“Authentic cuisine.” Despite being in an age where fusion and modern food are all the rage, the criteria behind what makes cuisine “authentic” is still debated by chefs, critics and consumers alike.
When someone says they’re looking for authentic cuisine, what comes to mind? Spaghetti that’s made by Italians? Chinese food that’s not Panda Express? Sushi rolled by Japanese people? The question of what and who determines this unclear label is an aspect of cuisine that is still debated to this day by chefs, reviewers and people of color. Why do we question whether or not the owner of a restaurant belongs to the same culture the food is from?
There are a few lenses through which authenticity can be examined: location, audience expectation and intention of restaurant.
One of the closest places to campus where the question of authenticity applies is Tasty Thai Campus. Walking into the restaurant, printed photos of foods are taped on the left and right walls, as well as along the sides of the counter and behind the door. These photos are laminated and have their names handwritten or labeled with sticky notes. Without looking up, one could easily miss the red-and-gold foiled altar nailed into the beam, with various figurines of Buddhist deities on top.
“The Kitchen location has been open for over 10 years,” said Nontawat Wongsathan, owner of Tasty Thai Campus. Wongsathan took over management of the location two years ago from his aunt, who still manages the Tasty Thai Kitchen location on 29th Avenue.
“We’re authentic because I haven’t changed any of my aunt’s cooking methods,” Wongsathan said. “Some ingredients can be really expensive, but just because we switch out some ingredients doesn’t make the food any less authentic.”
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “authentic” has a few definitions. The first is that something is “conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features; made or done the same way as an original.”
In regards to location, Oregon to Thailand is a journey of over 7,500 miles.
When scanning the wall menu and the dozens of food photographs, a few items may stick out. Tasty Thai serves “pho,” Vietnamese beef noodle soup. Ironically, American fried rice is a Thai recipe, while their Island fried rice is not. Cream cheese rolls, which are deep fried rolls of cream cheese served with sweet and sour sauce, are offered as appetizers.
When asked about the cream cheese rolls, Wongsathan laughed.
“Yes, that is not real. It’s more American-influenced,” he said. So, does having a selection of other ethnic food take away from an ethnic restaurant's “authenticity”?
Most of the food is “real Thai food,” Wongsathan explained. For example, the main foods like the pad thai, curries and all but one of the types of fried rice are authentic recipes.
“Lots of people know what Thai food is and having these Thai-American don’t affect authenticity at all,” said Aliza Cooper, a Tasty Thai Campus cashier.
Cooper has been working at the location for a little over two years and wondered about the wide selection of offerings when she was first hired. “[Wongsathan] just said having other types of dishes allows customers to have a variety of choices,” Cooper said. “Thai-American food also leans less spicy.”
An additional definition of authentic provided by Merriam-Webster is “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.” Is it a time to shame restaurants for not following a philosophy they seem to claim and believe in so wholeheartedly?
“Customers might think about authenticity, but they don’t really care about it because they can’t really find any other places around here,” Cooper said. “Obviously they know that we’re not gonna use the traditional ingredients and all that stuff, but we still serve them the dish.”
The debate of whether an ethnic food is authentic enough is not the type of dialogue people should be having; instead, they should be questioning the intention behind why a restaurant may have a specific menu or why a dish is made a certain way.
A restaurant or chef’s authenticity must be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. It’s time people stopped taking the label of “authentic” as the end-all-be-all for ethnic food. Instead, they should contemplate food as a canvas for portraying the complicated issue of identity, culture and most of all the ethnic American experience of balancing assimilation and staying true to one’s roots