About a decade ago, the most important thing food could be was authentic. “Authenticity” was the buzzword that propelled people to seek out so-called hole-in-the-wall taco joints over Qdoba and blast their exploits all over Yelp. Places like Eataly popped up with the promise of “real” Italian ingredients over the impostors you’d find at your ShopRite. Could you even be someone who liked food if the food you ate wasn’t authentic?
But just as it rose, so did it fall. In 2011, Todd Kliman wrote in Lucky Peach that authenticity was “a purely arbitrary, purely subjective surmise of a purely impure thing.” In 2012, Eddie Huang lamented the prototype of someone who “wants to tell ME what Chinese food is because Bear Stearns sent him to Shanghai for six months.” The public discussion of authenticity in food began to feel cliche, the language of insufferable foodies more concerned with appearing to have the correct tastes than doing any tasting. The word buzzed no more.
In May of 2018, chef Preeti Mistry tweeted that “Curry is a social construct” and continued with a thread about the word’s confusing relationship with Indian cuisine. “#currypowder is to India what #italianseasoning is to Italy… a fucking joke, amirite?” they wrote. This year, writer Khushbu Shah echoed the sentiment, tweeting that only “colonizers” eat curry. The semantics behind the word “curry” are long and complicated, but the argument arose because, among some white people, “curry” has become a catch-all phrase for all Indian cuisine, a flattening of the varied and multicultural cooking of more than 1 billion people. Both Mistry and Shah argued that no self-respecting South Asian chef would be caught dead with “curry powder” — the yellow miasma of spices often used to “jazz up” a mayonannaise-y chicken salad — in their kitchens. For these two, it was just another example of how their cuisine has been butchered for a white palate.
While it might seem obvious that a spice mix sold by McCormick wouldn’t be considered authentic, things got complicated as more Indians and South Asians — the pseudonymous food writer My Annoying Opinions prominent among them — argued that plenty of Indians use curry powders and list curries on their menus, and that just because British colonizers are responsible for the widespread and limited understanding of curry doesn’t mean Indians and South Asians haven’t made it their own. Yes, the phrase “curry” can be used derogatorily, but as My Annoying Opinions wrote, “curry in the Indian context means something very different than what it has come to mean in the American (and European) context.”
The Twitter debate was a bit of a tweetstorm in a teacup, with each side consisting of smart people who care deeply about how their culture’s cuisines are interpreted by a white supremacist society. And the core of what they were arguing about is authenticity — what it is and who gets to define it, as well as what counts as a taint on a cuisine and what has been lovingly adopted into the traditions. Lucky Peach’s book 101 Easy Asian Recipes cheekily billed itself as “100% inauthentic,” putting okonomiyaki in the same book as “Mall Chicken.” New restaurants like Call Your Mother and Nightshade ditch verisimilitude for a more open-minded approach to their cuisines, with Call Your Mother advertising itself as “Jew-ish.” The authenticity is not the sell, and in fact, it sounds a lot like “fusion.” It’s clear that something about the conversation on authenticity has changed, broadening into a debate about innovation, interpretation, and change and recognizing that no cuisine, or culture, is static. Welcome to Authenticity 2.0.
Authenticity wasn’t always such a weaponized term in the food world. “I was reading the intro to Madhur Jaffrey’s book An Invitation to Indian Cooking, and she uses the word authentic a lot as a way to distinguish between the food that’s served in restaurants and what’s eaten at home,” says Priya Krishna, food writer and author of the cookbook Indian-Ish. When Jaffrey’s book was published, in 1973, most Americans’ understanding of Indian food came from take-out restaurants and buffets, a deeply delicious version of Indian cuisine, but one that’s also limited in scope. “Authentic,” for Jaffrey, meant food specific to different regions and different traditions of India, and food that is cooked by Indians for Indians, not to suit the American palate. Jaffrey wrote, however, that non-Indian Americans at the time were yearning “to experience the ‘real’ thing, an authentic taste,” and wrote her cookbook to suit those desires. This is authenticity, and cultural exchange, at its best — the willingness to center and value another culture’s traditions.
As America’s immigrant population shifted in the ’70s and ’80s, there were more opportunities to eat Middle Eastern, Asian, Central American, and other “ethnic” cuisines, and more opportunities both for new chefs to make their mark and for established chefs to be inspired anew. Which brings us to the term “fusion.” In 1993, Charles Perry at the LA Times wrote that it was the buzzword of the decade, while also noting that people have shared and adapted flavors since the dawn of time, and that the line between fusion and authenticity was (and continues to be) extremely porous: “We’ll probably look back on today’s cookbooks and realize that a lot of the recipes we thought of as hyper-authentic in 1993 had actually been subtly adapted to our own kitchens and our own tastes,” he wrote. But to him it was clear that, while the culinary world still absolutely appreciated what was seen as authentic, chefs and diners were also finding it almost boring. The restaurant world had exhausted each cuisine so much that “it seems the only culinary frontiers left are a mix of multiethnic themes.”
Fusion wasn’t a controversial word yet. At the time, it was exciting that chefs could take traditional flavors and techniques and do something new with them, like Wolfgang Puck putting salmon on pizza, or restaurants in Los Angeles serving caviar on plantains and black beans. As a diverse taste in food became more culturally valuable, a willingness to experiment and try new things was the hallmark of the proto-foodie. And honestly, what is the point of cooking if not to experiment with what tastes good? But while it might have been a true stroke of genius that led Puck to combine smoked salmon and pizza, what it inspired were cynical ploys like sushi burritos and chocolate hummus. Critics began to point out that anyone (and usually it was white chefs) could spin the wheel and call it innovation, no matter how unoriginal or disinteresting the fusion meal actually was. By the early 2000s, fusion was passé. The pendulum swung and the new goal became finding the most traditional, authentic cuisine out there, made by the people who originated it.
The search for the authentic was also aided by apps like Foursquare and Yelp, which allowed users to bypass reviewers and guides as the main sources of where to eat. Now anyone could be an authority on what kind of food had value and, conversely, what was valueless. Foursquare even allowed users to prioritize listings that other users reported were “authentic.” The jackpot was the “hole in the wall” taco place, the basement noodle shop, the spot that didn’t have a menu in English. “Today’s American has much greater exposure to diverse cultures than an American 20 years ago. And as once-exotic things like sushi or yoga become mainstream, we seek new, more niche markers of cultural authenticity,” said Alexandra Smith, the director of consumer trends at Mintel, in 2012. If you were introduced to Chinese cuisine at a Panda Express or Mexican food at Taco Bell, you could now seek out the “real” without some sort of insider knowledge.
However, 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. In 2015, researcher Stephen Christ studied the subjectivity of “authenticity” when it came to Mexican restaurants, and found the use of the word depended largely on the customer, not the chef. “The owner of a Mexican restaurant may claim to have the most authentic facility because his chef is from Mexico or he has more employees from Mexico than any of his competitors,” he said. “But for the consumer, the most important consideration is ‘how much does this food fit my expectation of what Mexican food is based on growing up and having taco day at high school or eating at fast-food taco restaurants?’” It’s based on a preconceived notion of what “real” Mexican food is, regardless of what relationship the diner has to Mexican cuisine in the first place. Authenticity is about aesthetics as much as anything else.
In a 2019 report on Eater NY, Sara Kay found that when it came to restaurants serving European cuisine, Yelp reviewers associated authenticity with white tablecloths, elegance, and an overall positive dining experience. However, authenticity at non-European restaurants more often meant cheap food, dirty decor, and harried service. White people were allowed to be both authentic and upscale, while cuisine from people of color had to stay cheap and lowbrow to qualify. “I think a lot of the time [authenticity has] been co-opted in a way where it’s not just used to describe food that is made by the person from that culture. It’s like, ‘Oh, the authentic Chinese place is the hole in the wall with the bad health reading,’” says Krishna. “It’s gotten associated with so many negative stereotypes, like for something to be authentic it has to be an uncomfortable dining experience. The minute Indian food is served in a fine dining setting, it’s maybe not as authentic anymore, and I just don’t understand why that artificial distinction has been drawn.”
Outside of the mythical hole-in-the-wall, the conversation about authenticity is often pegged to attention and value — who gets to cook what and who gets praised for it. At the crest of the authenticity wave, two men became lightning rods for everything the word could mean, good or bad: Andy Ricker and Rick Bayless. Both white men, both cooking cuisines from countries they are neither from nor from which they claim heritage (Thailand and Mexico, respectively), both receiving accolades over their cooking followed almost immediately by accusations of cultural appropriation. It’s not as though either claimed to cook the most authentic Thai or Mexican food — each had been inspired at some point by these cuisines, and decided to dedicate their careers to it, while giving plenty of credit to their sources. But to some, they represented exactly why fine dining and non-European cuisine shouldn’t mix.
“It’s predictable, but maybe it’s not fair,” that white men would be the ones becoming famous for cooking “ethnic” food, Ed Levine of Serious Eats said in 2012. Food media, like media as a whole, is still predominantly white and and prone to centering white experiences — which, chef Dale Talde argues, is why Ricker and Bayless bore the brunt of criticism. In an attempt to right past wrongs, food writers and publications directed ire toward these white chefs who were only trying to draw attention to food they loved. “We didn’t celebrate women. We didn’t celebrate chefs of color. We didn’t celebrate chefs of different nationalities. We didn’t celebrate LGBT communities. We never celebrated that, for how many years?” Talde says. And instead of shifting coverage to spotlight marginalized chefs, the media blamed white men for taking up too much space. “I think the question should have been asked: Why haven’t you been writing about these people?” Talde argues. “Why is it just now that you want to latch onto these dudes who are doing this?”
But Bayless, at one point, did suggest that it was his whiteness (or at least non-Mexicanness) that made him a good arbiter of Mexican cuisine. “My greatest gift is that I don’t have a Mexican grandmother,” he told Francis Lam at the New York Times in 2012, “so I can look at all Mexican grandmothers as equal. If you grew up with this food, you’ll defend to the death the way your family makes a dish. So sometimes, with lots of experience, you can speak with a bit of a broader perspective.” Bayless’s “assertion and assumption of disconnected distance — valued as ‘objectivity,’” as researcher Cecilia Cissell Lucas put it — is right out of the colonizer’s playbook, and something food media bought into easily. The underlying assumption was that Bayless, by not being inherently bogged down in the cultural dynamics of a place or culture, could see it more clearly.
A white person cooking impeccable Mexican cuisine may be seen as newsworthy, while a Mexican person doing the same is just business as usual, to the point that chef Gabriela Cámara told Eater that, before she started cooking in the U.S., she didn’t even think of herself as cooking Mexican food. In a survey of “foodies” in Toronto, researcher Merin Oleschuk found that chefs of color are often limited by what white and Western diners expect their food to look like, and punished when they don’t live up to those expectations. “These instances are problematic because they summon people to act as ‘representatives’ of their culture,” writes Oleschuk. “Doing so supports social distancing by asking people of color to occupy positions of bounded ethnicity whereby their role is to ‘enrich’ an otherwise normatively white, Anglo-Saxon society through ‘ethnic performances’ and ‘traditions.”’
The question of which cuisines can be “elevated,” and by whom, drives much of the authenticity debate. Eater’s Jenny Zhang wrote about how that dynamic was depicted in the Netflix film Always Be My Maybe, in which Sasha Tran (played by Ali Wong) plays a hot-shot chef who runs a number of fusion restaurants. The viewer is “meant to side-eye” her career, writes Zhang, until her childhood sweetheart reminds her “Asian food isn’t supposed to be ‘elevated,’ it’s supposed to be authentic” — homey, traditional, and not subject to innovation through Western ingredients or new techniques. As white chefs face outrage for cooking cuisine that isn’t their own, nonwhite chefs are saddled with guilt or confusion for straying from tradition. Both situations are driven by the notion that European food is upscale and innovative, while basically everything else is inherently cheap, casual, and stagnant.
“When someone wants to declare something as authentic, it’s like they’re also trying to establish themselves as being someone who should be in the position to play judge,” says food writer Francis Lam. And when that judgment comes through the lens of the white mainstream, it often misses things that could be just as valuable. Lam brought up the conversation around the blood soup chef Kris Yenbamroong serves at Night + Market, his northern Thai restaurant in Silver Lake. It was an instant hit when he put it on the menu, with critics and diners lauding Yenbamroong for being bold enough to serve such a traditional, authentic dish. There was just one problem: The dish was his creation. It was influenced by luu, but with some signature twists, Yenbamroong created something you’d never find in Thailand. “It had never occurred to anyone that this could have actually been a product of Kris’s personal creativity,” says Lam. “This is what happens when authenticity is the highest and only goal of the ethnic chef. You can’t imagine that something you haven’t seen before could have been because they invented it.”
Francis Lam’s mom happens to be a big believer in authentic Chinese cuisine. He says she’ll dismiss certain Chinese-American establishments as catering only to a Western palate, instead of serving the food she grew up with. “It’s certainly not exclusive to white people to say, ‘Oh this doesn’t taste like how dishes with this name would taste if you were to have them in China,’” says Lam, “But she’s not coming from a place of exoticism or wanting to be cooler than your foodie friends. For her, it’s literally wanting to taste the thing that we’re supposed to be tasting, even though [China isn’t the same] anymore. So it’s a different place of need and it’s a different motivation.”
Wanting authentic cuisine became an easy punchline to a joke about millennial foodies and their Instagram accounts, and diners and chefs alike backed down from using the word, understanding that it played into stereotypes and assumptions that could be more harmful than good. “I think the word and the use of that word has been sufficiently questioned where people know not to try to wield it like a weapon anymore. Or a shield, for that matter,” says Lam. But authentic cuisine — cuisine that reflects a certain culture’s traditions and that is made with intention, care, and knowledge — is not a bad thing to want. In fact, it’s still the baseline of how most food is judged.
“I get what people are looking for, and I get that [authenticity] is a valuable thing. I just think that the vast majority of us and the vast majority of times we use that word, we’re not allowing for the realities of the world and nuances of the world to come into play too,” says Lam. The goal, then, becomes figuring out what, exactly, someone means when they ask for “authenticity.” Some people are looking for dirt-cheap tacos that fit their limited idea of what Mexican food should be. Others are looking for dishes they tasted decades ago in their birth countries. And then there are those who are searching for food that speaks to every part of themselves, even if that looks closer to “fusion.” The latter is what Soleil Ho spoke of as “assimilation food,” and what Dale Talde calls “diaspora cooking.” He has described his restaurants as “inauthentically Asian,” a subtle “fuck you” to those who’d say his menus are not really Filipino. But make no mistake, he is making authentic food — it’s just authentic to a different kind of experience, one of a kid born in Chicago to a Filipino family, and who wants to represent the entirety of his background and influences.
Krishna, whose book includes dishes like saag feta and roti pizza (Preeti Mistry also had “Indian pizza” on their menu at Navi Kitchen), explicitly wanted to highlight the Indian-Americanness of her cuisine, and her experience growing up. These were dishes her family made because they couldn’t find traditional ingredients and needed to adapt with what they had. “I don’t want this book to be perceived as an international book, because I’m like, ‘This food was literally developed in America,’” she says. And she wants that specificity to be the future of authentic cuisine. “Chefs are leaning more into their personal stories. [They’re saying] we are serving this food that this person ate growing up in this city, and their family being from X country. And I think that specificity is good.”
It is still easy to get sucked into the authenticity quicksand, one-upping friends over the most obscure (to Americans) and elusive dishes, over-explaining history, and even fetishizing a certain kind of fusion, like the type that Krishna and Talde cook. If how one eats is an inherent part of one’s identity, then the goalposts of what kind of food should be valued will forever shift. Right now, it’s specificity, but in another five years we may cycle back to fusion.
Like gender, race, and money, authenticity is a social construct — something that we’ve given a certain amount of power to as a society, but that is ultimately ours to define, or to give up on entirely. It doesn’t have to be the notch against which we measure cuisine, but for it not to be, other major shifts are still necessary. People of color and immigrants would need the space to experiment without their identities getting called into question. White chefs and diners would have to stop fetishizing immigrants just for their food. We’d have to accept that there may not actually be a battle between protecting tradition and valuing change, that these concepts could live side by side. We still have a long way to go toward centering chefs of color, undoing white assumptions about “ethnic” cuisine, and valuing thoughtful innovation over the novelty of a white chef making a sushi burrito. Authenticity will probably always mean different things to different people. But maybe the next goal is recognizing every definition of the word.
Nick Iluzada is a designer and snack enthusiast in Los Angeles.