OPINION: ‘Traditional’ is a better alternative to ‘authentic’ when describing ethnic food

Two individuals, one eating with a pair of chopsticks and another with a fork, eating from a variety of Asian dishes (dumplings, rolls, fish, etc.)
(Betsy Ding • The Student Life)

I’ve often been asked by my non-Chinese friends for restaurants in Toronto where they can find “authentic” Chinese food. These friends are usually well-intentioned; they just want to learn more about Chinese cuisine and discover a certain type of food that one cannot find at chain American Chinese fast food joints such as Panda Express.

However, we should reconsider how we use terms like “authentic” or “real” to describe food of ethnic origins. These terms create harmful stereotypes about certain cultures and ethnicities by reducing their complex histories and traditions to our preconceived notions about certain cuisines.

The first problem with authenticity is that it is not a measure of anything in particular but rather a projection of one’s own experiences to determine if a particular type of food fits their preconceived notions about that cuisine. Typically, the term “authentic” is used to describe cuisines of certain ethnicities compared to their Americanized counterparts. For instance, when one compares Taco Bell to “authentic” Mexican food by pitting the Americanized version of a food against what it is supposed to look like.

I am not against distinguishing a dish that has been adapted to a Western customer base from how it’s traditionally created. But “authentic” does not actually clarify this distinction, because it only refers to whether the identity of a particular food aligns with its ethnic roots. 

Let’s say we are describing a certain restaurant’s version of an ethnic dish. When we approach the evaluation from an authenticity perspective, all we can really say is whether or not it is authentic and perhaps what degree of authenticity it has based on what we think authentic food of that particular ethnicity is supposed to be like. 

However, when one avoids the term “authentic” and uses “traditional” instead, we can make more specific judgements — we can note if a dish uses traditional ingredients and a non-traditional cooking method, for example. These are elements of food that are objectively based on the history and practices of that cuisine and not on one’s own opinions.

The notion of authenticity also creates harmful stereotypes about cultures that negatively affect the experiences of immigrants and people of color. 

It is common for one to have skewed perceptions of how certain cuisines should look and cost. For instance, certain cuisines are considered to be inherently cheap, while others are given space to be more refined. Additionally, ingredients from cultures in different geographical regions, such as the Middle East and East Asia, are considered exotic or weird

When one makes a judgement on food as being authentic, they are effectively perpetuating these stereotypes, because it is not a judgement of food in relation to its actual culture and history but rather based on misrepresentation forged from portrayals in media and a Western-centric bias deeply rooted in Canada and the United States.

Moreover, on a micro level, the concept of authenticity in food denies the complex experiences of individual immigrants in Western countries. Authenticity as a metric is linear — that is, some types of food are necessarily more or less authentic than others. 

However, true traditionality usually does not exist in the cooking of immigrants. Often, ways of cooking and ingredients had to be adapted when one moved to North America based on socioeconomic situations or simply what is available. For my family, it was making sandwiches with braised pork for my sister’s and my school lunches.

These subtleties in the cooking of immigrants reflect the complex experiences they’ve had as they adjusted to a vastly different society compared to where they came from. A statement about the authenticity of their food is also effectively a statement on a part of their identity, namely how far removed they are from their culture of origin. No one is in a position to make that judgement except the individual immigrants themselves. 

There are valid reasons for using the term “authentic” to describe food. For instance, restaurants owned by people of a particular ethnicity that serve primarily traditional food would want to label themselves as authentic to distinguish themselves from chain restaurants which have been more Americanized and to inform potential customers of what they offer. 

However, there is only a need for these restaurants to label themselves in such a way because the metric of authenticity holds so much power in today’s food culture. If we change the way we talk about cuisines from different ethnicities, the use of this oversimplifying label becomes unnecessary.

The solution starts with a simple change in our day-to-day use of language. Avoid using “authentic” as much as possible, and substitute it with the alternative “traditional.” This allows one to be more specific about exactly what they’re referring to in the dish and requires one to educate themselves about the history and traditions of that cuisine.

Phillip Kong PO ’24 is from Toronto, Canada. He believes that peas are an underrated vegetable.

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