Food is something more than a commodity to be reviewed; it says a lot about the society that prepares and consumes it.
Thinking About Food posts are my effort to explore food issues. Have you ever pondered the below?
- Why are premium ingredients (ie Angus beef) once exclusive to fine dining showing up in lower end dining like fast food?
- Why value seems to influence a person’s like or dislike of a meal when it has very little to do with the food served?
If so, I hope you enjoy these posts and share you thoughts in the comments section.
A friend once told me that they had a delicious meal at a local restaurant but the dishes weren’t authentic, not like what they had in Thailand so as a result they probably wouldn’t return.
Huh? You like the meal, so what’s the problem?
What is it about authenticity that is so important to some food experts?
I’ve never been a fan of using the word authentic when describing food especially when describing ethnic cuisine outside of their place of origin. I prefer the word traditional, as it seems like there is more leeway with the term.
Authentic has many definitions, with one being according to Merriam Webster, “Not False or imitation”, so by default if you live in Vancouver, nothing is authentic with the exception of west coast first nation cuisine. I personally believe that if one wants authentic Mexican, Italian, Peruvian, etc you need to travel there to experience it.
Food prepared outside of the region of origin, even a good copy made with traditional ingredients and techniques, may not taste exactly the same for a number a reason. For example, water taste different around the world, ingredients are prepared differently in different regions (European cheese vs. North American cheese) and local soil can affect the taste of crops (ie San Marzano tomatoes). Other factors like equipment used, appealing to local consumers and local laws, further complicate people’s attempt to faithfully replicate a dish.
It doesn’t mean that unauthentic food is bad, on the contrary, it can be absolute delicious even though it does not mirror the real deal. It can serve as reminder of places visited long ago or be a primer for you can come to expect when travelling.
Food is a cultural gateway, so the defense of food authenticity with regards to your own culture’s food is understandable since by extension you are defending your ethnic heritage. Tex-Mex has its own history but it’s not the story of Mexico.
However what about those of us who just had the good fortune to travel to far off places with no cultural ties? What right do we have to police authenticity in food when we return home? Does a 10-day trip make anyone an expert on culture and food of an entire foreign country?
A lot of time when I see reviews or read discussions about restaurants, the term authentic is often used to condemn them more often than not; the golden hammer that ends all debate.
If a restaurant is serving poorly executed food, it is just bad food no need to bring authenticity into the discussion. Sometimes I feel some people using authenticity to write off a restaurant without really trying it.
An example of a lazy and possibly uninformed review goes like this, “It’s not authentic because when I went to Japan that’s not what they served me so therefore this restaurant is bad.”
For me, well-executed food is good food regardless if it is traditional or bastardize. If the food allows me glimpse into a culture and furthers my understanding, it adds to my appreciation but doesn’t make the dish tastier.
So, people who are sticklers about food authenticity, are they cultural defenders, traditionalists, travel braggarts, lazy restaurant reviewers or something else?