Authentic food, as we understand it, is bullshit.
That was the realization that dawned on me as I continued to stubbornly pound ginger into a Thai curry paste a while back. “Ginger is not a substitute for galangal”, so I’ve been told.
It’s true, ginger isn’t a substitute for galangal, and using it won’t help you understand Thai flavors for what they are, but that doesn’t make it inauthentic, it makes it untraditional —my curry wasn’t a Gaeng Kiaw Wan, but it was still a green curry.
I can rarely get galangal, I’m not Thai, and I don’t even live in Thailand — how the fuck could my curry be “authentic” anyway?
Could a curry made by an Australian in Mexico, with Mexican ingredients, even be authentic? Does my mortar and pestle have to be from Thailand? Is it authentically inauthentic? Who gets to have the final say?
It seems the answers are few and far between.
At some point in time over the last decade, authenticity became the new hot topic. The rise of social media and access to information gave would-be food critics a voice on every food imaginable. The word “authentic” became a qualifier of a dish. One you’d go out of your way for — the real deal. If you weren’t eating authentic food, you were wasting your time.
But it soon turned into an insufferable barrage of foodie hipsters obsessing over the most obscure and elusive dishes, over-explaining history, or demonizing any type of fusion.
And chances are, you’ve probably found yourself taking part in the action, searching Google for authentic recipes in the hope of experiencing food exactly as people do in that particular country.
Haven’t we all.
But here’s the problem…
Authenticity is entirely subjective — every family in every country is different, and everybody’s idea of authenticity is different.
Who the hell decided what authentic Thai was? Or Italian, or Mexican, or any cuisine for that matter? And that’s disregarding the even more-complicated topic of regional cuisine.
I’m not saying don’t bother learning different cuisines and studying why dishes are the way they are. Of course not. But, you shouldn’t be framing your understanding around what you think is authentic — how could you know for sure?
The word authentic implies an absolute cuisine; one that’s the be-all-and-end-all and not only would anything different pale in comparison, but it’d also be appropriation.
As Andy Ricker — owner of the restaurant Pok Pok and author of the book by the same name— so elegantly put it:
Both terms [‘authentic’ and ‘traditional’] are non-sensical designations — as if traditions are the same everywhere; as if they don't change; as if culinary ones don’t evolve with particular speed.
So what do we even mean when we say authentic? Are we even sure of what it means anymore?
Authentic is defined as “being what it is claimed to be; genuine. But it seems authenticity is about aesthetics as much as anything else.
In a 2015 study of the subjectivity of authenticity with Mexican restaurants, Stephan Christ found the use of the word depended significantly on the customer, not the chef. The customer’s preconceived notion of what Mexican food was ultimately shaped their perception of authenticity — regardless of how authentic the restaurant claimed it was.
Are the tomatoes in Italian food not genuinely from the Americas? The chilies in Thai food, not genuinely Mexican?
As it turns out, the flagship dishes that define the cuisines we all know and love are made from foreign ingredients. Tomatoes made their way to Italy in the 15th or 16th century from Mexico and now encompass Italian cuisine. Beef didn’t make it to Argentina until the 16th century, and chilies to Thailand, until the 17th century when the Persians landed there from the Americas.
Cuisines as we know them today are the result of centuries of immigration and cultures melding, sharing ingredients and techniques along the way.
I could ask ten of my friends in Mexico what an authentic salsa verde is and get almost ten different answers — and I mean Mexicans from the same state. One family’s salsa is no less authentic than another’s by the very nature of two existing simultaneously in the same country.
One salsa can’t be more Mexican than another.
Or take Tacos al Pastor, one of the hallmarks of Central Mexican cuisine. A hilariously-overlooked (by most foreigners) example of Lebanese influence on a dish that has become truly Mexican.
It isn’t a coincidence that it closely resembles Shawarma. It practically is shawarma — made by Mexicans, in Mexico, with local ingredients, but no less Lebanese in origin.
According to Antonio Trabulse Kaim of the Mexican-Lebanese Cultural Institute, there are as many as 800,000 Lebanese people and their descendants now living in Mexico.
The word authentic has only really ever been used as a descriptor for ethnic (non-white, non-european) food. Typically, the smaller and harder to find, the better. Extra points if that Ethopian chef doesn’t even speak English, I mean, they must be slinging authentic food.
It’s not. Traditional it may be, but authentic, no.
Authenticity can’t be standardized and it can’t be stagnant. When you take something, like food, out of its culture, you’ve reduced it’s possibilities to evolve .
As the times have changed, so have the traditions and dishes we all know and love; the food we call our own.
If you have a chef in the United States cooking food from their homeland, they can’t be cooking authentic food — authentic is something different back home. The best they can hope for is traditional, and the definition of that isn’t much clearer.
There’s no right way to cook any particular recipe. There’s your way, and then there’s somebody else’s way.
No recipe’s universally — or even locally — accepted as the norm.
Just as money and race are social constructs, so is authenticity. We’ve given the term an almost limitless power to define and qualify food, but it’s ultimately ours to define or reject altogether.
It shouldn’t be the bar to which we measure a cuisine, especially those of ethnic groups, and it shouldn’t limit our creativity in the kitchen — because is there any point in cooking if not to experiment with what feels and tastes good?
It’ll always mean something different to different people, but we can begin to unravel it by understanding every definition — and consequence — of the word.
Authenticity will probably always confuse people, and we’ll probably continue to misuse it, but we can move forward by trying to understand every definition — and consequence — of the term.
For now, let’s get back to experiencing food for what it is — delicious.