Among the continual change that fuels the moving feast that is the Australian food scene, one thing remains certain: most dedicated diners expect a large dollop of cultural authenticity with their meal.
But what makes the dishes on offer at one restaurant truly authentic and a meal served at another venue a culinary insult, arising from a sad example of cultural misappropriation?
Roger Haden, head of discipline and gastronomy at Le Cordon Bleu Australia, believes that most cuisines borrow elements from each other so determining authenticity is a tricky task.
“The concept of cultural appropriation in food goes back to the caveman days when people first left Africa and started moving into Europe,” Haden tells SBS. “They took their foodways with them and along the way, picked up new foodways from different countries.”
…what makes the dishes on offer at one restaurant truly authentic and a meal served at another venue a culinary insult, arising from a sad example of cultural misappropriation?
He says as a result of globalisation, imperialism and international travel, food traditions and cuisines have been appropriated for centuries.
For example, the original recipe for French gingerbread – which came from a Flemish queen – used spices from Asia not from Europe. And the croissant that we all associate with France isn’t even a French invention: it was created in Austria in the late 1600s and then introduced to French aristocrats 100 years later by Marie Antoinette.
In more modern times, countless dishes blur the line of cultural appropriation and authenticity. We witness Maltese pastizzi being palmed off as cheese triangles in non-European delis and supermarkets; Texan food being marketed as Mexican cuisine, and Peruvian quinoa salads sold at a health café run by Anglo-Saxon Australians. As Haden says, the line determining authenticity in cuisine – especially in today’s multicultural society – is definitely blurred.
So how do you establish that a restaurant and the meals served are culturally authentic? According to the experts, there are a few thoughtful criteria you should consider next time you’re on the hunt for authentic cuisine.
“It has less to do with the cultural background of ingredients and more to do with the dish.”
How to eat authentically
1. Look at the dish, not the ingredients
Haden reminds us that foreign ingredients are grown all over the world. So tracing authenticity to the original heritage of eggplant or capsicum will be problematic. “It has less to do with the cultural background of ingredients and more to do with the dish,” says Haden.
The rise of the celebrity chef means a lot of restaurants are going their own way in terms of style, with chefs merging ingredients from all corners of the world into the one dish. So focus on evaluating the authenticity of the plate rather than its individual parts.
2. Ask whether the cook has hospitable values
“For me, to determine if a dish is authentic, I always think about integrity,” Haden explains. “That usually always comes down to the person cooking [or inventing] the dish in question.
“If you’re making a dish with honesty, integrity and interest and a desire to please diners – key hospitality values – then you are doing it for the right reasons.
“But, if you’re borrowing culinary methods [from another culture] and using aspects of a certain cuisine to attract more interest to your restaurant, or to big-note yourself, then that may be appropriation.”
“If you’re making a dish with honesty, integrity and interest and a desire to please diners – key hospitality values – then you are doing it for the right reasons.”
3. Has the cook taken steps to learn about how the dish is made by the culture, which lays claim to it?
To some extent, this point is about researching the background of the dish and consulting people from the culture that the dish is identified with.
Culinary historian and Professor Emeritus in the History Department at the University of Adelaide, Barbara Santich, explains that if you have lived in a country that you have no genetic ties to, you may still be able to cook authentically to that particular cuisine.
“If you’ve spent time getting to know the culture and understand the dish or cuisine, then that may be okay.”
For example, if you’re not Italian but have spent time in Italy or had an Italian cook mentor you at home, you’re probably in safe territory.
“But if you just take a recipe out of a book about Peruvian cooking and pass the dish off saying ‘this is Peruvian cuisine’ with no real understanding of the culture, then that may be problematic.”
“The chef should always know the specific meaning behind a dish they make. In doing so, they give respect to the dish and to the culture.”
4. Does the dish have a religious or ceremonial affiliation?
Santich reminds diners that some dishes from other cultures are associated with ceremonial occasions, whether it’s a wedding, a funeral or other religious celebration.
“If you are not from that culture, and make the dish available on an every-day basis, you run the risk of [causing offence] as the dish may carry a religious meaning,” says Santich.
“The chef should always know the specific meaning behind a dish they make. In doing so, they give respect to the dish and the culture.”
5. Does the dish have gastronomic integrity?
Haden believes that anyone from any culture has the right to open any type of restaurant they like. But that doesn’t mean they’ll do a good job at cooking the cuisine they’ve committed to.
“For example, you don’t necessarily have to have a French person cooking French food to make it authentic. Because there are dreadful French cooks in France [who don’t honour French culinary traditions], as well as some really good ones that honour the cuisine.”
So ask: does the dish taste good? Does it have gastronomic integrity? If so, and depending on what else might be in play, you may be just be eating a culturally authentic dish.