Authenticity is Overrated: How Asian-Americans Use Food to Explore Their Identities

Like most Americans, Mackenzie Fegan grew up eating her weight in Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. But there was a twist, courtesy of her mother, who had moved from China as a child.
“She would stir an egg into it with chopsticks and make a sort of egg drop soup mashup,” recalls the Brooklyn-based food writer, whose family opened the San Francisco institution Henry’s Hunan, once described by the New Yorker as the finest Chinese restaurant in the United States.
But the best seller at Henry’s Hunan isn’t Chinese — or, rather, it’s as Chinese as Campbell’s chicken-noodle egg drop soup is Chinese. Concocted by Fegan’s grandmother, “Diana’s Special” is a tour de force of shredded lettuce, white onions, and stir-fried ground pork, sandwiched between two deep-fried flour tortillas and liberally sprinkled with Parmesan cheese.
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“It’s sort of like a Taco Bell Mexican pizza and sort of like an onion cake,” Fegan describes.
Priya Krishna, a regular Bon Appetit contributor, recognises the culinary calisthenics Asian-American families employ. Her newly released book, Indian-ish: Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family, is a paean to her mother, Ritu, who served up roti pizza, saag paneer with feta cheese, and dahi toast with sourdough bread — in part, out of a desire for invention mixed with nostalgia, but also because she had to make do with what was available in this new country.
“It seems like an instinct for immigrants to seek flavours that are familiar, but to use the ingredients they have on hand,” Krishna says. “My mom's recipes are really unique but what she did is not.”
So would she consider this food, to use a term gourmands like to bandy about, “authentic”?
“I think it’s kind of an empty word,” she says. “Roti pizza may not be authentic to every single Indian, but it’s authentic to me.”
Authenticity — and who gets to wield it — is becoming a sticking point in the food world, especially when it comes to Asian cuisine. British restaurateur and TV personality Gordon Ramsay originally billed his new Lucky Cat restaurant as an “authentic Asian eating house,” inspired by the drinking dens of 1930s Tokyo, and led by a white chef named Ben Orpwood whose bonafides consist of traveling “back and forth to South Asia for many months” (it should go without clarifying that Japan is not in South Asia). One of its signature drinks is the “White Geisha,” which features foam art of a woman dressed in a traditional Japanese kimono. At a launch party in London, it served a wagyu pastrami slider with “Asian” chilli jam.
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Lucky Cat is just one of a handful of white-led “Lucky” Asian restaurants that have been accused of cultural appropriation, trafficking in hoary Orientalist stereotypes — think potted bamboo, paper lanterns, and Buddha heads — and white saviour-ism. Lucky Lee’s in New York City drew instant outrage when when it touted “clean” Chinese food that didn’t make you feel “bloated or icky,” as did Bizarre Foods' Andrew Zimmern for opening Lucky Cricket outside Minneapolis to “save the souls” of people dining in “horseshit restaurants masquerading as Chinese food.” (Both ignored the history of scapegoating Chinese food in America.) Some of these establishments treat different Asian characteristics as fungible and interchangeable — say, by serving Japanese miso soup in a “Chinese” restaurant.
“Asia is a whole damn continent and quite a large one at that,” Fegan says. “We're not a monolithic group. People from the Indian subcontinent, from East Asia, from Southeast Asia all have different lived experiences.”
For the children of immigrants, negotiating those distinctions — or lack thereof — can be a fraught process. “Asian-American” as an identifier didn’t even exist until 1968, when a pair of Berkeley students, who were inspired by the Black Power movement, formed the Asian American Political Alliance to rally Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino students under a shared banner.
Today, the 20 million Americans who identify as Asian can trace their ancestry to nearly two dozen countries. Perhaps because “Asian-American” is almost painfully reductive, nearly two-thirds of Asian-Americans identify with their specific ethnicity and not with this broader label, according to AAPI Data.
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Yet in many ways, the grievances Asian-Americans can be generalised to the diaspora, says Cathy Erway, a New York-based food writer who wrote the The Food of Taiwan: Recipes from the Beautiful Island as homage to her Taiwanese roots. There’s an almost universal experience of shame, of apostasy, and then, finally, of rapprochement.
“People who've grown up in this country have been othered, and so carry that sense of being picked on,” she says. “They were maybe stigmatised or their lunches were stigmatised, and they carry this trauma associated with being Asian, or a sort of guilt that they’re maybe not Asian enough.”
To be Chinese-American, Pakistani-American, Laotian-American, or any kind of hyphenated American is to be caught between two worlds and feeling like you don’t belong to either — essentially, the human equivalent of “Diana’s special” or roti pizza.
Dale Talde, a veteran of restaurants like Vong in Chicago and Buddakan in New York, knows what it’s like to be perpetually disoriented as a “third culture” kid.
“My house could have been in Manila,” he says of growing up in a Filipino household. “But then when I walked outside, it was suburban Chicago.”
Talde is part of a vanguard of first-generation Asian-American chefs who are cooking for themselves and not to advance any preconceived notion of what “Asian” cuisine should look like. The menu at Talde in Jersey City offers a “McBao” made with St. Louis ribs and char siu, banh-mi stuffed with mushrooms, pickled daikon and kimchi, and Korean fried chicken. His food isn’t “Asian fusion,” he insists in his debut cookbook, Asian-American: Proudly Inauthentic Recipes from the Philippines to Brooklyn. It’s Asian-American. Not only is it modern in a way that doesn’t pander to exoticised Western ideas of the Far East, it’s also authentically inauthentic to his upbringing.
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David Chang arguably led this charge when he founded Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York City in 2004, followed by Danny Bowien in 2011 with Mission Chinese in San Francisco. At Pig & Khao on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where Filipino-Jewish chef Leah Cohen holds court, Hainanese duck coexists with pork belly adobo and ricotta donuts. Over in Maine, Cara Stadler at Tao Yuan plates Bangs Island mussels with Chinese fritters and kimchi. In Los Angeles, N/naka’s Niki Nakayama has a “modern interpretation” of sashimi that includes jalapeno gelee and avocado sauce.
They are hardly outliers. Roy Choi of Los Angeles’s Kogi BBQ Truck “might be the greatest example of what we're talking about,” Talde says, noting its featured item: a kimchi quesadilla. “He's Korean who grew up in L.A. around a lot of Mexican and Latino culture and he made his food around that.”
Erway cites Joanne Chang of Boston’s Flour, Sohui Kim of The Good Fork in Brooklyn, and My Rice Bowl: Korean Cooking Outside the Lines author Rachel Yang as examples of Asian-Americans who are reclaiming their own culinary narratives.
“What we’re seeing is a lot of Asian-Americans cooking with influences that are relevant to them, that are true to them,” she says. “Because they grew up here, that can include other influences … in a way that’s respectful and natural. It’s really about the attitude you bring to it.” (Erway herself slathers corn on the cob with gochujang mayo and fills dumpling wrappers with Philly cheesesteak.)
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The cookbook author and blogger Nik Sharma, who settled in the Bay Area by way of India, prefers to avoid terms like “tradition,” “authentic,” or even "fusion" when he talks about his food, which includes kimchi devilled eggs, edamame-stuffed fried Indian bread, and curry-leaf popcorn chicken.
People put too much stock in authenticity when it’s an ineffable concept at best, Sharma says, pointing out the example of vindaloo, an iconic Goan curry dish heavily influenced by Portuguese colonists. “Traditional” Hawaiian food — Spam musubi! Malasadas! — stems from the diverse Japanese, Puerto Rican, Portuguese, and Pacific Islander palates. Talde himself notes that Filipino cuisine as we know it today is a hybrid of Filipino, Spanish, and Malay cultures. Even American-Chinese inventions like General Tso’s chicken, crab rangoon, and Mongolian beef are the result of catering to mostly white taste buds.
“There is absolutely no problem with anyone cooking any kind of food they'd like, nor with anyone opening any kind of restaurant they'd like,” says Kenji Lopez-Alt, author of The Food Lab, chef at Wursthall, and culinary advisor at Serious Eats. “White people can cook Asian food. Asian people can cook European food. European people can cook African food. White people can cook Asian fusion or Asian-American. The problems arise in two ways: the marketing and lack of understanding or respect for the source material.”
At Wursthall in San Mateo, Calif., Lopez-Alt whips up eclectic dishes like spaetzle with kimchi and gochujang broth, and grilled cheese using Japanese shokupan bread. He offers, using plant-based Impossible meat, a vegetarian version of the döner kebab, a popular German street food popularised by Turkish immigrants in the 1970s. The kebab is spiked with sumac onions and urfa biber chilis, which Lopez-Alt picked up from kebab shops in Istanbul.
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But is it authentic?
“There is almost nothing on our menu that is authentic anything, and we never claim it to be,” he says. “We were testing sauerkraut-stuffed pupusas for a bit because many of our line cooks are from El Salvador and they sometimes make pupusas for family meal,” referring to the off-menu food that staff members make and eat before and after shifts.
Lopez-Alt, who is of Japanese and mostly German descent, and is married to a woman from Colombia, knows that there can be “good” cultural appropriation and “bad.” The difference often has to do with power dynamics and the lens through which other cultures are presented.
“I think having a mixed background, being half-white and half-POC, along with being married to a Brown immigrant, has showed me that it is absolutely okay to borrow ideas and take influence from other cultures, so long as it is done in a respectful way, and so long as you don’t try and misrepresent who you are or what you are doing.”
At the same time, Asian-American chefs don’t need other people to tell their story, Erway adds. They’re capable of doing so themselves, without interlocutors to lose nuances in translation. For every Fuchsia Dunlop, a white food critic who writes about Chinese food in a scholarly, “almost anthropological way” that pays deep respect to the culture, there’s a Grace Young, who is Chinese-American and comes from a place of learning to cook from her mother. “Fuchsia Dunlop can't do that,” she says.
“It's a very different narrative,” Sharma agrees. “There's nothing wrong with it; it's just a different narrative.”
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