Art by Hannah Singer

Eat at authentic restaurants to promote cross-cultural exchange

I turn into a dimly lit, narrow alleyway where rows of apartments, stained cement and a smoky scent greet me. I pivot, asking my mom whether we are still heading in the right direction. She nods.

Two minutes later, we reach a tiny restaurant, filled with golden light and chattering families. With a clear view into the kitchen, I can see chefs bustling about, and waiters swooping in to collect and distribute dishes.

After sitting down, we’re handed laminated paper menus, covered in Thai script and photos of big platters full to the brim with steaming vegetables and fried fish. When the food arrived, the dishes were not only delicious, but they were also authentic.

When I say authentic, I don’t mean a typical restaurant which serves tasty food, constantly packed with families on a Friday night. To me, authentic means a local and usually small restaurant run by people who grew up around the cuisine they serve.

Furthermore, authentic restaurants are often located in ethnic neighborhoods, and the price of the food is not expensive. While it might take longer to search on Yelp for authenticity, the experience is worth it.

Eating at authentic restaurants is a win-win for both the customers and the restaurant, because customers get to experience a different culture while supporting the families who run the restaurant.

When my family travels, we spend time scoping interesting neighborhoods for authentic restaurants before arriving in the city in order to steer clear of tourist traps. By spending the majority of my time in smaller, more ethnic neighborhoods in which people of the same culture live in close proximity to each other, I learn more about the people living in a given area, whether they are native to the land or immigrants.

For instance, when I went to Barcelona, I spent a large chunk of my time discovering hidden Spanish restaurants, art galleries and boutiques. However, I also spent a small amount of time in an Italian neighborhood close to where I was staying. While the Italian food I ate was not typical Spanish food, it was authentic because I dined at a local restaurant owned and operated by an Italian immigrant family.

When people eat at authentic restaurants, they are often eating traditional recipes that were passed down from one generation to another. Sometimes, restaurants must alter the traditional recipe due to lack of unique ingredients, or to produce a greater quantity of a dish. While these alterations might not give customers an identical experience as being in a different country, the history, lifestyle and values represented in the dishes being served remain the same. Customers not only have the opportunity to try distinctive flavors, they also have the opportunity to learn about the culture of the cuisine they are eating.

Eating at authentic restaurants can also reduce your environmental impact by minimizing your carbon footprint. Since authentic restaurants are typically local, one can decrease the distance they travel, which would decrease carbon emissions.

Some people might say it is too much work to find authentic restaurants near them, that the food is only for adventurous eaters, or even that the experience is too expensive. Initially, it may take an extra 10 minutes searching for the perfect place, but once you’ve started seeking authenticity, you most likely won’t resort back to eating at Americanized restaurants with duped dishes.

Picky eaters might say they are afraid to try authentic dishes because of the unfamiliar ingredients. However, without trying, these people will never experience anything new, let alone try an authentic ethnic dish. By not trying new foods, picky eaters are not opening their eyes to cultural diversity.

Seeking out and eating at authentic restaurants can open everyone up to new cultures, as well as minimize environmental impact. So, instead of eating at an overpriced, American chain on your next meal out, find a restaurant that specializes in serving a cuisine you are interested in learning about.