With today’s wealth of options for “ethnic cuisine” comes troubling perspectives on what makes “authentic” food.
Foodies are often eager to seek the most “authentic” representation of whatever “ethnic cuisine” they want to eat. By authentic, they usually mean food closest to what you would eat in the country of origin. But the word is fraught. In a deep dive on Eater, food writer Jaya Saxena dives into our contemporary relationship with the idea of “authenticity,” and notes: “What consumers deemed ‘real’ was heavily influenced by whiteness. Americans still largely consider European-influenced cuisine as the norm (see any new American’ menu for proof), and their opinions of what is authentic extend from that center point.”
• Advocate and support the cultures and communities whose food you consume.
• Donate to campaigns that help those in the dining food supply chain, including farmworkers, restaurant workers, and small restaurant owners.
• Reflection: What makes you feel that food is “authentic”? Who is given authority on what foods are valuable in our culture?
• Instead of asking, “which restaurant serves the most authentic food” ask yourself, “what community am I supporting by giving my money to this restaurant?”
A separate report from Eater NY studied over 20,000 Yelp reviews. The writer summed up her results succinctly: “The word ‘authentic’ in food reviews supports white supremacism, and Yelp reviews prove it…According to my data, the average Yelp reviewer connotes ‘authentic’ with characteristics such as dirt floors, plastic stools, and other patrons who are non-white when reviewing non-European restaurants” (Eater NY). On the other hand, reviewers considered European restaurants “authentic” when they had the hallmarks of upscale dining, like white tablecloths and fresh-cut flowers.
Such viewpoints are pervasive. Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, I learned what white Americans thought of Asian cuisine before I grasped what Taiwanese and Japanese foods personally meant to us. I internalized the myths that all Chinese food was unhealthy and cheap, for example, while Japanese food had social cachet. How we view cuisine often mirrors how we view culture. With little cultural and political representation in the United States, recent immigrant cultures are usually most visible through their food. Our conception of other cultures’ food is often filtered through what we are served at “ethnic restaurants,” without an understanding of the ways that dishes and customs change when the owners need to keep their lights on when they know their audience wants a sanitized version of their foods.
The question of “authentic” vs. “not authentic” can also ignore the effects of colonization, imperialism, diaspora, and the ways communities must adapt to their surroundings. The Korean, Japanese, and Taiwanese food industries, for example, were heavily influenced by American foreign policy. Instant ramen—a food we think of as being inherently Japanese—was invented because America shipped their surplus wheat to East Asia after the war, and the food was seen as being more nutritionally balanced than bread (International Institute for Asian Studies).
That’s why asking, “is this food authentic?” isn’t the right question— especially when we rely on Yelp reviews for the answer. Wealthy chefs can claim authenticity when they spend tens of thousands of dollars in a foreign country, learn ancient methods from locals, and return to develop their own interpretation at their high-priced restaurants—but that isn’t what I want to support.
Instead of asking, “which restaurant has the most authentic food?” we can ask ourselves, “which community am I supporting by giving my money to this restaurant?” Does a large restaurant group own the restaurant, or is it a family operation? How integrated is the restaurant into the cultural community and the local geographic community? As consumers, we have power. What we pay for is literally what we value. Let’s use our power to invest in these communities.
This piece was inspired by What We Feed Ourselves, a project developed by my sister Cori Nakamura Lin (@cori.lin.art). This project examined food, culture, and acculturation through interviews from immigrant-owned restaurants, essays from local writers, and illustrations of different meals. The restaurants were all from East Lake Street in Minneapolis (the area near where the police murdered George Floyd). Thank you to the restaurants who participated in this project: Moroccan Flavors (@moroccanflavorsmpls), International Cuisine, Wiilo Food Distributor, Taqueria Las Cuatro Milpas (@las_cuatro_milpas), and Gandhi Mahal(@curryinahurrympls).
• With little cultural and political representation in the United States, recent immigrant cultures are usually most visible through their food.
• Conversations about authentic food often center white people’s version of authenticity.
• The idea that there is one “authentic” version of cuisine also ignores the effects of imperialism, colonization, diaspora, and assimilation.
*This piece was originally published on 11/25/20. It was updated and edited by The ARD on 03/16/23.