  • Politics. After the war, it’s taken years for Vietnamese food to become accepted. Russian food, on the other hand, is still largely unpopular in America, stemming from the Cold War and our continued political differences.

How does our perception of these ethnic foods change over time? For example, Korean children used to be made fun of when bringing kimchi to school, but, after the war and as South Korea has developed, now Korean food is trendy in America.

Fusion Food

What about fusion food? Do we appreciate it the same as ‘authentic’ food, or do we consider it somehow less-than because it’s not ‘true to its roots?’ “We don’t change things that have been done one way forever and ever,” goes the line. While it maintains aspects of the original/influencing culture/food, fusion food becomes a thing of its own.

  • Banh Mi is a fusion of French and Vietnamese/Southeast Asian*
  • Hong Kong (“a place where East meets West”) is a mix of Chinese and British/Western food*
  • Chicken tikka masala is Britain’s national dish*
  • “Chinese-American” food is something distinctly different from Chinese food in China. It’s faster, more familiar, etc.
  • Mole is a fusion of New World and Old World ingredients*

*Not to mention the colonial undertones in these examples

Rick Bayless and Frontera* 

*Written while eating (and enjoying) a frozen Frontera bowl

The famous Chicago chef has been a hot topic for the past few years due to his relationship with Mexican food. Most of the debate revolves around the following questions:

  • Is Bayless culturally appropriating because he is making such a profit off of  Mexican food, while ‘more traditional’ Mexican restaurants don’t achieve the same prestige and celebrity? Or, is he bringing Mexican food, and an appreciation for the cuisine and culture, to a broader audience?
  • Would it make it better if Frontera’s marketing said “inspired by Mexican flavors,” rather than “authentic gourmet Mexican flavors?”

Bayless said Frontera was “his effort to “culturally translate” Mexican cuisine for an American audience.” But, are translations like this one a ‘colonizing act?’ At the least, all translations cause a loss, a loss of food memory and an ‘authenticity.’ Some might say these are ‘white-washed’ versions. Or, is it a ‘starter version’ – a less intense, more familiar version of the food that at least gets an American eater out of their comfort zone and may open them up to ‘the real deal’ later on? Dishes like pad thai and chicken tikka masala can open audiences up to a larger Thai or Indian cuisine.

The Bayless quote above comes from an episode of the podcast Sporkful called “Other People’s Food.” I found this phrase fascinating. Does anyone actually ‘own’ a certain food? Do people born in Mexico, or born into Mexican culture, have more of a right to cook Mexican food than Bayless, a white guy from Oklahoma? Is it racist to say Bayless doesn’t have a right to cook Mexican food?

We’re so possessive – possessive of OUR food. And to mess with these ‘traditional’ recipes is to somehow disrespect our grandmothers. That’s how close food can be to people – how close it is to home. Because it’s made in our homes. And I understand the attachments. But, I think these attachments are our problem. Because no one really owns the rights to a particular culture or cuisine. As the famous Pujol chef Enrique Olvera says, “Nationality in general is a stupid discussion. There is a Mexican cuisine that is from Los Angeles, just like there is a Mexican cuisine that is from Oaxaca…That’s the beautiful thing about food. It’s yours. It doesn’t belong to the culture, it belongs to you.” Cooking food, like art, is a form of human expression. So, we should allow chefs to exercise that freedom of expression, and to be authentically themselves, rather than carbon-copying some ‘authentic’ recipe that never changes or evolves. And we should judge food by the food itself. Not by who cooks it.

American Food

How does one define American food? Is it all food cooked within the borders of America? Food only made by American citizens? Or an idea, such as the supply chain and marketing techniques quintessential to chains like McDonald’s?

What about Chinese-American food? Since America is a nation of immigrants, although some people seem to disagree, is American food just a compilation of ethnic foods? Or only ethnic food that’s been “assimilated?” Perhaps it depends on whether you think America is, or should be, a melting pot.

Or, is American food just hot dogs, burgers and breakfast? Steak, BBQ, Thanksgiving food, and chicken noodle soup? Southern food? American food is comfort food. Comfort food… Isn’t all ethnic food comfort food? When a Vietnamese person eats Vietnamese food from their region, it feels like home. It feels comfortable. So, perhaps ethnic cuisine is whatever makes the people behind that cuisine feel at home, in their mother’s kitchen.

You may ask…What’s even the point of defining American food, or what ethnic food is? Well, lines and categorization exist for a reason. They’re a tool to help us compartmentalize and discuss ideas amidst a world of grey and ambiguity. BUT. We cannot be so attached to these lines. Because our blind attachment to these lines is what tears us apart.

Globalization and the Ensuing Identity Crisis

Look at the packaging on your food sometime. Or the writing on a restaurant menu. And count how many times you see “authentic” or “traditional flavors and recipes.” It’s everywhere!

It seems this search for authenticity in our food is a manifestation of our current identity crises. With the free movement of people and ideas, with more mixing, we’re struggling to figure out where we base our identities. We’re trying to go back to an earlier time when we knew. A more ‘authentic’ time. So, we strive for food that matches that earlier authenticity.

Conclusion

In reality, though, no culture or cuisine lives in a vacuum. “Like people, food wanders.” Through the free movement of people and ideas (or even the forced mixing due to colonialism), food evolves. And without changing and evolving, how could anything ever get better?

All dishes and cuisines are some sort of fusion, as they adapt to new regions, new ingredients, new ideas and new clientele. And that’s what makes food great.

Check out Crawfish & Noodles in Houston to get a taste of fusion for yourself.

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