Authenticity is often a codephrase for food snobbery

Those of us who enjoy cooking and do a lot of it, and those of us who are actually pretty good at making some things, were not magically born knowing how to do this. We learned. We learned from cookbooks and the internet, from parents and friends, from partners and classmates, sometimes from cooking classes. We are all at different places on the learning curve and all of us are still learning — several years after buying my first stand mixer, I am still adjusting cookie recipes to compensate for the way it mixes dough! Learning is great and fun.

For me, one of the really fun things about food, whether I am making it or eating it, is a chance to try dishes from cultures I’m not familiar with. That includes not just broad categories like ‘Mexican food,’ but cuisines specific to particular regions or traditions — Coptic Christians in Egypt aren’t eating the same thing as Egyptian Muslims, people in Oaxaca make dishes you cannot get elsewhere, Pennsylvania Dutch food is different from Tex-Mex even though both are ‘American.’ The point is, I eat a lot of food from a lot of places, and a lot of that food is heavily influenced by other traditions.

I was talking with my pal Louise Hung recently about Americanised Chinese food, and how Chinese restaurants in the States serve food that’s very different from that served in many Chinese communities, even when the chefs are first-generation immigrants from those regions. There are a lot of reasons for this, including dishes made ‘traditional’ by US cultural influence, aversion to some ingredients and preference for others, and lots and lots and lots of other factors. Consequently, when people from the US travel in China, they’re often startled by what they encounter.

This for me lies at the heart of the debate over ‘authenticity,’ which is something I have discussed before. It’s important to preserve culinary heritage and to discuss the factors that lead people to water down or shift recipes for dominant tastes — I really valued the opportunities I had in Japan to eat a lot of foods we don’t get in the US, for example, and I’m glad I had that experience. Colonialism can have a profound impact on food.

But at the same time, the notion of ‘authenticity’ gets used in a shaming sense in a lot of contexts here in the US, and I think about that a lot, because I’m not a fan of shaming people in general. But I hate seeing people who are learning how to cook be told that they are doing it wrong. I hate seeing people who struggle to find food they can eat be yelled at for being ‘picky eaters.’ I hate seeing food ruined by a kind of puritanism that often comes across as very elitist.

Back when I was first starting to explore Indian food, I remember making a recipe for something or other and having another white person sneer at it, saying I wasn’t using an ‘authentic’ ingredient that I absolutely had to use or my dish was garbage. It was really disheartening, and I didn’t try to cook Indian food again for several years until I mentioned the incident to a Desi friend and she said ‘uh, we never used that spice growing up and that dish is native to the region my parents came from.’

She pointed out that there are lots and lots of different ways to prepare dishes even in their region of origin, that probably some people did use the spice in question while others didn’t, for a variety of reasons. ‘Did you dish taste good?’ she asked. ‘Did you enjoy eating it?’ I answered in the affirmative to both, and she said ‘well, there you go.’

The notion of ‘authenticity’ is an incredibly loaded and complicated one to talk about, but it really troubles me when I see people making sweeping pronouncements about food and insisting that everyone else is doing it wrong. I joke about things like getting riled up when people put beans in their chili, but at heart? Dishes evolve, and people who are cooking, or eating, things get to make decisions about what they do and don’t want to consume, for a variety of reasons. Is a dish that includes seasonings commonly utilised in chili, with absolutely no meat but several kinds of beans, not chili? Some people would vigorously argue just that, but they can’t offer up an alternate name for it, either.

There’s a certain amount of food snobbery and ‘I know more than you’ that creeps into the way people talk about food, especially what white people in the US often call ‘ethnic’ food. The belief that there’s only one way to make an incredibly diverse dish, and it’s the way that you encountered the first time you had it, for example. At times it strikes me as classist (especially when it comes to expensive and hard to find ingredients, or assertions that you’d never had ‘real’ XYZ because you haven’t traveled to its nation of origin), and at others, I’m just reminded of why so many people are intimidated and scared of cooking and experimentation and playing with new ingredients.

Does it matter if someone uses or doesn’t use a given ingredient in a ‘traditional’ dish? That depends on who you ask, and the ingredient, and the dish — and it’s telling that most of the people engaging in the authenticity Olympics aren’t talking about issues like colonialism and how cuisine shifts to cater to dominant tastes, but rather about who has the most sophisticated palate. Personally, I’d rather enjoy a dish that someone thoughtfully cooked for me even if it’s not quite how I would do it, or how people in the dish’s nation, region, culture, or tradition of origin would do it, than lecture that person about how they did it wrong, but maybe that’s just me.

Image: Michael Stern, Flickr