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What is “Authentic” Asian Food?

Asian food is trendy now. The childhood bullies that called our ethnic lunches “worms” and “dog food” now post Instagram photos of jajangmyeon noodles and curry bowls. Suddenly, everyone knows that pho is a great hangover cure. Matcha can be found at most coffee shops in New York, sushi is often pitted against pizza in favorite food brackets, and most supermarkets carry a generic brand of sriracha. And no, we’re not just imagining it. 

According to the market research firm Euromonitor, Asian cuisine is the fastest growing food market in the world. In a matter of 15 years, global sales at Asian food restaurants have grown by nearly 500 percent.

As this global appetite grows, economic and cultural capital will endlessly circulate around Asian food. Business owners want to capitalize off of the popularity, chefs are inspired to interpret flavors in creative ways, and consumers want to try it all. 

Amidst this dramatic increase in popularity, one word continues to resurface relentlessly: authenticity.

In the United States, accusation and acclaim of “authenticity” gather in equal measure in the reviews of ethnic restaurants. Contempt is liberally delivered to establishments that fail to deliver on that promise, and praise is showered on establishments that succeed. But what is the expected experience, and who determines success or failure? 

According to Today, “authentic” emerged as a culinary buzzword in the 1990s, in response to the industry obsession with “fusion” cuisine at the time, where clumsy attempts at a variety of cultural flavors could be combined in the name of creativity. Although the crazed popularity of  fusion has passed, this obsession with authenticity lingers in the way that we perceive ethnic cuisines. 

Today, when we put “pho near me” into Google Maps, we are often looking for something specific. For some of us, it is the familiar taste of a recipe from home. For others, it’s the promise of an equally comforting and exhilarating experience of an unfamiliar culture, through an “Indian curry” or a “Chinese dimsum.” Whatever our individual standards may be, authenticity is too often the measuring stick that determines whether a dish or establishment meets those standards.

A 2019 Eater NY report found that reviewers of European restaurants associated authenticity with white tablecloths, elegance, and a positive service experience. When it came to non-European restaurants, however, reviewers more often associated authenticity with dirty floors, cheap food, and harried service. The report found this to be true 85% of the time. 

Some argue that this perception of Asian restaurants is inherently flawed, because it establishes a ceiling to the earning capacity of Asian business owners and culinary creatives within the industry. They argue that these perceptions could be a direct reflection of which cultures and foods the American public assigns a higher cultural and economic value to, and consumers should collectively reject this perception of authenticity, supporting new establishments that challenge this idea. With new restaurants, a variety of subcultures can be explored through food, providing a larger array of “authentic” flavors that remind consumers of different homes from abroad. 

Others, having grown up around Asian restaurants with dirty floors, cheap food, and harried service, defend these expectations. New restaurants, with the economic power of larger investors and the cultural power of Asian cuisine’s growing popularity, could present challenges to establishments that have been in the United States for centuries. For some, this historical context and nostalgic memory is the definition of authenticity. Whether it be the owners of these restaurants or the consumers of the cheap food, many believe in the historical value of these Asian establishments in America. 

According to FoodTimeline, Chinese immigrants began establishing Asian restaurants in California in the mid-1800s. But these establishments primarily served working class Chinese communities until “young cosmopolitans in the 1920s” began to flock to Chinese restaurants “because it was considered exotic.” 

From Time Magazine: A Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, circa 1880.
 Underwood Archives / Getty Images

Asian restaurants were first established in the United States by working class families to serve other working class families. Without easy access to many necessary ingredients in a new country, many recipes were adopted out of necessity, prioritizing cost efficiency. When mainstream consumers began to discover Asian cuisines, these existing restaurants established the expectation for cost and comfort. For some, these adapted flavors and friendly prices established the expectation of authenticity. 

Adaptations of Asian cuisine continued to progress as the average consumer’s demographic shifted. According to FoodTimeline, many veterans returned to the United States after WWII and brought Asian cuisines into the mainstream, introducing more Chinese, Japanese, and Polynesian flavors. Asian restaurants in the United States had to cater to mainstream palates to maintain profit. Adapting flavors to cater to a larger audience often sacrificed the familiar flavors from home. For some, these flavors betray their perception of authenticity from their home countries. For others, these flavors were the only accessible connections to the food of their ancestors. 

Given these tensions between different perceptions of authenticity, who should be allowed to make the ultimate declarations about Asian cuisine? Should it be your closest Asian friend? Or should it be a highly esteemed food critic? Does any ethnic chef get to set the expectations on their own menu, or should critiques be allowed? 

In 2015, researcher Stephen Christ studied the idea of “authenticity” when it came to Mexican restaurants, and discovered that the use of the word depended mostly on the consumer, and not the chef. 

Thus, the weight of authenticity is transferred onto us. The conversation inevitably begins and ends with our expectations in the zeitgeist. 

So, we’re back on Google Maps. When you search “Asian food near me,” what are you looking for? Maybe you’re looking for the reminder of the family that you left abroad. Maybe you’re looking for a connection to your disconnected ancestors. Maybe you’re looking for the memory of late night takeout in your white suburban childhood, or maybe you’re looking for new flavors to explore. 

And maybe you, individually, shouldn’t get to set the standard. Maybe, your expectations will never be the same as someone else’s, and nobody should scoff and proudly declare that their favorite establishment is “the most authentic.” 

Maybe the conversation around authenticity is a fraught one, standing at the tangled intersection of diasporic cultural history, economic survival, and continued perceptions of ethnic minorities in the United States. And maybe, just maybe, when we argue about the authenticity, we are really looking for an easier way to verbalize these tensions within us. 

Featured image, Chinese Restaurant Image

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