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Blog // Thoughts
August 18, 2010

Inauthentic Food

The FIFA World Cup is, of course, a festival of football. For a little over a month, every four years, the best footballing nations of the world battle for the highest honour in the game. But, looked at another way, it is a glorious cultural festival as well. The World Cup gives us a chance […]

The FIFA World Cup is, of course, a festival of football. For a little over a month, every four years, the best footballing nations of the world battle for the highest honour in the game.

But, looked at another way, it is a glorious cultural festival as well. The World Cup gives us a chance to see how diverse and joyous our world can be. In previous years I’ve often wondered if don’t celebrate this celebration enough.

So, this year I set myself the crazy challenge to cook my way through the World Cup. Everyday I would pick one of the nations that was playing that day and cook a dish from that country. It was a lot of fun and when time permits I’ll add a post (with pictures) outlining the dishes I tried.

Along the way the issue of “authenticity” came up a few times, when talking to people about the challenge.

Authenticity is something of a buzz word in food circles and the concern it expresses is not wholly misguided. Growing up in Australia I was constantly frustrated by the way Latin American cuisine was misunderstood by most of the population and as I got older it became clear that other cuisines, especially Indian and Chinese, were equally misrepresented.

But, push this too far and authenticity becomes a problematic idea. Few of the people who love, say, Italian peasant food actually want to go eat among Italian peasants in the peasant eateries that Italian peasants might frequent. Typically what authentic food fans want is a representation of authenticity. It is authenticity as a form of consumerist purity, which is really a kind of cultural colonialism.

Rena Diamond’s brilliant piece from 1995, Become Spoiled Moroccan Royalty for an Evening: The Allure of Ethnic Eateries makes the point that those who seek authenticity from the cultures of others typically become very paternalistic in their outlook.

I’m not sure we can be authentic to anything more than our own culture and memory. Is the Indian food I cook “authentic?” Maybe that’s too big a question. What matters is that the Indian food I cook is true to the memory I have of the food I ate in the years I lived there. Equally, when I leave Hong Kong, the Cantonese food I will cook will be true to a memory of meals shared here in this city.

So, when I try to cook a dish from Algeria, or Ghana, what I am doing? I’ve not been to either of those countries so I cannot draw from memory. Neither do I have a cultural affinity to express. So, anything I cook is going to simply a representation, a reduction of a culture down to a recipe, a few pictures and some explanations.

To what extent does that matter? I didn’t enter the kitchen again and again during the world cup to satisfy someone’s abstract philosophical definition of authenticity. I did it to try and celebrate, in my own limited way, the global richness of human experience and passion for food.

And, I had a lot of fun doing it.

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Responses
Jason 12 years ago

Many times I am quite confused when people criticize or complain about the “authenticity” of certain dishes because the term itself is rather … tricky in my opinion. Who is to define authenticity? The ways certain dishes are prepared evolve over time, what we considered a traditional or an authentic dish is not so authentic perhaps 100 years ago because it could have differed by a great deal from 200 years old. I agree with you wholeheartedly that it is more of a representation or reduction of culture into a recipe which “the cook” find appropriate. Traditions change over time, cultures evolve over time, cooking techniques change over time and the definition of authenticity change over time as well.

Can'Tell 12 years ago

Food authenticity require original ingredients and the correct way of cooking in my opinion. It sucks to go out and eat e.g. Chinese or Thai food for example, if they replace certain ingredients with what they come up with, just because they believe customers don’t like the original ones.

A good example is here in Europe, well Germany to be precise. They basically don’t like the smell of fish sauce or fermented fish, so it’s often replaced with just simple salt or soy sauce (which is very wrong) or whatever fits them. Now if this fish sauce is crucial for a certain dish, the dish is simply not authentic. That also goes for vegetables etc. They mostly are replaced with what’s available in that country, because the original one is either too expensive or not available. I can give endless examples but I guess you know what I mean.

Those who are very familiar with asian food, know that different asian countries use different ingredients. Take soysauce for example, there are Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Philippine brands etc. and they differ a lot in taste. So if you’re cooking Japanese or making sushi, it’s of course best to also use Japanese soysauce or it will be less authentic.

I also cook a lot of different international dishes because I love to cook. But dishes I cook are mostly taught by friends, for example I learned how to cook American food from American friends, Thai food from a good Thai friend etc. I also have to say that I just cook out of memory and never use or write recipes, that’s why I only cook dishes that friends and family taught me.

Food authenticity is very important to me, like if I had a choice I would definitely choose the restaurant serving the most authentic food. When I went to California years ago, I was really impressed with the great Asian food they had over there, which wasn’t really surprising, cuz it’s populated by a lot of Asians. Then when I went to Florida, every asian restaurant we went to, just plain sucked. I don’t know why. But I see it like this, if you want to eat authentic food from a certain coutry e.g. Korean food, you need to go where the Koreans go.

    Fernando Gros 12 years ago

    That’s a great way of looking at authenticity. Ingredients are important and some things, like kaffir lime leaves or Thai aubergines just can’t be substituted. Also, the quality of an ingredient is sometimes limited. When I lived in the UK it was easy to find seasame oil, for example, but the quality wasn’t great. Equally, here in Hong Kong a lot of places serving Italian food skimp on the quality of olive oil.

    What’s interesting though is that sometimes immigrant communities themselves adapt their dishes to what is available in their home countries. Uruguayan food, for example, has a lot of dishes adapted from Italian cuisine that have become their own hybrid staples.

Mike Mahoney 12 years ago

I’ll echo what Can’Tell said: one of my favorite Chinese restaurants anywhere is a little basement dive in Chinatown in Boston. I found it by poking my head into a dozen places, and finding one full of Chinese families.

I love the quest of food, flavors and textures. I’m blessed to live in a very culturally-diverse area, so getting the real deal food-wise is pretty easy – especially when my Brazilian next-door-neighbor grills meat. It’s ridiculous how good it is. When I worked in Manhattan, we used to try and find the tiniest little ethnic restaurants, the kind that someone’s grandmother cooks for. My absolute favorite part about my mission trips to Central America was the food.

Here in the states, of course, you could have the same adventure travelling state to state. Bravo for your little “expedition.” I wish I’d of thought of it!

    Fernando Gros 12 years ago

    Agree. One of my great loves is Vietnamese food and that journey began in some very basic eateries run by recent immigrants to Sydney. One place in particular, when I first went there, had plastic tables and chairs and the bare linoleum floors were hosed down every night. My favourite Spanish restaurant in London was, by any meaningful definition, a dive. But, it was friendly and they served great, simple, but genuine home-style food. And, if you ate at the bar pretty much everyone was speaking Spanish.

    Also, I think you could have a pretty amazing food expedition during the NFL playoff season (or one of the other playoffs).

Dovie Renshaw 12 years ago

I spent a year as an exchange student in Kyoto Japan, and I have to say I probably wouldnt have gotten by if it werent for a delicious bowl of udon a couple of times a week! There is even one shop where you can eat for free if you do 30 minutes of washing after, but I cant say I was ever that poor!

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