Interrogating the “Authentic” Local Ethnic Restaurant

M. Ruth Dike
University of Kentucky

I moved to Lexington, KY last August to start a PhD program in Cultural Anthropology. After a few months, I decided to ask my fellow graduate student Daniel, who grew up in Cholula near Mexico City, about where I could find “authentic” Mexican restaurants in Lexington. I wanted to know because I thought it would be nice to take my fiancé, Mario (who grew up in Zacatecas, Mexico until moving to the US in the 4th grade), to a restaurant that could remind him vaguely of his mother’s cooking (however futile that may be). Daniel obliged and even drew me a map of “Mexington” (no joke, that’s what Lexington calls it) with three “authentic” restaurants on it.

It was awesome that Daniel was so willing to show me places of “authentic” Mexican restaurants in Lexington but thinking back on it now, this wasn’t the best way to ask where to find less-Americanized Mexican food, or any type of international cuisine for that matter.

A few weeks later, we did end up going to Tortilleria y Taqueria Ramirez with a few other friends late on a Tuesday night. Below is a picture of my meal:

Burrito de asada chico and tacos de cesos y pastor with a glass of horchata.

Burrito de asada chico and tacos de cesos y pastor with a glass of horchata.

What even makes food authentic? Is it how long it’s been cooked in a certain way in a certain country? How far do we go back to look? 50 years? 1500 years? Are all the regional versions of couscous in Morocco just as valid as an imaginary “national” version of couscous? Is Neapolitan pizza more Italian than Sicilian pizza? Are we looking only at “authentic” Mexican food in Mexico or also in the US? Is Mexican food served in other parts of Latin America “authentic”?

When writing this post, I have to recognize my own privilege in being able to ask Daniel where “authentic” Mexican restaurants were in Lexington. Why don’t people ask me, “Where can we find “authentic” American restaurants in Memphis?” Am I any less knowledgeable of American food (having grown up in Memphis) than Daniel is of Mexican food? No, but we don’t expect Americans to make broad sweeping generalizations about a monolithic homogenous cuisine like we do for Chinese, Mexican, Italian, Moroccan, French, or other types of cuisine. We have regional varieties of American food but don’t realize that other countries are just as regionally diverse (thanks Olivia for this point). So maybe we should ask ourselves, would I ask that about American restaurants of my American friends?

And yes, I have had people ask me where to find good barbeque in Memphis (my choice), but the fact that they know to ask about barbeque because I’m from Memphis shows that they actually recognize America’s regional diversity. The way we use “authentic” in everyday life masks the regional variety of our local ethnic restaurants.

Why has no one ever asked my fiancé Mario (who has lived in Memphis since the 4th grade) about “authentic” American restaurants in Memphis? Is he less knowledgeable about American cuisine than I am? Nope. But sometimes I ask Mario to guide me through all of Mexican cuisine and culture. I realize now that it’s not fair to ask my international friends and family to represent an entire place and culture anymore than it’s fair for them to expect me to represent all of American culture.

There can be a complicated relationship between Americanized ethnic food and those from the culture that a restaurant might be trying to represent. Jiayang Fan, for instance, admits in The New Yorker that she loves General Tso’s chicken, but feels embarrassed about ordering it in Chinese restaurants. Mario loves Taco Bell. He doesn’t call it Mexican food but he does go there during the day.

Our friends and I thought the meal at Tortilleria y Taqueria Ramirez was delicious. I was impressed with the variety of meats offered and the distribution of ingredients in the burrito. Mario thought that his meal was tasty but that the carne asada in his burrito could have been a little fresher (we did go around 8 pm). I was reminded that Mario grew up having tasty carne asada at various weddings, quinceañeras, and baptisms throughout his life and had a much wider range of experiences with it than myself. Also that his mother is a cooking goddess.

Mario’s meal: burrito de asada grande and sope de asada.

Mario’s meal: burrito de asada grande and sope de asada.

We need to stop using the word authentic in a way that homogenizes ethnic cuisine when we ask our local Cultural Tour Guide** (ahem, friend) about local international restaurants. Instead of using the word authentic, you could ask, “What region do you think this Chinese (or Italian or Mexican or French or Pakistani) restaurant most identifies with?” “Are there any restaurants here that serve food that reminds you of home?” “What local restaurant has the least-Americanized food from your culture?” or simply: “What do you recommend around here to eat?”

Or you can use asking about “authentic” cuisine as a starting point for a deeper conversation about other cuisines. I think all too often we use our knowledge about sushi or pho to show our cultural capital without actually knowing much about another culture.

Eater.com editor Joshua David Stein says that, “there’s nothing more authentically American than inauthenticity.” Perhaps instead of searching for authenticity in ethnic cuisine, we should be searching for the complicated lived experiences of our international friends.

I’d like to thank Daniel V., David B., and Olivia S. for their insightful comments about this blog. This blog was inspired by another awesome article about food cultures written by Amy S. Choi as well as graduate seminars in the Gastronomy program at Boston University and the Anthropology program at the University of Kentucky.

*By international I mean any immigrants/visitors from other countries.

**The term “Cultural Tour Guide” was introduced to me by Olivia Spradlin, who heard it in a Gender & Women’s Studies graduate class at the University of Kentucky.

Ruth Dike considers herself a food anthropologist and recently started her PhD in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Kentucky. You can learn more about her here and reach her at mruthdike@gmail.com.

6 Comments

Filed under anthropology, ethnicity, Food Studies, foodways

6 responses to “Interrogating the “Authentic” Local Ethnic Restaurant

  1. I like your reminder that authenticity is complex and heavily weighted. “Traditional” is another word I have not used without qualification since the 1980s. Ed Bruner has a great article in American Anthropologist about the types of authenticity he found at a Lincoln -themed park in Illinois. Thinking about different kinds of authenticity can actually be fun – my consumer culture class regularly goes to Nashville (Indiana) on a hunt for examples of different kinds of authentification. When you aply that to food, there are at least 10 ways food is authentified (authenticated?).

  2. Kevin McDaniel

    Hey Ruth really good questions! I am from Memphis as well and its the same thing as when someone asks where is the best place to get “real Memphis BBQ”.This article makes me think about semiotics of food. Thanks for sharing

  3. It seems that you were really asking Daniel for a taste of home that you can take your fiance to, and that is one aspect of authenticity when it comes to cuisine. I find that when the idea of authenticity is analysed at a deeper level, the issue also becomes one of place. Each household can have a different recipe for a dish like red braised pork (Hong Xiao Rou) or Osso Bucco. So how deep does the search go when it comes to authenticity? Do you stop at the national level, the provincial/state level, the village level or go all the way down to the household?

    I really like the point you make about authenticity of cuisine being used as a vehicle for distinction. Jay Rayner (The restaurant critic for the Observer in London) wrote a good passage on this fetish for authenticity in his book “The Man Who Ate the World” http://www.amazon.com/Man-Who-Ate-World-Perfect/dp/0805090231/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1427806816&sr=8-1&keywords=the+man+who+ate+the+world. There is this search among tourists for the most authentic experience like the most authentic Cantonese Dim Sum served in the oldest tea house in Guangzhou or the most authentic peasant food served by a grandma up in the hills of Italy. Anything less seems to be viewed as an experience that is inferior and not up to snuff in the battle of who found the truest version of the cuisine or dish. The objective of these quests has very little to do with taste and the complexities of the cultures that are being experienced, as they are being dumbed down in a quest for an essentialist truth that bares little if any resemblance to the reality on the ground.

  4. Molly

    Hi Ruth – I so appreciated your post. Your experience resonated with my own move from rural west Michigan to metro Detroit. Detroit has it’s own Mexico-town (that’s what it’s called). I found the food in Detroit to be unrecognizable compared to the “authentic” Mexican food I was used to finding served by recent immigrants in west Michigan. I now have a much more nuanced understanding of authentic foods. The differences in the two Michigan experiences reflected differences in regional cooking traditions represented by immigrants from different regions of Mexico. I also learned, now tipping my hat to Mintz, that the coasts of Michigan are served by different wholesale suppliers who carry different brands/products. The restaurants are somewhat constrained by the wholesale brands available. There were also differences in which products the restaurateurs chose to purchase processed and which they made from scratch (i.e. mole, enchilada sauce, salsa verde). Like you, I was struck by my own monolithic conceptualization of Mexican food and under-appreciation for regional difference and the inter-relationship between commercial pragmatics and authenticity.

  5. Pingback: Around the Web Digest: Week of March 29 | Savage Minds

  6. Hey, Ruth, this is a great topic, and your framing of it is excellent. I teach a food and culture course here in Washington, D.C. where we have scads of “ethnic” restaurants at which my students consider the authenticity issue, but we have to pose it against the other dominant discourse: on the latest “wow” innovative restaurant, where newness and creativity are valued, not tradition and authenticity. Incorporating both semiotic poles into a single analysis is always challenging for my students, but ultimately rewarding as a way of thinking about culture. Barbara

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