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Authentic, Ethnic, and Fusion: Food and Identity in Contemporary Perspective

ART & CULTURE / January 30, 2017

By Ishita Banerjee-Dube

This brief essay considers varied and often contradictory developments in order to explore the many understandings of the “authentic” and of “fusion” – as well as to question the authenticity of the authentic and the newness of “fusion” — by pointing to food as a result of the confection of the “authentic” and the “inauthentic”.

 

Behind the assiduous documentation and defense of the authentic lies an unarticulated anxiety of losing the subject.

-Regina Bendix, In Search of Authenticity (10)

But what does authenticity really mean? And is authenticity really the right yardstick by which to judge an Indian meal?

Lizzie Collingham, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (2)

 

Travel these days, commented a colleague with mirth and gloom, is measured by what you eat and where rather than what you visit and see. The exponential increase in consumption has brought in its trail food tourism, an upsurge in food shows, gourmet channels, and food competitions on television, and a surfeit of food bloggers and culinary groups in the social media along with the numerous food columns in newspapers and journals. Food and cuisine have suddenly emerged as vital elements of identity and personhood, being and belonging, nation and culture, desire and affect. Unsurprisingly, national governments and indigenous, “ethnic” and marginal groups now compete with each other to project food either as a key element of national culture, or to get “heritage status” in order to conserve the “authenticity” of “ethnic” cuisine.

In tune with this, a recent line of high-range “ethnic” restaurants abroad, the USA in particular, pride themselves on providing “authentic” fare of a particular region of say China or India as opposed to their run-of-the-mill cheap counterparts that serve homogenised “inauthentic” pan-national “Chinese” or “Indian” food. Despite this disdain for the “inauthentic”, food served in cheaper restaurants has been the result of innovative blends and adaptation. Such innovations and adaptations, however, are not unique to restaurants in foreign countries; they are integral to cooking and cuisine and hence, happen in the home country at all times. In addition, there is a growing emphasis on “fusion” food within these countries, a tendency that reflects the desire of upwardly mobile social groups to belong to the global and the cosmopolitan.

This brief essay takes into consideration these varied and often contradictory developments in order to explore the many understandings of the “authentic” and the “fusion”, and to question the authenticity of the authentic and the newness of the “fusion” by pointing to food as the result of confection of the “authentic” and the “inauthentic”. A quick look at the history of food and cooking opens a rich scenario of species migration and cross-cultural flows, colonial encounters and power-play, allowing an interrogation of essentialisms that often result in intolerance and the construction of rigid frontiers.

 
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About the Author

Ishita Banerjee-Dube is Professor of History at the Centre for Asian and African Studies, El Colegio de México, Mexico City. Her research interests include religion, law and power; language and identity; caste and politics; food, gender and nation, and postcolonial studies, with special focus on eastern India over the 19th and 20th centuries. The most recent of her four authored books is: A History of Modern India (Cambridge University Press, 2015). Among her 10 edited volumes feature: Cooking Cultures (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and Caste in History (Oxford University Press, 2008).

References
1. Brown, Duncan. 2016. “Indigeneity, Alienness and Cuisine: Are Trout South African”, in Cooking Cultures: Convergent Histories of Food and Feeling, edited by Ishita Banerjee-Dube, 21-28. Cambridge and New Delhi, Cambridge University Press.
2. Coe, Andrew. 2009. Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, New York, Oxford University Press.
3. Collingham, Lizzie. 2006. Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
4. Shun Lu and Gary Alan Fine. 1995. “The Presentation of Ethnic Authenticity: Chinese Food as Social Accomplishment”, The Sociological Quarterly, 35, 3: 335-353.
5. Xu Wu. 2016. “Local Foods and Meanings in Contemporary China. The Case of Southwest Hubei”, in Cooking Cultures: Convergent Histories of Food and Feeling, edited by Ishita Banerjee-Dube, 139-157. Cambridge and New Delhi, Cambridge University Press.
6. Zhang Hongzhou. 2016. “China’s Growing Appetite for Fish and Fishing Disputes in the South China Sea”, All China Review, November.











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