In defence of inauthenticity
Five stars: The most authentic Chinese food in the city. Must have experience! Restaurant reviews are a magical place in which anyone can speak with the authority and expertise of a Michelin star chef. But authentic to John Smith from the New York Times food review does not necessarily mean authentic to me. Thousands of people may praise the intangible values of a food they love, but it doesn’t make choosing your next meal any easier.
Text Islay Kilgannon
Image Lingli Crucq
Claims of authenticity saturate food and restaurant culture. In this context, we understand that authenticity to mean ethnic dishes made using the ingredients people of a certain region would use, prepared using age-old techniques, and evocative of a sense of familiarity or home to the people and cultures that have always cooked them. However, the descriptor has become so vague and overused it threatens to lose all meaning. Authenticity is subjective, and when considering the vast array of personal meanings and the way the idea of culturally bounded objects shifts in a globalising world, the definition becomes even more blurry.
The orange chicken industrial complex
Orange chicken, a particular standout in the realm of Westernised Chinese food, was conceived by the American Chinese restaurant Panda Express in 1970’s. For those unfamiliar, the dish is essentially fried bits of chicken covered in a sweet, orange flavoured sauce. The dish is an invention of its own, bearing little resemblance to Chinese cuisine, but drawing inspiration from some similarly sweet and sour dishes. Many people frown upon these kinds of hybrid, or entirely American, dishes for their appeals to Western paletes. However, the food that people cook outside of their place of origin is representative of their circumstances. Through patterns of migration, people and their cooking practices adapt to new circumstances. Whether it be because of the ingredients that are readily available or the people they are cooking them for, food is reflective of cultural interaction that results from immigration. Orange chicken is neither wholly American or wholly Chinese, and it is authentic in its own right.
Other than the changes that result from migration and historical processes, the notion of authentic and inauthentic food is largely a byproduct of globalisation. We want a taste of what the world has to offer in terms of cuisine, but capitalist industry ensures that it maintains its profitability. Thus emerges the phenomenon of chain ethnic food restaurants: Panda Express, Wagamama, Taco Bell, and many more. They are not only Westernised versions of food, they are new cuisines birthed by global industry nurtured by capitalist marketing. Authenticity is irrelevant to the ‘Live Más’ mentality, as these restaurants are reduced to vague symbols of the cultures they are associated with: the foods they serve are proudly inauthentic. Orange chicken is not Chinese and a crunchwrap supreme is not Mexican. However, this does not necessarily make them bad foods. Subjective taste buds aside, the problem lies with the reductive ways that ‘culture’ is used as a marketing ploy and ethnicities are essentialized in corny slogans and stereotypes. Nevertheless, food itself is not inherently evil, and Westernised versions of foods are subject to their own rich histories. Even though those histories may be a product of capitalist greed, it allows these restaurants to stand as a category of their own. There is no need to conflate or compare inauthentic versions of food with authentic or traditional dishes. We can recognize invention for what it is and enjoy the deliciousness of orange chicken without essentializing cultures.
You are what you eat
Local businesses and family owned restaurants are subject to a different, and perhaps more insidious side of the authenticity debate. When authentic Chinese food is signified by dirty tables and sticky floors, we must begin to question the associations that the notion of authenticity implies. Ethnic foods should be cheap, the service is always unfriendly, and they simply cannot be held to the same standards of hygiene as European restaurants. There is much to love about inexpensive and unpretentious dining, but the fetishization of the ‘hole in the wall’ aesthetic often goes hand in hand with the idea that this kind of dining is all part of an experience. White, wealthy food reviewers treat their encounters with non-western food as an expedition into the unknown. They marvel at their own ability to stomach the very spices their empires once stole and relish in the way they pronounce the names of dishes with just the right amount of accent. They criticise foods that are too greasy, too salty, and those that dare to use flavour enhancers; all the while they pat themselves on the back and assume their superiority and cultured-ness. Western European cuisine is regarded as the unflinching standard while non-Western foods are their mystified counterparts. As such, the notion of authenticity serves to uphold ideas of cultural difference and superiority. The use of the term as a buzzword comes to reflect the dominant modes of thinking about not only food, but the people and cultures they represent.
Even so, food undoubtedly holds cultural significance. It can be an important symbol of memory, home, and family. The foods that evoke these feelings and represent cultural heritage deserve to be cooked with regard to the ingredients and methods that make them what they are. In this way, authenticity is most meaningful on the individual level. Cooking in the ways that your parents and grandparents taught you to, familiarising yourself with ingredients that are local to the regions, and eating things that taste good to you are important ways of caring for yourself and those around you. We organise ourselves around the cooking and sharing of food, and these are practices that can help foster community as well as identity. So, when whitewashing or simplification occurs, it is logical that we may see it as a threat to something greater than what is on our plates.
As much as we embrace the instinct to preserve our traditions and values that have long been suppressed, it is also important to recognize the many iterations of cultural practices that exist at once. Instead of mythologising a ‘pure’ form of food, look to the authentic as a personal definition. Argue with strangers over whose mother has the best recipe for your favourite foods but do not let Take a Wok or Panda Express ruin your relationships to those foods, or worse, give you a superiority complex.