‘Not authentic Asian’ food – but what’s cultural appropriation and what’s a respectful evolution of another’s cuisine?
- Chefs invent dishes ‘inspired’ by foreign recipes and ingredients but the challenge is knowing what is and what isn’t a respectful reworking of another’s cuisine
- Chefs globally renowned for their interpretations may occupy positions that those from other backgrounds might have used to showcase their own culture’s cuisine
At Ynyshir – the first restaurant in Wales to earn two Michelin stars, and the winner of Britain’s National Restaurant Awards 2022 – English chef Gareth Ward has his version of Peking duck on the menu.
Also on offer are Iberico pork char siu, farmed Japanese bluefin tuna in a deconstructed “un-rolled” hand roll and his take on a Thai green curry with Welsh shrimp. In fact, most of the dishes on the menu are Japanese, Chinese or Thai with a new spin.
Ward has, however, never spent time in Asia, except for a 10-day guest-chef trip he took to Singapore, which he describes as “no culinary tour” – it was “long hours of cooking in a basement kitchen and going out and getting drunk at night”.
Does it bother him that he has never tasted the authentic versions of the dishes he is recreating, cooked in their place of origin?
On the contrary, he says, he is nervous to travel to Asia as it may influence how he cooks. He also believes that cooking the food he loves is being authentic – to himself.
“What I cook is not authentic Asian and I would never say that it is. It’s my interpretation of Asian food served in the UK,” he says. “I love a Thai green curry, and the shrimps here are amazing, so that’s what I cook. I just do me, and if I did anything else I would not be being honest.”
There is no doubt that what is on the plate at Ynyshir is delicious – it is 30-plus courses of flavour punches and palate swoons. However, a restaurant is more than just what the chef puts on the plate, especially one that earns accolades.
With fame, comes power – whether a chef likes it or not. Culinary masters with the power to influence global gastronomy are the leading lights that the next generation of chefs look to and emulate.
On the international stage, they may occupy positions that chefs from less dominant cultural backgrounds might have used to showcase their own culture’s cuisine.
It was the lack of global recognition of Thai chefs cooking Thai food that compelled Supaksorn “Ice” Jongsiri to open Sorn, a southern Thai restaurant in Bangkok, four years ago.
In the Thai capital at the time, says Supaksorn, “[Australian chef] David Thompson was winning accolades for his Thai food, my friend [Indian chef] Gaggan Anand for his innovative Indian, and Sühring [run by identical twin chefs Mathias and Thomas Sühring from Germany] for its innovative German, so I asked my wife if she minded if I used our savings to open Sorn – not deconstructed Thai, not a French take on Thai, but authentic Thai cooked by a Thai.”
The gamble paid off: Sorn earned the No 39 spot in the 2022 World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, the highest ever ranking for a Thai chef cooking authentic Thai food.
Supaksorn is thankful for the recognition, but his frustration remains with what he sees as sloppy renditions of Thai cuisine.
“When I’ve travelled, I’ve eaten at some restaurants that have won awards but use Thai brands of instant chilli paste, for example. I can taste it. Or chefs who cut corners with the preparation of the dishes,” he says. “That to me is a little disrespectful.”
There are countless restaurants around the world helmed by non-Asians who take inspiration from Asian cooking.
Disfrutar, in Barcelona, Spain, the technique-driven hot spot run by former El Bulli chefs Oriol Castro, Mateu Casañas and Eduard Xatruch, has a highly reworked version of Singaporean chilli crab, with the dish miniaturised and repackaged into the yolk of a golden egg.
The restaurant, now in third place on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, focuses mainly on Catalan and Spanish cuisine but serves the dish as “we like to draw inspiration from everything good and from foreign cuisines – Singapore inspires us, Peru inspires us, Japan inspires us – and anything culinary that makes sense to us”, according to Xatruch.
Then there is German chef Tim Raue, whose eponymous Berlin restaurant is ranked No 26. He cooks Asian-inspired European dishes after travels through the region as a young man made a lifelong impression.
Valentino Cassanelli at Michelin-starred Lux Lucis in Italy breaks cultural boundaries to combine risotto with a sauce of tom yum, inspired by visits to Thailand.
These are but a few examples; cooks have always been excited by foreign tastes, and have borrowed ingredients and copied recipes from elsewhere for as long as the history of cooking. This creative intermingling has resulted in wonderfully diverse cuisines around the world.
So how does a chef decide what is a respectful reworking of another’s cuisine, and what is not?
Taiwan-born Jowett Yu, who grew up in Canada before moving to Australia for an internship at Tetsuya’s in Sydney, shook up traditional Cantonese cuisine when he joined Ho Lee Fook, in Hong Kong’s Central, as head chef in 2014.
For him, there is no simple answer – how and why one should reinterpret a cuisine is an ongoing dialogue.
“The big question is: is the dish’s evolution better than the original? If not, then how can you make it so? If the wheel isn’t broken, should you fix it? Also, you need to have an objective perspective on the way the dish presents, and how the flavours come together as a whole – does it retain the spirit of Chinese cooking?” he says.
“This constant internal discourse within the cuisinier is an integral process of balancing between tradition and creativity.”
His approach took some time to be appreciated by Hong Kong diners. For the first nine months after the restaurant opened, it was largely empty and earned scathing reviews, but after a prominent overseas critic gave a positive review and big-name international chefs started coming, business took off.
Yu was familiar with Cantonese food from eating at restaurants run by Hong Kong immigrants in Australia and Canada in the 1990s and 2000s, and had previously opened a Cantonese restaurant in Sydney, but, he says, his knowledge of the cuisine improved with his years in Hong Kong.
“My cuisine got more refined and focused over the years and I delved deeper into my understanding of Cantonese cooking in Hong Kong,” he says. “It’s a bit embarrassing for me to look at some of my earlier menus, but it’s all part of the learning process.”
He says that while everyone has the right to pursue their passion, when chefs capitalise on this passion, they should “pay respect and acknowledge the cooking tradition” they are using and “make an effort to stay true to the original flavours and techniques”.
Along with drawing inspiration from other cuisines, gastronomy in the modern, globalised age has revelled also in taking ingredients from foreign lands.
There has been a move towards the local in the past two decades driven by philosophies such as American chef Alice Waters’ farm-to-table movement and the New Nordic Food manifesto, which popularised foraging and hyperlocal cooking.
But the idea that the finest restaurants must offer what are considered the finest products, be that Caspian Sea caviar or Tuscan truffles, no matter the cost, still lingers.
Ward’s approach, spelled out in words painted on the restaurant wall – “ingredient led, flavour driven, fat fuelled, protein obsessed” – is defined by what is considered “the best”: ingredients such as Japanese A5 Wagyu beef and hamachi, Canadian black cod, Australian black truffle, Irish duck, European N25 caviar, and Welsh lobster and lamb.
“The UK is not self-sufficient, we’ve always taken things from other countries – after all we conquered the world,” he says. “Ingredients are so important, and I want to serve the best, and sometimes the ingredients outside your door are not the best, so why would you use them? Having standards is important, you can control that. I would rather put my knife down than drop our standards.”
Perhaps it is the concept of what is “best” that needs to be examined. What is the best ingredient – for the planet, the country it is being extracted from, the chef and the diner? How do critics define the best restaurant and the best chef? Who is the best judge?
Do we all, diners included, need to recognise the biases we have about what is best?