How many times have you eaten at the Olive Garden and not thought twice about their menu offering “authentic Italian food” or visited Agra Indian Restaurant in Tarzana, whose website offers “Authentic Indian Cuisine as Seen on Keeping up with the Kardashians?” What makes these claims to authenticity so important for reaching consumers and why are we — the eaters and consumers — so desperately in search of what is real and authentic? Why does the term incite such controversy when bandied about by journalists, food writers and restaurant owners? As Wes Avila, chef and owner of Guerrilla Tacos, says about the food he serves, “People will say, ‘that’s not authentic.’…. it’s authentic to me.” Chef Avila’s comments demonstrate how problematic the term authenticity is when discussing something as dynamic as cuisine. A dish can be prepared one way in one region and use different ingredients in another. When people immigrate to a new country, however, they may have to use different ingredients. As Los Angeles-based Japanese chef Sonoko Sakai says, “If I find an ingredient that is not something that exists in Japan, that’s ok because I live here.”
Among those that write about food in the United States, there has been a contentious debate surrounding authenticity. Critics debate if establishments such as Tito’s Tacos, a West Los Angeles taco stand from the 1960s that serves hard shell tacos with iceberg lettuce, cheddar cheese and sour cream, are truly authentic. Purists argue that they are not; however, authenticity is not a quality inherent to food: it is one that is socially and personally constructed. It varies depending on available ingredients, changes in technology, social class and the influences of trade and travel. When Mexican immigrants arrived in the Unites States during the early part of the twentieth century, they did not find the wide variety of Mexican ingredients one finds today throughout Southern California such as Mexican sour cream, queso fresco (a semisoft fresh Mexican cheese served crumbled) and fresh corn tortillas. Instead, as historian Jeffrey Pilcher explains in “Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food,” in the United States widespread industrial flour production and a lack of corn mills made wheat cheaper than corn, the staple used in tortillas found throughout Central and Southern Mexico. As a result, tacos were made with flour tortillas instead of corn. Cheddar cheese was far more abundant than Mexican queso fresco and fresh lettuce was readily available. Chefs and home cooks adapted their dishes to the ingredients available in the United States and to the American appetite for large plates of food with the creation of the “combo plate.” This evolution is part of the invention of a mass-produced version of Mexican food for the U.S. market, one that succeeded in establishing “Mexican” restaurants across the country.
Mexican cuisine is hardly the one to have been transformed by other cultures. Transculturation — Fernando Ortiz’s term for the merging and converging of cultures —has historically taken place between colonizer and colonized; it is present in many cuisines. Italian dishes such as pizza and spaghetti with tomato sauce are inextricably linked to the tomato, yet tomatoes did not make their way from Mesoamerica to Europe until the 16th century and even then were first grown only as ornamentals after their arrival in Italy. Even Japanese food, considered by many to be so unique given its geographic isolation, has its roots in different cultures. Ramen, for example, arrived in Japan because of Chinese tradesmen in the 19th century, according to historian George Solt. Pho soup — a Vietnamese dish so ubiquitous today in the Southern California landscape — was heavily influenced by France, a nation that occupied and colonized the country in the late 19th century.
In 2010, I heard a radio interview with the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold in which a caller asked what he thinks of restaurants such as Tito’s Tacos, a Mexican-American taco stand in West L.A., and El Cholo, one of the city’s oldest Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles. Surprisingly, Gold said he did not consider these places to be inauthentic. Instead, he argued that they are authentic representations of what Mexican food has evolved into over centuries of Mexican presence in Southern California. In fact, Gold went as far as to say that he considers Southern California to be a region of Mexico unto itself. When I heard Gold say this, I pulled my car over and listened closely. At the time, this statement seemed outrageous to me, but, as critic E.N. Anderson has observed, labels for cuisines are “notoriously ambiguous” since it is not possible to define foodways by national borders. Rather, there is “constant influence and borrowing” between countries that border each other, such as the United States and Mexico.
Former editor of the OC Weekly and Author of “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America,” Gustavo Arellano’s view of authenticity is even more unorthodox. Arellano wrote in a 2010 OC Weekly article that his postmodern stance on Mexican food now includes:
every manifestation of Mexican food…from the rarest Oaxacan mole, to a Taco Bell deluxe-whatever to the Kogi taco, all Mexican food that calls itself Mexican, that can trace some part of its heritage to meals that in one way or another originated in Mexico is Mexican and authentic. How can it not be? Mexican food in all its manifestations is just a tasty extension of what the legendary Chicano scholar Américo Paredes once deemed ‘Greater Mexico:’ the idea that Mexico and its culture doesn't stop at the border.
After reading Arellano’s boundary-pushing article, I reconsidered my stance on authenticity. After all, California had been part of Mexico before it was ever part of the United States. I questioned some of what Arellano considered Mexican food: Sonora hot dogs in Tuscon, the Mexican Hamburger in Denver, Southwestern Frito Pies, etc., but, at the same time, my view of authenticity evolved and expanded. I came to understand that global Mexican, Indian, Vietnamese or other “ethnic” food means very different things to different people. As Mexican-American chef Wes Avila explains, “I grew up in Los Angeles. This is the way I am cooking, so it’s authentic to me. I am being true to myself.”
In Los Angeles, historically-immigrant foodways have had very different representations to different people. When exploring ethnic restaurants and markets, diners from outside the cultural group often seek an experience with the “Culinary Other.” In some cases, restaurant owners and chefs create an idealized, romantic version of a particular culture and cuisine that is pleasing and exotic to the consumer, such as wall paintings of a fictionalized landscape or pretty costumes worn by the waitresses. These voyeuristic experiences serve as a form of escape for those unfamiliar with the people and culture whose food they are encountering. Sylvia Ferrero calls this concept “staged authenticity.” Immigrants have a different relationship to the food of their culture. With every generation immigrants’ meals become more assimilated, while holiday meals typically demonstrate their emotional attachment to their heritage. To those who have uprooted their lives to reside in a different country, food often provides a much-needed and very literal taste of home. Different groups of people have very different perceptions of authentic food and each person’s view of authenticity is shaped by his or her background and set of experiences. As Nakul Mahendro, first-generation Indian-American and owner of Badmaash explains about his restaurant, “it’s going to be an Indian restaurant, but from our perspective as Indians who have been born and raised in this part of the world.”
Mexican-American chef Carlos Salgado has moved even further from the label of authentic Mexican food by calling the food he serves at his high-end restaurant Taco María in Orange County “Chicano,” a way to acknowledge his pride in his heritage and make people question their perceptions — or misconceptions — about Mexican food. Are dishes such as chile relleno stuffed with crab and potato and served with a salsa veracruzana authentic Chicano cuisine? Fitting into arbitrary categories hardly seems to be Chef Salgado’s goal at Taco María; rather, he has helped to change the image of Mexican cuisine by serving different, more complex dishes.
Avila and Mahendro’s comments demonstrate that affixing the label of authenticity to a cuisine is problematic because it suggests that cultural purity is the norm. Instead, chefs such as Avila, Salgado and Mahendro have moved beyond these norms with their interpretations of traditional dishes at Badmaash, Guerrilla Tacos, and Taco María.
If authenticity is socially constructed, then what does matter when it comes to food? Taste? Quality of ingredients? What standards should we then use to judge chefs and restaurants? Taste, of course, is understood to be a marker of good food. Taste preferences, nevertheless, are subjective and are based on current trends and personal favorites. Pig brains are a delicacy in parts of China, deep-fried intestines are popular in Southeast Asia and grasshoppers are an integral part of the cuisine of Oaxaca, Mexico. Yet, Anglo diners are likely to be disgusted if they were served a taco with chapulines (toasted grasshopper) or a dish of barbequed brain. Quality of ingredients is perhaps an easier marker to judge good food, but even food quality can be subjective. Appearance, texture and flavor are characteristics used to define what is acceptable to consumers. A bruised apple may not be as appealing, but can still taste delicious.
What are we left with, in that case, as we set forth on our next culinary adventures in search of good food? Instead of vainly searching for the most authentic dish, perhaps a better approach is to strike a “careful balance between innovation and tradition, which is a hallmark of truly great cuisines,” as culinary historian Ken Albala writes. Good food is linked to the terroir (the soil and climate in which it is grown), the freshness of ingredients and the recognition that a dish has evolved from a long tradition that should be respected.
Albala, Ken. Three world cuisines Italian, Mexican, Chinese. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2012.
Anderson, E.N. Everyone eats understanding food and culture. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2005.
Arellano, Gustavo. Taco USA: How Mexican food conquered America. New York: Scribner, 2013.
Top Image: Birria de Res made of beef, coffee, toasted farrow, chile, lime. A dish Taco Maria dish from Carlos Salgado | Courtesy of Life & Thyme