During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the AAPI movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the entire month of May.
You can hardly scroll through Yelp without being bombarded with proclamations about restaurants being “authentic.”
As the co-founders of proud-and-loud Asian food brand Omsom, my sister Vanessa and I hear this word used a lot to describe what we do. It’s often coupled with good intentions and a complimentary tone, but it’s a word that we actually shy away from — it surprises folks to hear that we don’t ever use “authentic” when we describe our company.
This was a deeply personal choice before it was a business one. As first-generation Vietnamese Americans and daughters of refugees, Vanessa and I started Omsom to reclaim and celebrate the multitudes within Asian cuisines and stories. A large part of this mission is to intentionally reframe much of how the West views Asian food.
Through our introspection, we made the decision to never use the word “authentic” in relation to our work, as the term has become a burden that chefs of color and their cuisines must bear.
It is, by and large, a restrictive view on how dishes from communities of color should taste, look and cost. Our chefs are hardly given the same space and freedom to innovate as their white counterparts, and thus, creativity can stagnate when we’re only given a handful of ways to exist.
A bit of context: The call for authenticity actually arose from backlash against fusion food. Considered the culinary buzzword of the '90s, fusion (often hodgepodge and frequently bastardized versions of “ethnic” cuisine) became a dirty concept. By the early 2000s, consumers sought cuisine that felt more meaningful and real — and thus, the relentless search for authenticity began.
This prized standard also coincided with increasing internet adoption. Suddenly, in chatrooms, YouTube channels and platforms like Foursquare and Yelp, anyone could become an expert on authenticity. But the power to define something as authentic was in the hands of mostly white, American consumers — not those with expertise in the cuisine.
Western cuisines are continually given space to contain multitudes — upscale, modern, fusion, authentic, innovative, etc. There isn’t nearly the same policing on Western cuisines to be authentic — yet cuisines from communities of color have to stay cheap or lowbrow to qualify as such.
In addition to robbing cuisines of complexity, we also place a cap on how these dishes can be valued. In 2019, an Eater report found that Yelp reviewers associated authenticity at restaurants serving European cuisine with "white tablecloths, elegance, and an overall positive dining experience." The same report found that authenticity at non-European restaurants was tied to "cheap food, dirty décor, and harried service."
It has become clear that there is a ceiling to how our food, techniques, ingredients and crafts are worth. Time and time again, we force our cuisines to be loved only as hole-in-the-wall establishments (with matching price points) without recognizing that there can be — and is! — more to our cuisines.
Not only does authenticity restrict people of color's food, it is an ambiguous and unfair concept. And yes, this means taking a look at how our own communities use this term.
As a first-gen Vietnamese American, I have absolutely been guilty of asking for authenticity from restaurants and chefs in the past. When I called for this standard, I have often drawn on nostalgia and memories:
“That’s not like my dad’s cooking!”
“This doesn’t taste like home!”
“I grew up on $10 bowls of phở — this is too expensive!”
This, unfortunately, creates a standard that changes from person to person — an moving target that sets us all up to fail. Asking for “perfect” representation is rooted in a place of scarcity — where there’s so little representation in the mainstream that whatever does exist must somehow perfectly encapsulate the intricacies that exist within our cuisines and their legacy.
How do we decide what is or isn’t authentic? If it is rooted in familial or nostalgic memories, can anything truly be authentic to everyone? More importantly, as a community, why are we so fixated on gatekeeping singular and static moments in the past?
Obviously, none of this is black and white. Let me be clear: I am not advocating for bastardized rip-offs created to capitalize on cultures and cuisines of color, without compensating or truly paying homage to either (see: the whole Mahjong Line debacle).
But, when you do call for authenticity, I suggest asking yourself the following questions:
Whose point of view are you centering?
As you judge price and taste, examine whose perspective you are centering: Are you filtering your opinions through your own memories and expectations from the past? Are you filtering through the eyes of the West, who has historically undervalued most of the food from communities of color?
Which power and privilege structures are at play?
This conversation of authenticity is parallel to appropriation in food (a meaty topic for another day). But one of the main factors to consider is which parties in the scenario hold privilege: Is a dish inauthentic if its flavor profile has been adapted by restaurateurs of color trying to survive or assimilate to mainstream tastes? Are you valuing the work of people of color through a colonialist lens?
Who is explicitly profiting from the work?
I believe there is a right way to build upon another culture’s cuisine in a respectful way. Are folks of those backgrounds involved every step of the way? Is there an acknowledgement and honoring of those culinary roots? Are people of color being credited and compensated equitably?
Does it allow room for creativity and innovation for chefs of color?
Calling for ruthless authenticity ultimately robs chefs of color of creative freedom. To place only Western expectations on their work removes any chance at the beauty and deliciousness that can come from experimentation, innovation and — dare I say it — fusion. There are multitudes to be found within our cuisines — and our communities have a right to celebrate that.