It is important to maintain cultural integrity when borrowing others’ cuisine
Food is more than just what we eat. It’s a celebration of culture, ancestry, life, and family. Every dish has a history, which is often deeply ingrained in heritage.
Understanding the value of where food comes from is important to keep in mind when re-creating it for yourself, especially if it is not originally from a culture you grew up in or were a part of.
With that said, it is common for outsiders to eat, make, and even sell food dishes that have roots in a culture that is not their own. Making a profit off food that is outside of one’s culture is fine, but it is important to remain respectful of its roots.
“Maintaining cultural integrity while meeting customer expectations takes patience and dedication. To achieve it, regardless of what industry you’re in, it’s important to always remember what you’re working toward,” writes Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s senior field marketing manager and small business expert, in a column published on Entrepreneur. “With every decision you make, make sure it checks all the boxes — both something that won’t jeopardize your cultural integrity and also creates an experience or product that you’re proud to deliver to your customers.”
When starting a business selling food from outside your culture, it is important to be transparent about who you are and acknowledging that you are, in essence, borrowing it.
This is important for a number of reasons, perhaps most notably that it is impossible for the dish to be as authentic as if it was made by a cook who grew up with it as part of their culture.
Katrina Kollegaeva, a food anthropologist, cook, and writer, told The Grocer that a customer would be misled if they went into a restaurant under a false impression that they were getting an authentic dish.
“The consumer trying the dish may assume that what they are eating is how the dish is made or eaten in the culture where it comes from,” Kollegaeva said.
As a restaurant owner borrowing another culture’s cuisine, it is also important to do your research so that you understand all of what your food is, how it is made, and everything in-between.
Kollegaeva told The Grocer a restaurant owner may even need to Google certain terms, words, or even learn a language to try to be as authentic as possible, even if it is time-consuming.
“On a day-to-day basis, most businesses wouldn’t be able to do that, but engaging with the question of what your food is called is ultimately part of your social responsibility,” says Kollegaeva.
Another way to attain greater authenticity when opening a restaurant serving food outside of one’s culture is to bring in cooks and staff that grew up surrounded by the dishes.
Not only does this make the dishes more authentic, but it helps ensure the food is created with the cultural integrity needed to make it true to its origins.
Vanessa Pham, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees and co-founder of Asian food brand Omsom, discussed the concept of cultural integrity during a table talk last year with Hudson Kitchen.
“For every culture that we’ve represented, we have an acclaimed chef who’s working with us to make sure these flavors are true to their origin,” Pham said. “Our tastemakers have such a high bar when it comes to flavor, but we trust that, and we knew the flavors they chose would be true and authentic to the culture.”
One of the biggest challenges, according to Pham, is being able to acquire the right ingredients needed at a large enough scale to be able to make the dishes as authentic as possible.
“That’s why certain Asian products taste the way that they do, whether they’re diluted or just not the true taste of what it should be,” Pham said. “It’s much easier to source these products on a restaurant level.”
In the end, Pham says she is unwilling to compromise on maintaining cultural integrity or authenticity when it comes to her dishes, as it is at the core of why she started it to begin it.
“We’ve heard people say they get a sense of home when using our products,” Pham says. “That just means the world to us.”
Opportunity, of course, also matters. Being able to help bridge the gap between cultures is something that can go beyond a single restaurant owner, but one that can be guided by larger corporations as well.
Marks & Spencer, a British retail company, recently began collaborating with The Black Farmer, selling the brand’s jerk paste, which is based on a generations-old family recipe from its founder, Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones.
Emmanuel-Jones, who was born and raised in Jamaica, told The Grocer that the partnership is a big step in recognizing the history of Black culture in English dishes.
“After years and years of fighting to gain recognition of Black contribution to British history and cuisine in the food industry, this move alone represents giant strides towards achieving that goal,” Emmanuel-Jones said.
Do Your Research
In the end, as it is with all things, it is important to do your research. Making sure to use the correct ingredients and cooking dishes with the proper methods will go a long way in making your food more authentic while staying true to its cultural integrity.
Obtaining ingredients from the region that the cuisine comes from will not only make your food more authentic, but is also a way to financially give back to the culture from which you are borrowing.
When in doubt? Don’t be afraid to reach out to other chefs who may have more expertise in the cuisine you wish to sell, in order to gain important knowledge about the meanings behind the recipes.
Finally, understand that you are borrowing something you did not originally create, but by showing respect, you can still do right by the culture you are taking it from.
Just remember, food is more than just food.