AUTHENTICITY. What is authentic food?

It happens so often that you hear people discussing ardently about the authenticity of a food or a dish, how a risotto alla milanese, or paella valenciana, or coq au vin in this restaurant is more authentic than in the one next door. The question is though – who is the one to decide which is the real authentic version? And how can you be actually sure?

It’s not really written in one specific book or legislated by a higher authority, really. Every grandma probably has her secret ingredient for that specific dish, so does that make it her authentic version, or is it part of the general authentic dish of that culture?

This article was inspired by a fantastic read in my once loved Lucky Peach magazine that closed a few years ago, and it really made me think. I actually started writing this piece about 3 years ago but I just picked it up again and the subject feels even more interesting today. You can read the article by Todd Kilman on ” The Problem of Authenticity” on Lucky Peach, you can still buy it online.

Lucky Peach food magazine - The Travel issue
One of my favourite Gastronomy magazines ever. You can still get them online at some places, even thought the first issues are now selling at more that 200€. I’m lucky to have the whole collection.

I used to be quite a food nazi, always searching for the “authentic”, but after reading this article, I really started to understand that food and gastronomy in general have been evolving since the beginning of human history. It is very difficult to define authenticity, it might be a dish or a product that has a longer history to it, but nowadays especially with globalisation, people travelling so much and moving to other parts of the planet, trying to recreate their traditional foods with the available ingredients, create new versions of their traditional foods. We don’t eat the same traditional dishes from the Roman times, or much from the Middle Ages, imagine that Auguste Escoffier only in the 1900s switched from the service à la française, where dishes were served all at once on the table, to service à la russe where there would be a sequence of a menu and dishes would be plated before serving to the guests. That was only some 100 years ago!

If you want to know more about who Auguste Escoffier was, one of the greatest chefs of the human history!

Let’s be honest, what is not authentic today, might just become such in a decade or so, because of the continuous evolution and fusion of different cultures that now with the possibility to travel anywhere becomes an inevitable fact. 

If we look more closely at the Mediterranean Diet, it was born mostly thanks to the blend of many different cultures, religions and cuisines with similar ingredients, but it is almost impossible to define what an authentic Mediterranean dish or cuisine is. It is not specifically Italian or Greek or Spanish or Moroccan etc. It is a fusion of cultures and a fusion of gastronomies.

Hummus with sumac, tomato, lemons, feta cheese, olives, cucumbers, dried apricots, walnuts
Photo by Sophie Mikat on Unsplash. Beautiful ingredients we would nowadays callas authentic Mediterranean

We can’t really say when the Mediterranean Diet appeared, but if there hadn’t been exchanges between different social statuses, between the Old and the New Worlds, merchants from different nations, discovery of new places, and a continuous evolution of different dishes and ingredients, there wouldn’t be a Mediterranean Diet. You probably can’t even imagine how many different typical ingredients inseparable by now from the local cuisine of the Mediterranean Basin have come from such far places as Oceania and South Asia, like, rosemary, legumes, basil. So is a tomato an authentic Italian vegetable? From my ignorance many years ago I would have been so sure that it is an authentic Mediterranean food, even though it originated in the Americas! Imagine, if tomatoes had never been brought to Europe, there would be no pasta al pomodoro in Italy, no sofrito in Spain, no typical Greek tomato dishes that I can’t even pronounce the names of.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Rather than the product itself being authentic, it is the attitude of people in relation to it. I had a bit of an identity crisis myself at some point about authentic Latvian cuisine while I was studying for my Gastronomic Sciences Bachelor. The one food that I really miss while living away and that is present at all of our celebrations all over Latvia is Shuba (Seljodka pod shuboy) – literally “Herring in fur” from Russian. Maybe you don’t know this but in an independent Latvia, the official language has always been Latvian so it’s kind of funny that one of our authentic dishes is with a Russan name. It is basically a layered vegetable and herring salad with mayonnaise and sour cream, that became a “traditional” dish in Latvia during the USSR. It is quite recent history really, but in such a short time a dish can become something authentic to many people.

I can’t say that Shuba is an authentic Latvian dish per se, if we look at some very old cookbooks of more than 100 years ago, but it still feels like an indispensable part of me being Latvian.

I guess what I am trying to say with this is that authenticity may be translated in many ways. Something authentic for one person might be something that is not for another. The important factor very often just might be the emotional link between the people, the place or the occasion. 

With that said I believe the evolution of Gastronomy is something fun and interesting to look forward to, now more than ever as the world keeps changing, we can look forward to new interpretations and new flavours. I don’t think we should cannibalise traditional dishes, use 100% different ingredients and call it the same name as the original one, because let’s be honest.. It is not the same thing really. But why can’t we give the new version its own name? Create new flavours, use local, high quality and fresh ingredients!

Have fun with it and remember to share your culture, learn about the cultures of others and remember that food is to be enjoyed!

About

Graduate in Gastronomic Sciences, Q Arabica Grader, WSET L2 in wine. Obsessed with cooking new recipes, I love visiting producers and travel for food!

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