Authentic Food – What Does it Really Mean?



“The food was outstanding, it was really tasty, I loved it but it felt like it lacked the authentic flavour of the region”, an enlightened customer proclaimed.

“Which region? I grew up over there and this is how we made it in the family.” retorted the owner of a twelve-seater restaurant.

“I have been there too. I stayed over there like a local for two weeks. We were taken to many places where they served the original version of this.” added the live-like-a-local customer.

“So, you mean to say this is not original?” frowned the proud owner.

“Uhh, well no, it is an interesting take. I have to hurry. My Uber is waiting.”

On the table next to the conversation, I was wondering.

What does Authentic mean?

Derived from ‘authentikos’ meaning “original, genuine, principal” the word was traditionally referred for any work of art that is original and not a copy.

What do you mean by Authentic food?

Source and age determine authenticity, in general. In food, you want to trace where a certain dish originated and who started it.

Authentic or not? Street Food
Street food. Photo by Craig Adderley from Pexels

Authentic Food – Dilemma #1 — Source

You can objectively tell if an Apple phone is genuine, authentic or not. You can trace design, manufacturing and assembly points, although the box sheepishly mentions ‘Designed in California’.

The authenticity of it does not depend on who the line-worker was or how ecstatic she felt when wiping a special polish onto the LCD screen for the twelve hundred and thirty second time in the day.

An iPhone is an iPhone. Remember?

But with food, lines disappear. Like people, with people — food migrates, mixes and evolves and hence, not a linear derivative.

An underlying presumption of authenticity is its refusal to acknowledge that cultures fuse and can not be contained within borders.

Authentic Food – Dilemma #2 — Age

Authenticity is often linked to vintage. Rustic, peasant-era like processes, going back to the good old, natural ways. What it ignores is that if something is the way it is now, it is because the original way did not adapt enough.

The peasant loaf might sound fancy but you might not want to have what they had during constant stretches of famine and drought.

McDonald’s will be the celebrated authentic peasant dish, fifty years from now. Large coke, please.

Authentic Food – Dilemma #3 — Originality

This is not the way it is done, say the live-like-a-local, enlightened reviewers.

Thanksgiving without turkey? Not authentic.

However, the ‘First Thanksgiving’ recorded in history in 1621, did not have the bird. In the 1840s, the idea caught American attention when Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol.

‘Till 1860s, it was not a federal holiday until Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it as the national day of thanksgiving and praise on the last Thursday of November.

Would The Feast of the Seven Fishes be Italian or American? To claim one as authentic is to proclaim the other as not original.

Authentic Food – Dilemma #4 — Technology

Authentic makes technology sound industrial and unwanted. Wood-fired, masonry ovens, handmade — make for great baits on the menu, Instagram and your wallet.

Technology is seen as opposed to going to your roots. The fact is, technology can make us better cooks.

Authentic Food – Dilemma #5 — Taste

You can not, not like the taste. That is how it is has been prepared for the last 123 years, authenticos tell you.

But why? Why not?

Also used as an excuse to hide mediocrity: feign expertise and lack of creativity.

Authentic Food – Dilemma #6 — Creativity

The authentic food ideal often removes spontaneity from cooking: Don’t add this or it will not be authentic.

To cage something as authentic is an antithesis to the democratic nature of food and diminishes the individual.

Photo by David Egon from Pexels

Authentic Food – Dilemma #7 — Discrimination

The notion that food belongs to a certain culture or caste often leads to disasters. The Penang government introduced a law in 2014 restricting foreign cooks to touch street-food in an attempt to safeguard authenticity.

It also leaks into the normal world when one expects a sushi chef to look a certain part, or a Chinese restaurant to be in a certain way.

Authentic is a silly out of context technicality on which we should not be losing our heads. It is nothing to build walls around. It is noise.

Photo by from Pexels

I Did Not Mean It

Of course, not all of us mean ill-will when we remark about how authentic something was.

In an Instagram and review fueled food world, where hashtags precede enjoyment and there is a need to nerd out on elaborate reviews, things can get sincere to pretentious very fast.

It is great to be proud of ingredients and history but defending it as yours only, is another wall that we are building to divide ourselves.

Maybe we should just use another word.

Maybe we should not use a word at all.

..and let food be celebrated the way it is rather than fighting over who owns it.


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