The anxiety of authenticity vs appropriation

by | Nov 29, 2023 | Opinion

Authentic. It’s Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year for 2023 but for chefs, foodwriters, marketers and foodlovers it’s a loaded term. Ever since Christopher Columbus journeyed from Spain to America beginning culinary and cultural trade between Europe and The Americas (an event now known as the Columbian Exchange,) people all over the world have adapted and adopted new foods to their diet. The colonial spread of ideas, rules and foods has brought changes and shifts to diets everywhere. But what is authentic food and when does it cross the boundaries of cultural appropriation?

A Telegraph story this week reported a furore with Marks & Spencer’s latest tasty product to hit their stores. “The grocer” (a funny way to tag a huge chain of multi-department stores, I thought) introduced “Spanish chorizo paella croquetas” claiming they are “handmade in Spain.” The British Ambassador to Spain, Hugh Elliott, described the product as “wrong on every level” writing on X, “Chorizo, yes! Paella, yes!  Croquetas, yes! Yes! All together?… M&S, what have you done?”

Omar Allibhoy, a Spanish chef and founder of Tapas Revolution, said the idea was “not authentic” but he still supported it. He thought it was a concept that was not revolutionary but definitely clever. He noted that the developer was bang on the money using three of the most loved Spanish foods. There have been endless food-fights over authenticity and the line where cultural appropriation should be drawn. In this particular stoush even the paella is a subject of debate about its authenticity. A Valencian would claim only their traditional and original dish, made in the fields to satisfy the hunger of hunters (rice, rabbit, runner beans, artichokes and snails) is the real deal.

There are plenty of other examples of British chefs being accused of cultural appropriation including Jamie Oliver, in 2018 called out for his “punchy jerk rice.” “This appropriation from Jamaica needs to stop,” said Dawn Butler, Labour MP.  And the Great British Bake Off was criticised by restaurant chain owner and author of Mexican cookbooks, Thomasina Miers, when contestants wore sombreros and shook maracas while showcasing tacos and tequila.

Here in New Zealand we would have few restaurants if the chefs were called out for using “foreign” ingredients or working ideas garnered overseas for their menus. In Auckland alone we have over 80 different ethnic restaurant and each one contributes to a very colourful, vibrant hospitality scene. What’s to say that any chef, learning from visits and experiencing some of the wonderful tastes and concepts, can’t return to their own kitchen and work with these ideas? As long as it in done with respect and acknowledgement it’s hard make accusations of cultural appropriation.

Way back at the end of last century our very own Peter Gordon took ideas and international flavours and combined them in ways not seen before. He became known as the Master of Fusion, no less. Nobody squawked about that back then and he took his new cuisine all the way to London, becoming both famous and adored by both the establishment and diners. It was fascinating to also read the Word of Mouth’s Global Culinary Report 2023 this week, to learn their three culinary trends. Submitted by Tokyo food writer Melinda Joe, one centred on the growth this year of that ‘fusion-style’ cuisine. She noted the expansion of restaurants in the innovative Italian category which are taking inspiration from Japan, France, and other countries. What price authentic?

The last word needs to go to two of my Facebook buddies. Nick Honeyman, one of our top chefs (Paris Butter in Auckland and Le Petit Leon in rural France) thinks this problem is world-wide … “people are scared of what they don’t know and their insecurity projects into criticism and even hatred.” And wine maker Claudia Elze points out that chefs are constantly sharing ideas, creations and food knowledge, and we should not quash talent or creation but embrace it. Food Freedom is her plea. I like that!

About the Author

Lauraine Jacobs

Lauraine Jacobs, MNZM is one of New Zealand's best known food writers, former columnist for The Listener and Cuisine. She is the author of a number of cookbooks, including her latest work, 'It Takes A Village' is a guide to Matakana. Visit her site

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