What does it mean for food to be ‘authentic’?

Authenticity is a word people often use to describe food, from Yelp reviews saying “go here for authentic X food” to high-brow reviews critiquing restaurants for serving inauthentic cuisine.

But what does it mean for food to be authentic, and is authenticity what we should be striving for?

This edition of Weekly Bites reviews three current stories in the food industry that challenge our conceptions of what authentic food is, or should be. 

The word authenticity suggests that something is true to its origins, that it’s unchanged or unaffected by outside sources. It’s a benchmark we often use to describe culture, and food is a part of that. Cultures don’t exist in a vacuum and don’t remain unchanged for hundreds or thousands of years. The same is true of food. Things like access to new ingredients, new technologies, and the influence of outside cultures can bring about major changes. With so much change and multicultural contact, authenticity as something that’s unchanged isn’t always a useful or relevant concept. 

This edition of Weekly Bites challenges what we think of as authentic. From chaos cooking to sushi to boba in Starbucks (no, really), these three stories will have you questioning what authenticity means for the culinary industry. 

It’s not fusion, it’s chaos. Tasty, tasty chaos.  

Fusion has a bad rap. In fact, we see it almost as the polar opposite of authenticity — mostly white, classically trained chefs who were playing with cuisines foreign to them and positioning these cuisines as if they had “discovered” them. 

Now, new restaurants across America are serving what they call ‘chaos cooking.’ A new genre of cooking that goes beyond fusion, yet combines ingredients and cooking techniques from different global cuisines. The result is food that is aggressively weird and indulgent, like al pastor sushi rolls or butter chicken pizza. This new way of cooking is the global cousin of the bro-y munchy food of the 2010s. It sounds weird, but according to Eater, these menus are well thought out, and simply tasty. 

When fusion started in the 80s and 90s, there were legitimate critiques of cultural appropriation and the lack of authenticity. So, what does it mean for food to be authentic? We have a notion that, for example, Taco Bell isn’t an “authentic” expression of Mexican food. The concept of authenticity is useful in contrasting with examples of blatant cultural appropriation and culinary fusions that don’t make sense. 

The backlash to culturally appropriative fusion was a trend of chefs with a diversity of cultural experiences cooking food considered to be “authentic” to their heritage. These new eateries are pushing back on the idea that chefs must only cook their grandmother’s food. They’re challenging the very notion of authenticity that can sometimes feel like its own colonialist cage. 

The article states, “What these chaotic menus recognize is that there is a vast gray space between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange. And that chefs of color shouldn’t always have to be on the defensive, ‘educating’ and ‘introducing’ and protecting their culture’s cuisines from interlopers with bad intentions when they could be the ones having fun with it.”

Not only are these eateries the result of cultural creativity, but they’re also widely popular. Why are these strange and chaotic mashups so popular? One thought is that since the pandemic, more diners have been cooking their own food and are now in search of food that they cannot make at home. Another thought is that with the increase of diverse and “authentic” ethnic eateries across America, diners just want something different. 

Is authenticity purity? 

The movie “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” came to Netflix 10 years ago, and it changed how America (non-Japanese Americans, that is) viewed sushi. This Eater article critiques some of the ways that this movie was received in America. 

The movie follows chef Jiro Ono’s obsession with purity of ingredients and approach in how he makes sushi. Purity and simplicity are two words that the film often uses to describe Ono’s approach to sushi. 

In the age of sushi burritos and ever more elaborate sushi rolls drenched in sauces, Americans viewed this pure and simple approach as the pinnacle of what authentic sushi is. In fact, purity and simplicity are viewed as part of what authentic Japanese culture is — a long tradition of highly disciplined, untouched tradition. 

This view of Japanese authenticity assumes that Japanese culture and sushi culture have been untouched by globalization. Of course, that assumption is not only incorrect but offensive. By equating purity and “untouched tradition” with authenticity, are Americans fetishizing Japanese culture? 

In reality, there’s nothing about Ono’s approach to sushi that’s completely rigid and unchanging. Chef Ono himself spoke in the movie how he deviated from the masters before him, implementing new techniques that he saw as an improvement on the way things were done before. 

This example goes to show us that there can be no such thing as a culture that is “pure” or static, and that what we may view as an unchanged way of doing something is just a snapshot of a timeline of an ever evolving tradition and culture. 

Does it matter if boba at Starbucks is authentic?

Boba is everywhere, and it has been for a while now. But for a few years there, it seemed like it would be eclipsed by more Western versions of fancy drinks. 

Apparently, boba is exploding on the American scene again, with big brand names like Starbucks and Peets bringing the customization of boba drinks to their menus. This signals a shift from dedicated boba tea shops (of which there are fortunately many) to boba entering the “mainstream” of coffee chains. 

Boba is all about customization, with dozens of colorful add-in and mix-in options. According to the Bon Appétit article about this new expansion of boba in America, Gen-Z TikTok content is a driving factor of making boba mainstream. 

But is boba found in Starbucks authentic? Should it be? Does it matter? 

Serena Dai, the author of the Bon Appétit article, notes that it’s cultural appropriation when companies pretend to create something new when it in fact has existed before and has a rich cultural context. 

In the case of boba tea, however, Dai is delighted by the expansion of popularity in America. She notes that boba itself has always been about innovating, copying other shop’s innovations, and providing a new drinking experience. Boba itself is a multicultural phenomenon whose influences include Taiwanese tea, powdered cream introduced by Americans during the Cold War, and Japanese iced coffee. 

In fact, it’d be very hard to talk about the “authentic” or original boba tea. Would it not then be inauthentic to try and project our own views of authenticity on to boba?


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