Authenticity: the Google reviewer’s fantasy, the chef’s nightmare, the migrant’s reclamation

Of all the descriptors in the food-writing vocabulary, none is more loaded than the word “authentic”. But is there a way to reclaim it from the clutches of a hungry but misinformed public?
A single dumpling, grasped in a pair of red chopstick, on a dark green background.Craig Wall (main)

Sift through the exclamation marks, strange syntax and select words banged out in capital letters, and you’ll find it. There, among 300 or so Google reviews of Melbourne restaurant Lee Ho Fook, lies one from a “Justin binko” some eight months ago: “There are two things that [sic] place is not 1) authentic Chinese and 2) nice.”

If it’s any consolation, another review by “Franco L” just one month later describes Lee Ho Fook as “really nice authentic Chinese food”, proving that even Scrooges of punctuation can be generous with their praise.

Of the second charge: Not “nice”? Many will attest that chef-owner Victor Liong is very nice.

But the first charge – “not authentic” – is hiding in plain sight. One would assume that a restaurant that wears its “new-style Chinese” tag firmly on its sleeve does not care for authenticity – vexed, loaded and meaningless as that term has come to be when talking about food.

Authenticity is uncomfortably intertwined with the fat chapter in world history marked Colonialism and Conquest, as well as Australia’s long history of migration, ethnicity and racism. Throw in “food” as an added talking point and you have something that’s a lot messier than the twee, oft-repeated Australia-is-a-melting-pot-of-cuisines refrain.

Authenticity is bogus

It’s hard to pinpoint when the hunt for authentic food became a competitive sport; when seeking out that hole-in-the-wall Indian eatery selling a curry and a roti combo for a tenner, or taking a food “safari” to the western suburbs of Sydney in search of dragon fruit and baklava, became a weekend pastime.

In her book, The Tastes and Politics of Inter-Cultural Food in Australia, Dr Sukhmani Khorana says over the past decade or so, the consumption of “diverse” food has become a marker of cosmopolitanism. The beginning of this era also coincided with the first season of Masterchef in 2009, perhaps the most popular cooking show to enter the Australian public consciousness.

But humankind’s fascination with all things hot and spicy goes further back in history. In the 15th century, the Portuguese found a direct shipping route to India, the land of cinnamon and black pepper, and in doing so kick-started a centuries-long struggle with the Dutch and British over control of the lucrative spice route – and the people of the subcontinent.

Like it or not, these patterns of colonisation and culinary intrigue are central to today’s conversations about food and authenticity. That person in your social circle who boasts about “discovering” a ma-and-pa-run Vietnamese bakery in Melbourne’s Springvale is claiming cultural capital. They are the holder of culinary knowledge and power; the foodie who came, who saw, who conquered, and who snapped a stylised photo of their $5 bánh mì thịt to upload to Instagram later.

Durkhanai Ayubi, writer and co-owner of Adelaide’s Parwana Afghan Kitchen, explains: “I think on a bit of an external level, people want to be able to claim the legitimacy of their dining experiences, because in a social media influencer-driven age, this somehow adds to the ‘realness’ or legitimacy of the person, as diner or chef.

“But on a deeper level – without interrogating the superficiality and the degree to which even this move to claim authenticity can be captured in cycles of appropriation, stereotyping, and power imbalances – this shift to ‘authenticity’ can itself add to the problem of side-lining and patronising people, cultures and ways that have otherwise been shifted to the peripheries of society.”

Durkhanai Ayubi, writer and co-owner of Adelaide’s Parwana Afghan Kitchen.

(Photo: Johnny Miller)

At its worst, the feverish hunt for authenticity inflicts further damage on already marginalised communities. The trope of the “ethnic restaurant” ascribes value to these establishments only if they abide by the rules of lo-fi decor and cheap eats guide-approved prices. It’s a dominant narrative that at once flattens, homogenises and relegates migrant-run restaurants as a footnote to Australia’s rich and complex dining landscape.

At best, authenticity is bogus.

“Authenticity in food is bullshit,” says Liong. “Especially in a new world, post-modern neocolonial context. The label of authenticity, I feel, is manipulating a genre into an expectation that is self-serving. In the context of Asian and non-Eurocentric food, it blankets ‘ethnic’ cuisines into a caveat of prestige restrictions.”

These restrictions are often cloaked in a Contiki-fuelled dream haze of €1 souvlaki on the beach at Mykonos, says Liong. Back home, the rubber-stamp of authenticity – “It’s just like I had in Greece!” – is granted by returned travellers who’ve experienced a brief taste of island life and often come from a place of social and financial privilege, but possess little knowledge of the provenance, stories and regional intricacies of a cuisine, or why its people are in Australia.

Cindy Tran of Melbourne’s Shop Bao Ngoc explains: “When you are a displaced and marginalised group in a country that refuses to provide you with adequate opportunities for work, you try to make ends meet in any way you can.”

Migrants, impoverished of resources, do what they can to eke out a living in their new home. A Vietnamese restaurant’s no-frills interior design may be borne from necessity and poverty, but in a warped turn of events, it becomes a mark of its “authenticity”, and the false economy that this perpetuates.

“Racialised micro-aggressions pit people of colour-owned restaurants against each other and incentivise stagnation, insisting on a constructed concept of authenticity based on what already existed, ignoring the context it existed in,” says Tran.

“We should not take a self-centred micro-coloniser approach to ‘discovering’ restaurants or dishes. They exist within a broader cultural context and not purely to serve us.”

Authenticity is fluid

That “broader” context, then, lends some scope and flex to the conversation. Because if authenticity is a hoax, then where did it come from?

The myth is that authenticity is fixed, solid and one-dimensional, when in fact it is fluid, porous, and refracted through history and location. Palisa Anderson of Sydney’s Chat Thai dynasty says there is a fixation on cooking like our culinary ancestors while ignoring the realities of time and place.

“For somebody to say, ‘I’ve been cooking with my great-grandmother’s recipes for 300 years’, it can’t ever be the same. Your produce is already different. The soil [in which it’s grown] is different… It changes all the time.”

When Anderson’s mother and Chat Thai founder Amy Chanta arrived in Australia in the 1980s, limes – an essential ingredient in Thai cooking – could not be found in the sunburnt country. Some 30 years on, the struggle between lemons versus limes, Australian versus Thai citrus, remains. Here, limes are at their peak in winter and autumn; by summer, Chat Thai’s eight Sydney restaurants have to switch to the more readily available, year-round supply of lemons. Even when the green citrus is available, they’re worlds apart from what’s found in Thailand. Thai limes are smaller, seedier and more acidic. “They’re a totally different fruit,” says Anderson.

This citrus substitution, however, doesn’t mean Chat Thai has betrayed its roots. As a cuisine, Thai food “begs and borrows” from myriad cuisines, says Anderson – see the biryani-like kao mok gai by way of Indian-Muslim merchants, or kao man gai, Thailand’s take on Hainanese chicken rice. At Chat Thai, the flavours of the homeland ring true, but it’s adjusted for local conditions. It’s just another example of the cuisine’s ability to bend and flex in response to outside factors. “When I think of authenticity, I think about cooking authentic food in Australia. We’ve had to adapt it so it’s authentic to its location as well.”

Palisa Anderson, restaurateur of Sydney’s Chat Thai and Boon Café.

(Photo: Kitti Gould)

As far as cuisines go, Mexican is up there as one of the great authentic food fights of all time. At Rosa Cienfuegos’s Tamaleria and Mexican Deli in Sydney, even its Mexican-born staff grapple with the food she serves. One staff member comes from Monterrey, another from Tijuana. When they first started work at Cienfuegos’s eatery, neither could come to terms with her distinctive style of Mexican food forged in inner-west Sydney via Mexico City. Her signature tamales, by way of example, contained too much chicken.

“How can you say the Aztecs were doing this type of tamale? I mean, they were using human meat,” says Cienfuegos.

Her burritos are a source of contention. Chihuahua in north-west Mexico is home to the burrito, where wheat-tortilla rolls are filled with beans, cheese and grilled steak. The ones found in Monterrey might come with avocado. Cienfuegos’s first memory of a burrito was a snack-sized number from a convenience store in the Mexican capital. Who’s to say which burrito is the real deal?

“Your burrito from Monterrey is authentic, but the first burrito in the world was from Chihuahua, but the ones I’ve had are the tiny snacks from 7-Eleven, and my burritos here are authentic from my recipes,” she says. In the beginning, customers would ask if her burritos came with guacamole. “But not now. I have a firm customer base who understand these are Rosa’s burritos.”

She won’t even take the bait when asked about Tex-Mex, a cuisine evolved from the Tejano people (Texans of Spanish or Mexican heritage) that has since been shaped by the advent of convenience food and the Old El Paso brand. “It’s authentic to them,” she shrugs.

Rosa Cienfuegos, chef-owner of Tamaleria and Mexican Deli in Sydney.

(Photo: Alicia Taylor)

Dr Khorana coined the term “hipster ethnics” to describe second-generation migrant restaurateurs. In possession of their two-pronged identities – their family’s cultural heritage and their own Australian upbringing – they’ve forged a new wave of food businesses that unite “multiple discourses of ‘authenticity’ to produce a very particular aesthetic”.

For Liong, this manifests in Lee Ho Fook’s “new-style Chinese” in Melbourne’s CBD. “I wasn’t setting out to create the most authentic flavours of China because I didn’t feel like I was an expert in Chinese food.” His parents are Malaysian-born and of Hakka and Cantonese descent, but in the restaurant’s early years there was a strict no-dumplings, no-noodles rule. “It was more an exploration of the cuisine and a personal representation of the flavours I enjoyed and trying to expand the scope of the perception of Chinese food.”

Anderson’s childhood snacks of leftover larb stuffed between slices of sourdough formed the genus for Boon Café, a meeting ground for Thai-Australian flavour mash-ups. “My consciousness is deeply rooted in my upbringing here, but [also] amongst the Thai community,” she says.

Tom Sarafian is the head chef at Bar Saracen, a restaurant that describes itself as “of Middle Eastern appearance”. He says his Armenian heritage has allowed him to delve deeper into other cuisines of the Middle Eastern region – Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, Turkey – but he’s careful to immerse himself in the traditions of a cuisine before he sets about modernising it.

“Some customers will look at the menu at Saracen and see ‘fish fatteh’ and say: ‘That’s not how it’s meant to be, you can’t put fish with yoghurt’. But once the diners eat the dish, they understand it, there’s still that familiarity and it still tastes like home, because I’ve made sure I truly understand the authenticity of the dish before I make my adaptations,” says Sarafian.

Which brings us to the big, uh, white elephant in the room: can Caucasian people be considered authorities on authentic ethnic food? There’s the UK’s Diana Kennedy for Mexican and Fuchsia Dunlop for Sichuan cuisine, USA’s Andy Ricker and Australia’s David Thompson repping Thai. Anderson says there’s room for everybody. Chefs like Thompson fully immerse themselves in the food culture and dedicate years to its craft. “You don’t have to be of a certain origin to be a scholar in it.”

She concedes, however, that being Thai is an advantage – one has an intrinsic, lived knowledge of its cuisine. But cultural heritage in and of itself does not automatically bestow culinary authority. To be recognised as a pundit, aspiring chefs must do the work.

For Liong, the problem is not that white chefs have earned their reputation as experts of a cuisine. It’s that food media often uphold them as the only experts in that cuisine. “It’s understandable that Martin Boetz would probably give a better interview than Amy [Chanta], but that’s also part of the issue,” he says.

Victor Liong, chef-owner of Melbourne’s Lee Ho Fook.

(Photo: Alicia Taylor)

Authenticity is reclamation

San Francisco Chronicle‘s restaurant reviewer Soleil Ho has described chef Thomas Keller’s Mexican restaurant, La Calenda, as “cultural appropriation done right”. In the same vein, the hunt for authenticity can be done virtuously too. For diasporic and migrant communities, it’s a never-ending search for memories of a faraway land in a new home, brought to life through the most visceral of senses – the smell, sight and taste of food.

“For some, searching for the perfect cơm tấm [Vietnamese grilled pork and rice] ignites nostalgia and longing for home,” says Tran. Liong remembers his parents scouring Sydney’s suburbs for a favourite Chinese-Malaysian eatery or dish on which to pin their memories and identities. “For those who have had to move for a better future, the search for authenticity is important for cultural preservation.”

If “it reminds me of Mykonos” is the impostor’s declaration of authenticity, then “it tastes like home” is its humble counterpoint.

For Ayubi and her family, opening Parwana was a way of “capturing” Afghan food traditions in Adelaide. “There was no question about authenticity or the need to present things a certain way in order to be authentic,” says Ayubi. “There was just a commitment to expressing the shared truths we had collected as a family, captured in recipes that held the memory and history of my ancestry and of a region now long-disrupted.”

Ayubi’s new book, Parwana: Recipes and Stories from an Afghan Kitchen, is a further reclamation of the Afghan identity. It’s more than just a cookbook. It’s a tome of family and national memory. It’s a take back of the narrative. After Afghanistan’s centuries of erasure at the hands of Soviet occupation and Islamic fundamentalism, facilitated by competing agendas of the international community, and a public that has only consumed media of the country as marked by war and tragedy, the book is an expression of identity and agency.

“I was really motivated by the idea that if people want to engage in Afghan cuisine, then first, we need to broaden and deepen the understanding of the region so that its recipes and traditions can be contextualised within the bigger and enduring story of our humanness, rather than within a blinkered temporal slither that consigns it to oppression,” she says. “I wanted to bring to life the voices and efforts of so many Afghan people [who] have been silenced and written out of their own histories.”

All good things come in threes, and the evolution and intersection of food, ethnicity and authenticity is having its moment. The conversation has moved from the notion of authenticity as fixed, to a second stage that considers it as permeable and complex as the people it concerns, and finally to a word and concept for people of colour in the food world to reclaim.

Authenticity – charged, locked and loaded as it was once – is no longer the weapon of choice for important conversations about food and narrative. There is reason to hope, and the future looks bright. In fact, it has the potential to get five stars.

This story is featured in the October issue of Gourmet Traveller, on sale now. Want to subscribe to Gourmet Traveller?

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