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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Friday, June 30, 2017

Authenticity is In the Eye of the Beholder

The most overused word in the foodie universe these days is “authentic.”  And, to avoid accusations of hypocrisy, I freely admit that I have probably used the word myself. How many times have you heard someone mention—usually with a tone of self-satisfaction—a restaurant where the food was the authentic embodiment of some country or people’s cuisine (usually the more exotic the better)? Really, how would they know? Have they actually been to Kerala region of India? 

So what does it mean for a particular dish to be “authentic?” More importantly, authentic to whom, when and where?

The increased culinary emphasis of authenticity is a blessing and a curse—the product of the increasingly diverse nature of culinary options in America today. Thirty years ago, we couldn’t have talked about an “authentic” Indian or Vietnamese restaurant because we were lucky to have a third-rate Chinese restaurant serving lo mien. Now, we have cafes offering banh mi sandwiches with southern style barbecue sauce. But does that make that banh mi any less authentic than one served from a truck in Hanoi? 

A recent trip to Huntington, West Virginia, provides a perfect example. I was in town on business; it was late; I was hungry. Like many of us, I grabbed my iPhone and pulled up the Urbanspoon app and found a place called Black Sheep Burritos and Brews. It got a pretty good rating and seemed halfway decent, so I decided to give it a try. I thought I’d find the typical burrito there, but to my surprise, they served one with Hawaiian pork-confit with a grilled pineapple glaze, shaved red cabbage and fried plantains; and one called the “Bulgogi,” with ginger and sesame marinated flank steak, kimchi, and cilantro Dijon and smoked  cashews. The one that really caught my eye, however, was a curry burrito. Vindaloo spiced chicken with smoked peach chutney, seasoned rice, all topped with a curry sauce.  Of course, this is not even remotely “authentic” Indian, but then again neither is chicken Tikka masala (the national dish of England).

A nation’s cuisine is not monolithic. It is inaccurate to speak of one kind of “French,” “Italian,” or “Indian” food because what people eat varies so widely within their own borders. Classic haute cuisine in Paris would be foreign to people raised on the rustic stews of Southwest France. The red sauce that Americans associate with Italian food is rarely found in the cuisine of Northern Italy. And what most Americans consider “Indian”—a country of a billion people—comes from just one rather modest-sized region. If anything, authenticity is a concentric circle that expands outward from the home to the larger world. The authenticity of my mom’s fried chicken did not extend past the front door, and North Carolina style barbecue ceases to exist once you drive into South Carolina. Authenticity is also about time, as much as place, because like any human cultural endeavor, cuisines evolve over time. For example, what is “American” cuisine? Is it jelled veal from colonial New Hampshire (yes, this is a real dish) or a turducken? 

With the world getting smaller and the international travel ever more routine, maybe one day there will be something called “world cuisine,” the last concentric circle. Pizza is seen as American more than Italian, with a pie from a NYC pizzeria no less authentic than one from the Piazza Navona in Rome. Heck, you can get chicken Vindaloo burrito in a small restaurant in Huntington, West Virginia!

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