Bun Cha Obama: Authenticity in Food

In a world where “authentic food” is overused and influential, it is time to change how we approach cultural foods.

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In the bustling alleyways of Hanoi, Vietnam, there is a food stall colloquially known as Bún Chả Obama. This venue is where former President Barack Obama ate a six-dollar “authentic” meal. Later, Bún Chả Hương Liên would encase the table where he sat, adorning the entire restaurant with pictures of his dinner.

During the winter recess, I was privileged to travel back to Vietnam, my ethnic homeland. Throughout my time there, the most memorable experience was the food. Vietnamese cuisine like Phở, Bánh xèo, and Bún bò Huế have spread across the United States through Asian-American immigrants and communities. On my trip back, I planned to eat well. And like any tourist, the go-to food reviews came from Anthony Bourdain, who attempted to dine like a local. 

However, the reality is different when eating at many of his acclaimed restaurants: one Bánh mí eatery shut down due to chronic food poisoning issues, another eatery charged quadruple the standard price, and the “Obama” set meal was just as good as the rest. All of these so-called “best” restaurants truly had no edge over the local dining options except for not needing to sit on tiny plastic stools in the street, which in itself would’ve seemed a more authentic experience. This trend of Western cooks and television personalities traveling in search of traditional food has been prolific, causing restaurants to label themselves as such. The term “authentic” has been a food buzzword throughout the past decade, yet its impacts and value may not all be positive. Why is a white guy the expert on ethnic cuisine? 

The answer is he isn’t. However, the craze for ethnic cuisine and this misplaced authority on authenticity have damaging effects on the culinary world. Its proponents suggest that eateries presenting their traditional version of a dish exposes populations to new flavors and, in turn, allows the world to become more tolerant of them, but in reality, it has the opposite effect. Cultural appropriation—the disrespectful adoption of a minority’s culture—is especially present in the United States, and food is the perfect vehicle, as an ethnic group’s eating traditions and dishes are a central part of their culture.

For example, the restaurant Lucky Lee’s right here in New York City’s Greenwich Village has been accused of culturally appropriating “authentic” Chinese cuisine. The white owners went as far as to say that their rendition of traditional Chinese dishes like spare ribs and fried rice did not make diners feel “bloated and icky.” Their dishes were neither conventionally authentic nor respectful. As culturally appropriated dishes are pushed into eaters’ and critics’ diets, it draws attention away from genuine ethnic foods, flavors, and family-owned businesses. This has disastrous effects on native cultures, allowing indigenous traditions to be washed over and gentrified. Not only has cultural appropriation further silenced marginalized minorities, but it also simply fails to introduce new audiences to new foods. Instead, it rebrands traditional flavors and makes close-to-home recipes more “palatable.” However, when done right, food can be a tremendous vehicle for spotlighting and fostering appreciation for different cultures. So, how do we fix the dangerous touting of authenticity whilst still promoting ethnic cuisine?

First, I would like to offer a different perspective on the term “authentic.” Authenticity should apply to every type of food, regardless of how it plays into a certain cuisine or how foreign and interpreted it has become, because any dish is authentic to whoever created it. This means that an American carbonara, my late-night Shin Ramyun with frozen dumplings, and even Obama’s noodles are authentic; all food is.

This would mitigate the damage that cultural appropriation and misinformation can do in the culinary world. In contemporary times, “authentic” offers no meaning and can mislead consumers into believing whatever watered-down and changed menus oftentimes white restaurateurs offer are traditional. The overuse of the word has devalued it, and by making it applicable to everything, it has lost its meaning. Though this is purely rhetorical and linguistic, the transition can offer a way to stop the transmission of appropriated cuisine by having diners ignore the label altogether. 

 This would, more importantly, open up restrictions on culinary innovation. The virality of authentic dining options has hampered the options certain chefs have to cook while also putting a burden on restaurants to stick towards mainstream “traditional” dishes. Asian-American immigrants have continued to feel forced to deliver only food from their culture. Furthermore, chefs who have put in the work to study various traditional techniques and have deep respect and appreciation for foreign food tread the line between appropriation and representation. By opening the doors, not only do more people get exposed to traditional versions, but it also means that new dining concepts in gastronomy can make the culinary industry flourish. 

This definition of authentic is intuitive; different creations can be authentic to different people and cultures. While adding fish sauce to a tomato and egg stir-fry may not be authentic to Chinese tradition, it is to Vietnamese cuisine. Chinese-American eateries are also often criticized for their “non-traditional” food. Though Chinese-American staples like orange chicken and Mongolian beef may not be true to China’s culture, they are to America’s and the Chinese-American diaspora. The line between mislabeled and authentic is merely the label. If we stop worrying about whether what we’re eating is “authentic” or not, it frees us to appreciate other cultures and ideas. If everything is authentic, then nothing is. Thus, the question isn’t if the “Obama set meal” is traditional or not, but instead, if it tastes good—after all, isn’t that what truly matters?