The Perils of Authenticity


Katherine Shulz talks to Anthony Bourdain:

I’m interested in this relationship between doing things right and doing things the way they’ve always been done. It’s almost like being right is synonymous with conforming to tradition.

Yeah, or with authenticity. There’s enormous respect and a romanticized reverence for what’s considered the “right” way—meaning, the classic way—and I think most chefs feel powerfully that one should know that before moving on. Like, “I’ve researched this, this is the way they were making it in 1700, goddamn it, and that’s the way it should be made.” Or: “This is the way they make laksa in Kuching and Borneo; that stuff I just had on Ninth Avenue is definitely not the same; ergo it’s wrong.” But, you know, what does “real” or “authentic” mean? The history of food is the history of migrating ingredients and occupation and foreign influences and accommodation.

I was reminded of these dilemmas in China, of course. Like all mildly well-informed Americans these days, I went over there well aware that the “Chinese food” served in the United States is not the food Chinese people eat. And I actually found myself a bit surprised to learn that the food I knew from home was (fortune cookies aside) in some ways more authentic than I realized. Kung pao chicken, for example, is a totally authentic Chinese dish. In China it’s a dish that’s prepared with sichuan peppercorns, which for many years were unavailable in the U.S. which led to the creation of a somewhat different American version of the dish, but I’ve had it both ways in the United States and even the non-peppercorn version is quite recognizable as the same food. And more to the point, substituting for unavailable ingredients is just integral to the concept of cooking, not some kind of nutty Americanism.

And of course one thing that’s interesting about America is that we don’t perceive something to be inauthentic simply because it’s new. The KFC Double Down is a perfectly authentic American culinary innovation, just not something that’s tradition. But an American visiting China and looking for some authentic food probably wouldn’t stop by a Chinese KFC. And yet in some ways there’s nothing more authentic to any given country than the innovative menu-localizations dreamed up by multinational fast food chains. These enterprises have the power to globalize and homogenize cuisine and to an extent they do, but to the extent that their market research argues against doing so they’ve got their fingers on the pulse of local variation in a very real way.

But going to KFC doesn’t suit our tendency to essentialize foreign cultures as unchanging, and it also doesn’t particularly fit the traveler’s desire to eat something tasty. The latter impulse is a perfectly worthy one, but the former not so much. And you can indulge the latter impulse without appealing to any principles of authenticity.