For the last several years, there’s been a culinary shift and belief that food derived from foreign cultures should seek to be authentic or feature authentic elements. It’s appears that younger consumers—those in the Millennial and Gen Z age brackets—are driving this greater interest in world culture. Meanwhile, there is a general, larger shift among US mainstream consumers to be more conscious of the true nature of world cuisine.

Is that premise as simple as it seems, though? The Culinary Institute of America hosted its annual “Worlds of Flavor” event this spring and several speakers questioned the nature of “authentic” cuisine and what it means to appreciate food from cultures not our own. 

First, what many food professionals typically refer to as authentic foods likely are more accurately “traditional” foods. Recently, there has been some blowback to the term “authentic” as though cuisines in other countries don’t evolve. In fact, just as it happens in the US, cuisines abroad are evolving to remain relevant to a changing population. 

This was best expressed by Chef Thitid Tassanakajohn (“Chef Ton”) the chef and owner of restaurants Le Du and Backyard By Baan in Thailand. He strives to take traditional Thai dishes and re-invent those dishes to make them both relevant and appealing to younger consumers whose lifestyles and tastes have changed. If traditional dishes don’t evolve through creativity and innovation, then much of these traditional cuisines will cease to exist. We see the same activity in America with such classics as mac & cheese, red velvet cake and cornbread, which are often offered in a wide variety of new flavors, applications, and formats.

Of course, identifying something as traditional requires an understanding of traditional foods from that country or region. Using terms such as traditional or even authentic place the onus on the manufacturer to ensure the foods offered are truly that. Today’s consumers will check and do so at the point of ordering or sale. 

Other chef presenters made it clear that authenticity can mean bringing back or protecting cultures lost or under threat. Chef Monique Fiso, chef-owner of Hiakai in New Zealand, spoke eloquently about bringing renewed respect and appreciation to Maori cuisine by using traditional techniques and ingredients combined with her Michelin-star training. In Brazil, Chef Manoella Buffara, chef-owner of Manu, is supporting and creating efforts to build a pride and understanding of traditional techniques, ingredients, and culinary history. 

Perhaps most relevant to the US market, Chef Sean Sherman, The Sioux Chef, is quite literally trying to rebuild a culinary culture from dishes and cooking techniques to the planting of heritage of indigenous crops. For Chef Sean, authenticity is getting an entire people to return to a culinary history largely lost during the last few hundred years.

In part, the challenges surrounding the “authenticity” dialogue may be helping to increase focus on fusion offerings. Fusion foods, which typically combine elements from a variety of cuisines and cultures, can remove the pressure of authenticity. That said, the need to honor each culture or cuisine represented in the final fusion dish remains as the elements retain their own identity while helping to build up a dish that creates a completely new experience for the consumer.

The conversation that’s started around authenticity—and how that conversation has altered the way in which food manufacturers and operators approach dishes from other cultures—is an important one.

Originally appeared in the July, 2018 issue of Prepared Foods as Traditional Tastes.