It seems that the highest praise that can be given to a restaurant these days is to mention its “authenticity” – but ask someone what they mean by the term, and you’re not likely to get a straight answer.
Authenticity has been a culinary concern for at least the past thirty years. In the ’80s, when most foreign restaurants (other than French) had “-American” tacked on at the end, it kind of made sense, but today, food has evolved leaps and bounds past the mere suggestion of a foreign flavor, and the question, not just of whether a cuisine is foreign – but just how foreign it is – has become a preoccupation of many.
“In the past twenty years, food has become a staple part of our identity,” says Fabio Parasecoli, associate professor and director of Food Studies initiatives at The New School. “We live in a highly globalized world, so where there are fast movements and exchanges of people, materials, ingredients, and information, there is a resurgence of desire for certainty. For a well-defined identity. And authenticity, I think, is a reflection of this desire.”
What Do We Mean When We Say “Authentic”?
While authenticity might seem like a simple word, it’s actually quite difficult to define. Raymond Sokolov distills it fairly succinctly, writing that a desire for authenticity is wanting “a French restaurant to duplicate the food [one] has eaten in France, as well as the atmosphere of restaurants [one] had been to there.”
But, as Sokolov goes on to explain in his article, “On Gastronomical Authenticity,” not everyone seeking out authenticity is looking to replicate a culinary experience that he or she has had elsewhere. More often than not, a diner is looking for someone else to vouch for authenticity, a sort of lazy-man’s approach to acquiring a cultural experience that has led to the word losing some of its meaning, according to culinary journalist Su-Jit Lin.
She says that the increased use of the term as a buzzword is “something to be alarmed about.”
“It’s becoming removed from its true meaning, kind of like ‘all-natural’ on food labels when your raspberry flavor is made from the anal secretions of beavers,” she explains. “Many people are misinterpreting ‘stereotypes’ as marketing ‘authenticity.’”
Parasecoli, for example, notes that as an Italian living in New York, he is often faced with people’s disappointment when a dish he has prepared that doesn’t reflect their expectations.
“Maybe their idea of Italian is influenced by the Italian-American tradition that they are used to here in the U.S. or by ideas in the media of what authentic Italian food should be,” he says.
Authenticity as Shorthand is Problematic, at Best
“Authenticity” has become a catch-all term in the culinary scene, and as journalist Soleil Ho notes, “Using shorthand can often elide critical details and make the story that much more vague.”
The clues that diners use to ascertain whether a given culinary experience is authentic, for example, are hazy at best. Writing for Thrillist, Kevin Alexander cites the origins of the restaurant’s owners, cooks, ingredients, or even diners as just some of many criteria that foodies will use to assure themselves that a given locale is “authentic.”
“Everybody’s heard this story from a chef or food writer,” says Chef Haan Palcu-Chang. “’I went into this back alley in Chinatown and found this restaurant with no white people, the food was so good and authentic.’ And I’m like… great. Just because it was in a dirty alley and had no white people, why was it more authentic?”
This story in particular is linked to yet another problem with the term: the fact that it tends, first and foremost, to be used to describe food that is seen as “ethnic” or “exotic,” (read: non-white, non-European).
“If we only say ‘authentic’ when discussing non-western foods, that ‘exotifies’ them, and historically, ‘exotic’ has meant the conquered,” says food writer Jacqueline Neves. “We definitely don’t see the word ‘authentic’ next to a western cuisine as often as those from the rest of the world.”
While there is nothing wrong with trying to experience a food from another culture, the risk in perceiving such foods as exotic poses the risk of rendering the entire culture exotic.
“So much of foodie culture is steeped in an attitude of imperialism: privileged folks’ entitlement toward the cultures of people they consider to be a spectacular ‘other,’” explains journalist Soleil Ho. “The dynamic where people privileged on racial and/or economic axes go on safari to the ethnic enclaves of their cities is based on that thrill of conspicuously engaging with the unknown, albeit in a very mediated space. It’s not about the food, even though they may try their best to convince themselves of that.”
Who Has the Authority to Vouch for Authenticity?
Some countries have tried to protect the authenticity of their local cuisine via legal means, from Penang’s ban on foreigners cooking local food to France’s AOC designations forbidding regions other than Champagne from giving their white bubbly the name. But when individuals use the word authenticity to describe food, they are basically claiming that authority for themselves, according to Parasecoli – and generally speaking, one cannot purport to have that authority.
Firstly, a tangential association with a cuisine – one that a consumer enjoys, for example, or has even prepared – is no replacement for the years of training that it takes to truly comprehend the flavors and techniques.
“Asian food is way more complex in terms of technique, execution, and flavors than the big three European cuisines of French, Italian and Spanish,” says Palcu-Chang. “The vast majority of [white foodies, writers, and chefs] have no authority by which to credibly speak on Asian food. They toss out the word ‘authentic’ to get validation from each other or anybody who will listen.”
Of course, the other side of this coin is that just because a given person is from a given culture doesn’t mean he or she has the talent or even the interest for that culture’s food.
“Just because you’re born into a culture does not mean you know and prepare the food of that culture well,” explains Viet World Kitchen founder Andrea Nguyen. “You may have stories and context but there’s no birthright when it comes to preparing good food or understanding it.”
Moreover, vouching for the authenticity of a given dish, restaurant, or chef is based on the assumption that some ways of preparing food are more authentic than others. The truth is, authentic means different things to different people.
“My perception of authentic Indian food is based on the kind of food that’s served at home or at anyone in my family’s home. For me that’s Gujarati food which is rarely served in ‘Indian’ restaurants,” explains Dipesh Mehta. “Indian food in restaurants isn’t what Indian people eat at home – first, it’s tailored to western tastes (lots of oil, pumped with sugar, spicy for the sake of it – I’m looking at you, phaal), and second, it’s not everyday food.”
It’s also important to take into account the evolution of food; desiring authenticity in cuisine can often force a cuisine to remain within the confines of an antiquated worldview.
“I called my mom the other day to ask about some ingredients and she told me she put peas in the jollof rice,” Nigerian chef and writer Tunde Wey told Thrillist. “And I was like, mom, come on, we don’t put peas in jollof rice. And she was like, ‘Tunde, I cooked this last night in Nigeria and served it to Nigerians. I think I know better than you what I can and can’t put in my jollof rice.”
“The notion of authenticity is complex,” says food writer Kendra Valentine. “Is it referring to food being prepared in the way in which certain peoples commonly perceive that dish to be? Or is it actually the historic preparation was of the dish when the dish was named? Or is it just about a black person making soul food? More often than not, our modern versions of dishes are not the same as the historic predecessors… unrecognizable even. Which is the authentic one?”
Searching for a Replacement for Authenticity
Searching for authenticity in food has become shorthand for an elusive quality in food that we cannot otherwise name – something that feels genuine and real, a food that does more than feed or nourish, but also purports to reflect an entire culture and history in just one dish.
“When I started cooking, I tossed ‘authentic’ around a lot when talking about where I cooked and where I ate,” says Palcu-Chang. “Now I think it’s probably the most ridiculous adjective one can use to denote some inherent quality in food.”
So which word could we use instead?
Megan McArdle writes for Bloomberg that what we’re really looking for is variety: something with character that is distinct from the mass-produced food that was so comforting in the 1950s, every can of peas or shrink-wrapped chicken breast looking precisely the same.
“Hand-processed food will not be as consistent as the industrially processed versions,” she writes. “And those small variations reward us with a new experience with each bite.”
Palcu-Chang, meanwhile, says that he would now describe his own food as “made from scratch, with care, love and technique. And it is an honest, edible representation of my story as a human—where I came from, where I’ve been, what I’ve done, what I love.”
It’s more of a mouthful than simply saying “authentic,” but maybe that’s what we need to do: move past a buzzword.
“I believe good food should be genuine, true and honest,” says Nguyen. ”I subscribe Jean Paul Sartre’s perspective on authenticity: ‘If you seek authenticity for authenticity’s sake you are no longer authentic.’”
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