How Much Does Food’s Cultural Authenticity Matter?
I hope you had something to eat before reading this.
The sushi burger is the latest in a line of wild, creative, and decadent food amalgamations that seem to exist only on and for Instagram. (See also: the cronut, rainbow grilled cheese, cotton candy fries, the golden doughnut… we could keep going.)
It’s also about as Japanese as Scarlett Johannsen.
Like the ramen burger before it, the sushi burger seems to mash up one culture with another, when in fact it bears only a superficial resemblance to foods from its supposed country of origin. Sushi has already gone through a long period of conceptual metamorphosis since the dish’s first appearance in the U.S. about sixty years ago. Just as you could hardly call this “authentic Italian pizza,” your dragon roll is distinctly different from traditional Japanese makizushi.
Cross-cultural culinary experimentation is nothing new, but in the age of “authenticity” where consumers seek a real experience, this culture-mashing cuisine has got us wondering: how important is it for food to be authentic? Whether a restaurant dish, or a home cook’s invention, is it appropriate, relevant or just fine to merge culinary traditions?
After all, fusion food has generated more than a few iconic dishes (the hamburger itself likely among them). People export and import recipes all the time, combining one culture’s styles and rituals with local ingredients and influences. At the same time, some are battling to protect the old ways and counteract misconceptions.
As NPR reported in February, Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is preparing to launch a certification program for overseas Japanese restaurants. The initiative, which lacks an official English name, will distinguish restaurants that preserve Japanese traditional values—washoku—from those that do not. Like the Global Thai program, Japan’s program is an example of culinary diplomacy, where food stands in for a destination.
But apart from giving patrons a taste of Japan, this new certification program could also have a financial impact for restaurants on either side of the equation. In America, certain cultures’ cooking commands premium prices, and Japan’s at the top of the list. As Professor Krishnendu Ray, chair of NYU’s Food Studies Department, explained on Other People’s Food:
Most Americans would hesitate to pay $30 for Chinese food, but they wouldn’t bat an eye to pay hundreds of dollars sometimes—over the last couple of years, the most expensive New York City restaurants have been Japanese restaurants.
Why? Other People’s Food host Dan Pashman, who also runs The Sporkful, asserts that people’s perceptions of food shift in accordance with how they view its apparent place of origin. His fascinating interview with On the Media (seriously, go listen to it) explores the ways ethnicity, race, language, class, and branding converge to influence how we look at our food: whether we see it as bona fide cuisine, cheap street food, appropriation, fusion, or something else entirely.
This all ties into our ongoing discussion about authenticity and labeling in food and beverage marketing. Just as consumers might insist on natural or organic or non-genetically modified products, we’re watching for the day when they vocalize preference for establishments that have been stamped with a cultural seal of approval or authenticity. The relative importance you place on this type of authenticity will vary according to your circumstances, but it’s one more way to think about how you position your brand in the dynamic, deeply personal, and increasingly multicolored world of food.