What makes a dish authentic?

Akamen: red-hot pork-based ramen made with Sudden Death hot sauce and Hakata style noodles. Served up at Bakuya in Yokkaichi, Japan.

Akamen: red-hot pork-based ramen made with Sudden Death hot sauce and Hakata style noodles. Served up at Bakuya in Yokkaichi, Japan.

Have you ever experienced the following? You’re out to dinner with some friends and someone orders an ‘ethnic dish.’ “I love this,” they exclaim, “It’s…” and without missing a beat, another friend interjects “…it’s not really authentic *insert nationality* food.” Everyone falls silent as the joy of their meal has been diminished. Now, without deconstructing the constitution of the person making such a retort – as that simply mires us in an distasteful war of semantic attrition – we’re faced with a question, what makes a dish authentic? At great risk of letting existentialism and nihilism wreak havoc in the kitchen, let’s explore this question.

As seemingly obvious as the answer may appear at first glance, most explanations melt like ice held to fire. The word ‘authentic’ arrived in the English lexicon via a mess of linguistic appropriations. Examined at its roots, ‘authentic’ comes from ‘authentes’ which is a Greek word combining two ideas, the self – ‘aut’ – and the doer – ‘hentes.’ As every person is a unique individual, they are bound to interpret and render information in different fashions. Thus an impasse.

The self is fraught with unique baggage regardless of whether one comes from a collectivist or individualist culture. Simply having a certain cultural heritage is not enough to denote authenticity in cooking. What transpires in one family’s kitchen differs vastly from another’s. If there were no variations between kitchens, we could never claim to know who makes the best version of a certain dish. Just as culture isn’t passed down via intangible bloodlines and no one is born with the innate ability to cook, the assumption that only people of a certain cultural origin are able to prepare particular dishes is absurd.

So what then? If neither self nor culture is the answer, is it the ingredients that make or break the authenticity dilemma? Again, this becomes tricky as we must first decide when and where (historically speaking) a dish came into being. Regional variations in soil and climate affect the availability and quality of ingredients. Such variations alter the final product of a dish. The historical time-frame would also nullify most comparisons between the original conceptions and today’s renditions. Authenticity would have been lost long ago.

Additionally, just as families migrate and cultures merge, so too do ingredients. The lowly potato is the perfect specimen to demonstrate the migration of crops and ingredients. Genetic testing has proven that the genus origin of all potatoes can be traced back to the Andes in what is modern day Peru. Although the domestication of potatoes was likely completed between 7,000-10,000 years ago, the crop did not spread beyond the Andes until roughly four centuries ago. This means that a key ingredient in so many traditional foods, from soups to stews, dumplings to skewers  wasn’t readily available until very recently around the globe. The same can be said of maize and chilli peppers. Neither of these crops left the Americas until the late 15th century. I’ll leave you to connect the dots on your own, but suffice it to say, these three crops alone revolutionized the ingredients of many culture’s traditional cuisine.

This leaves us in a bit of a predicament. One would assume – and rightly so – that dishes prepared in their country of origin are authentic, but what then do we do when novel ingredients from abroad such as the aforementioned replace or compliment ingredients in traditional dishes? Do we call it fusion? Well, if we did that every time it occurred, we would once again lose the right to describe any dish as authentic. So then, instead of fusion, let’s call it culinary evolution.

Now then, can culinary evolution only occur within the country of origin or are the diaspora able to aid the evolutionary process? When people migrate, they are in all likelihood more readily exposed to novel ingredients than those who remain in their country of origin. However, that doesn’t negate the possibility that such ingredients will not make their way back to the country of origin at a later date. Are the diaspora allowed to participate in culinary evolution? I would argue yes, of course. What then of the people in their new community or those who travel between cultures? How do they fit in?

Remember what we said earlier about chilis? Prior to their introduction to Southeast Asia, pepper corns were used to add kick to dishes. A culinary revolution of sorts occurred which altered dishes in those regions forever. What we are left with when we step back from the mess we’ve just made is a continuation of style, form, and technique. Ingredients come and go, but the base remains relatively unchanged. That is where authenticity can still be found. Simply because it’s not a carbon copy does not de-authenticate a dish. It just goes to show us that our myopic conception of authenticity is skewed by our inability to extrapolate ourselves from immediacy and view culinary tradition through the eyes of history.

At the end of the day, authenticity is nothing in the face of time. Sure, some twists on dishes are more extreme than others when considered outside of a historical context, and we might rightly be justified to call them fusion in the here and now. But as Nietzsche once said, all tradition is created tradition. There is nothing static or sacred about tradition except how we interpret it in the moment. Although there is something to be said for learning and mimicking the traditional roots of recipes, they will always be rendered differently due to self interpretation. They will also forever change as time passes, so enjoy your food and stop bickering about authenticity.

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