Chinese Cuisine: Does Cultural Authenticity Matter?

Chinese Cuisine: Does Cultural Authenticity Matter?

22 July 2019

Laurence Hamdan, Guest Contributor

The concept of cultural authenticity in food is a hotly debated topic amongst scholars and chefs alike. To explore what cultural authenticity means, and whether the notion should still have any merit today, Asia House and The Oxford Collective invited leading figures for a discussion, sponsored by Lee Kum Kee.


“You cannot be too conservative about food. What’s important is that people are fed.”

That was the view of Fuchsia Dunlop, author of five books about Chinese food and gastronomy, when considering her decision to include ‘General Tso’s Chicken’ in her ‘Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province‘.

The dish – ubiquitous in Chinese restaurant menus across the US – is regarded by Americans as the quintessential Hunanese cuisine. But in Hunan, it is virtually unheard of. For Dunlop, this needn’t be seen as a problem. But navigating the path of legitimacy and cultural appropriation can be a sensitive topic for some – especially when cuisine and national identity can be so tightly interwoven, as is the case in China.

When asked why Chinese cuisine is constantly evolving, Mukta Das, an academic with a background studying the Silk Road trade on the evolution of Chinese food, shared similar views to Dunlop. Suggesting that “Chinese cuisine expands and retracts,” Mukta explained that what constitutes authenticity in China is still a burning question among scholars some 2200 years after the unification of China.

Andrew Wong, owner of esteemed A. Wong and Kym’s, enjoys a similarly relaxed attitude towards authenticity and Chinese food culture. Replying to whether he went to China deliberately to seek out authenticity and bring it back, Andrew stated that “you cannot own culture and you cannot own food.”

Detailing his own approach to Chinese cuisine, Andrew emphasised that “as chefs we are communicating,” adding, “I’m not an expert on Chinese food. I’m an expert on A. Wong Chinese food.” This sentiment was echoed in Mukta’s later comment: “You can only follow your own interests and passions,” absolving those who might feel prejudiced against for having interests outside of their own prescribed cultural spheres.

Taking a slightly different approach to authenticity than his fellow panellists, Jeremy Chan, co-owner of Michelin-starred Ikoyi, revealed an immensely liberal attitude towards food culture and the rules that govern it. After detailing efforts to erase the misconceptions that Ikoyi is a West African-themed restaurant, in contrast to a restaurant that just happens to use West African ingredients, Jeremy offered the audience a profound glimpse into his cultural ethos.

“Let’s embrace everything and everyone and see what we can learn.”

A discussion on cultural authenticity would have been remiss to not mention cultural appropriation. As an English woman whose career is built on writing cookbooks about Chinese cuisine, Fuchsia admitted that sometimes “people are jealous about the idea of me,” but went on to defend the notion of authenticity. “You have a responsibility to inform yourself about [the dishes], if you’re going to talk about them or put them on your menu.”

With this, Fuchsia inferred that, rather than the act itself, the responsibility that comes with cultural appropriation is around what people should be educated on. In response to where this burden of responsibility lies, she offered that educating people is “a process” that requires patience on both sides.

The Q&A session that rounded off the discussion presented some interesting food for thought, with one audience member asking about the balance of power when it comes to cultural appropriation culprits – referencing an earlier anecdote by Fuchsia of eating particularly poor “Western food” in Shanghai many years ago. Linking this with the rise of political and corporate power on branding and culture, Mukta highlighted that with the rise in modernity, “there is a turn back towards tradition.” The effects that corporate monetisation are having on cultural authenticity is something we are perhaps only just beginning to see, but one problem, Fuchsia reiterated, is when “cultural authenticity is taken too seriously and taken out of context for marketing purposes.”

How seriously one should take cultural authenticity and appropriation is something that will inevitably vary from person to person. Nonetheless, as Jeremy creatively put it: “Creating communication between communities that you would otherwise have no interaction with is only a good thing.”

In a world of no consequence, a discussion on authenticity would not exist. But in the spirit of integrity and good intention, perhaps we could all stand to be a bit more lenient, and a bit more sensitive when handling the cuisines of other cultures.


Watch the full event below


This event was part of the Asia House 2019 Spring Arts and Learning Programme. Find out more about our upcoming events.

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