Yes, but is it authentic?

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A comment on our review of Kawa-Sake and a couple elsewhere got me thinking about the notion of authenticity.

I spent a few months in India a long time ago – up north – followed by a few weeks in Nepal. A lifetime ago, really, in the context of this rave.

More recently, but getting older by the day, I spent a lot of time in New Orleans and South Louisiana, chasing food with the same fervour I chased the music. But all that’s of only limited relevance to the food covered by Consider The Sauce.

Those two examples aside, a quirk of my life is that I’ve never set foot in any of the countries whose migrants to Australian have so enriched or collective lives.

So my impressions about the authenticity of the food we eat and buy is based solely on what I learn along the way, from talking to the food business folk themselves, to friends who have travelled to the countries concerned and a great deal of enthusiastic reading.

I’m under the strong impression that the most genuinely unchanged migrant food is the humble pho.

I’ve met a bunch of folk who have travelled to Vietnam and maintain the pho there is better than the pho here.

But that’s a different issue.

As far as I can see and learn, issues of comparative quality and regional variations aside, pho is pho whether you be in Vietnam or Footscray.

It’s tempting to conclude that the food served up so lovingly by our community of Ethiopian restaurants is identical to that served in Ethiopia itself.

After all, these are newish residents whose memory and cooking of their homeland is still a first-generation living, breathing thing.

But even here, appearances are deceiving.

For one of the foundations of Ethiopian food – injera – has long been baked here using a mixture of grains chosen to replicate as closely as possible the tiff with which it is made in Ethiopia.

Does that make it not authentic?

How about Indo-Chinese food – so much the mongrel it incorporates its fluid nature in its name?

In fact, I’d wager that within the Indo-Chinese food style pretty much anything goes and there’s not a soul who could question its authenticity.

From central and eastern Europe, Greece and Turkey through the Middle East and on to East Asia, the food styles appear to overlap and borrow from each other with such chaotic abandon that it is sometimes hard to gauge where one ends and another starts.

Japanese food is, like all the other cuisines covered here, these days very much an international food, and like all the others is bound to change as it travels.

Whether that means the various mutations can or should be called “Japanese” is arguable.

Just as it is arguable that vegetables deep-fried using panko crumbs should not be called tempura. (They should rightly be called, I believe, fuurai.)

But if panko crumbs can not tempura make, what to make of the widespread use in Japanese food of mayo? Or noodles and curry, for that matter. I’m sure there are other examples of Japanese food harnessing outside concepts and products.

These are just a few examples of the sort of issues that are raised in all sorts of foodie media – which methods or ingredients go, or do not, into making a perfect, “authentic” laksa or biryani or  curry or goulash.

Being peeved as a punter if a restaurant does not live up to its own self-description is one thing and is up to each individual, although I believe the very notion of authenticity is very much a moving target anyway.

Being irate at deliberate misrepresentation is not the same thing as criticising a restaurant’s food on the basis of what it is not, which can seem a little on the perverse side.

7 thoughts on “Yes, but is it authentic?

  1. I used to consider ‘authenticity’ essential, especially after I lived in Thailand for four years. When I returned to Melbourne, I found the Thai food here to be nothing like that which I had eaten in Bangkok. I particularly hated that they replaced the tiny bitter green aubergines with peas. I later modified my criticism a little, because Bangkok is just one area of Thailand and cooking styles vary: flat bread, for example, is not part of central Thailand’s cuisine, but it is down south; the only times I’ve had tomatoes in tom yum have been in Melbourne, but that’s not to say somewhere in Thailand doesn’t include them (though I don’t believe tomatoes are traditionally grown there).
    As I get older, I realise that food, like you say, is an ever evolving, changing thing and that the word ‘authentic’ is open to interpretation. I believe curry is now the No. 1 food in the UK, but it’s different there to what it is in India (they have chips with it in the UK, for a start). That’s not to say the UK versions are not authentic… in the UK.
    When I went to Athens in the late 1990s, I was horrified when I ordered souvlaki and they poked fries in the top. Apparently, that’s how the Greeks mostly eat souvlaki now.
    I generally find pasta dishes in Australian restaurants not very good, though I have had some great pasta here occasionally. In Australia, pasta has evolved to become very highly sauced. But I like it Italian style, with a minimum of sauce. Ditto pizza: your super supreme Aussie version dripping with all manner of toppings would be laughed out of town in Rome, where pizza is thin, crispy and sparsely topped (the way I like it). But, I guess food evolves to suit its market. Aussies wouldn’t take kindly to paying for the type of thin, thinly topped pizza you get in Rome (nor their luke-warm cappuccino).
    I now believe food is not about authenticity at all, but about taste, quality and enjoyment. If I can say it tasted great, it was made of really fresh produce and I had a good time eating it, well that’s all I can ask for.

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    • Hi Caron! Yes, I’ve long had the same sort of sniffy attitude towards cajun and New Orleans food in Melbourne. Though the mobile Gumbo Kitchen is a mighty leap forward in that regard. While in many senses there seems some merit in preserving traditions, in recent decades mass international travel and wars causing so many refugees, keeping track of it all seems impossible.

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  2. Interesting thoughts. As you know, I find “authenticity” really intriguing. Take pho, which seems like a truly authentic Vietnamese soup – its origins are unclear but it’s only a relatively recent Vietnamese creation, inspired by either Chinese soups or the soupy French “pot au feu” (feu = pho). Even pad Thai, that apparent cornerstone of Thai food, apparently just means “Thai-style noodles” and are Chinese noodles cooked for a Thai palate.

    To me, authenticity is less important than tastiness. I don’t really care if it’s “not authentic” if it tastes good. We had lobster rolls in New England at a locals-only seafood shack – they were awesome. I am sure a Golden Fields lobster roll is equally delicious, despite the fact that it’s not really authentic, with its Kewpie mayo and minuscule proportion!

    I guess places run into trouble when they bill themselves as “authentic” but then are not. Look at the tricky issues surrounding the Cajun/Creole place, My Mexican Cousin. They seemed to charge ahead without doing a lot of research, just trying to capitalise on the American/dude food trend. Outback Steakhouse in the USA bills itself as Australian but you or I would be hard-pressed to find anything familiar on its menu of “coconut shrimp” and “bloomin’ onions”.

    Anyway, rambling on but ultimately I think if it tastes good, everything else is just background noise.

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  3. Laksa, one of your examples, is a hard one to comment on for authenticity. There are so many varieties, Sarawak, Singapore, Nyonya, Assam, Siam, all very different to each other. I am sure there are others out there as well that I’ve never come across. Combine that with individual variations that are still ‘authentic’ and what does an authentic laksa actually mean?

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  4. Lauren’s point about My Mexican Cousin led to some interesting reading! Worth googling!

    Maybe we’re suss about the term ‘authentic’ because it can sound a bit pretentious (‘Darling, the Tibetan food in Melbourne is SO not authentic’), and it’s thrown about by all the new hip no-booking restaurants (run by people who we suspect have little connection with that country or culture).

    Maybe what’s great, though, is when restauranteurs offer the sort of dishes they grew up with? They don’t have to try to make them acceptable to the Aussie palate? It’s exciting! And they’re championed by your blog, Kenny.

    ,

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