As a daughter of Asian immigrants, I was raised relishing the piquant umami of bún bò hue and the warm hugs of char siu baos. Now that I have the freedom to navigate my own culinary experiences, I often find myself looking for flavors that resemble those that I grew up enjoying — a search that manifests in my scrolling through Yelp for the buzzword “authentic.” Through modern foodie culture, I have been trained to appreciate authentic flavors that are meant to evoke recollections of experiences in foreign lands and to reject the inauthentic which fail to do so. But as I explore my palate and find myself craving the inauthenticity I am meant to abhor, I have found that perhaps there is a place for the inauthentic within the diasporic palate.
Defining the authenticity of ethnic food involves the consideration of the people and culture that produce it. In the early 1900s, discrimination against Chinese immigrants extended to a distaste for Chinese food. Through Chinese Restaurant Syndrome — a fictional ailment that eating MSG in Chinese food purportedly caused — and claims of rat meat in Chinese food, white Americans made it clear that Chinese immigrants and their culture were not welcome. This molded Chinese American cuisine to take on dishes such as chop suey and General Tso’s chicken — dishes not native to Chinese cuisine but developed to appeal to white America in hopes of earning acceptance. In the case of Chinese American cuisine, the inauthentic was used as a medium to assimilate in a foreign land because its authentic forms were negatively regarded. In ethnically diverse countries like the United States, these diasporic cuisines have been produced out of necessity. While the authentic reflects the cultural origins where members of the diaspora have been displaced from, the inauthentic reflects the fusion of tradition and assimilation.
To measure the authenticity of an ethnic restaurant requires attention to the experience as a whole. The search for authenticity has often led me to inexpensive mom-and-pop shops where the store owners are immigrants from the culture of the cuisine they serve. In addition to the food, the prices are low and the ambience casual, paying homage to how they were back in the homeland. When I walk into my family’s favorite pho restaurant in our neighborhood, the Vietnamese owners shout orders as they rush to seat us at a table with hot tea. My mom orders for us in Vietnamese, smiling as she calls the waitress “cô,” a familial term for auntie. When our soups arrive, they have a deep umami flavor that only emerges when the bone broth has been simmering for hours. We consume them as we recount how each of our days went. The crusts of past bánh kep la dua sit limply around the waffle iron at the cashier when I walk up to pay in cash. The $25 meal has done more than satisfy our four bellies — one spoonful at a time, it has brought my family closer to each other through our culture. That’s why we only ever dine here.
For my mom, an immigrant from Vietnam, that search for her homeland through the culinary experiences in the United States is one that will never cease. On the other hand, I’m accustomed to the flavors of my mother’s Vietnamese and Chinese cooking, but I’ve grown up with an Americanized palate too. While my mom seeks remnants of her home and childhood in these authentic experiences, my purpose is not centered on a longing for memories formed elsewhere. Though I can appreciate authenticity and the meaningfulness of the search for it, it is not my journey. Rather, I have resolved to celebrating inauthenticity in hopes of embracing my status as a member of the Asian diaspora. For us, we occupy a space that, ethnically, we may not have ties to. We are in some ways displaced and our families have recollections of some origin that we only experience second-hand. Despite my East and Southeast Asian roots, I have lived in the United States my whole life and only experienced China and Vietnam through a few traditions, such as receiving hong bao for Lunar New Years. The subtleties of my parents’ cultures are not something I can easily discover through convenient attempts at reconstructing what their lives must have been like in their home countries. To me, the search for a restaurant that serves dan tat just like the ones in China signals a yearning for some form of return to a homeland I was never part of.
Home isn’t some faraway place that our parents immigrated from and that we’ve only experienced through their interpretation. Home is here, in whatever space we currently exist in, and the celebration of these inauthentic cuisines around us lets us embrace that dishes, like traditions and even cultures, are meant to be nuanced just as our identities are as members of the diaspora.
Michelle Liang | firstname.lastname@example.org