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Traditional, Authentic, and other bothersome notions

  • b


I am not a member of the politically correct word police. I believe that you should say what you mean, and mean what you say. I do from time find myself bothered by the use of the use of words like traditional, authentic, real...you get the picture, in their context to food.

Chowhound touches a vast community of food lovers. Often in the discussion of our repast will be mention of some "really great authentic Jamaican jerk pork" or "the best, most genuine, dim sum I have had in years". My problem is not with a Chowhound illustrating that his meal passed muster for ethnic purity. It comes from the fact that we are establishing a level of correctness. I don't see the sense in debating whether vidalia onions or walla walla onions are correct for "South Sioux City onion rings" (please note that the previously mentioned dish does not exist, it is a product of Mr. Nelson's overactive imagination and is used purely as a tool to make a point)

My point is this cuisine, regardless of it's ethnic background, is always in a state of evolution. Regional cuisines are what they are based plants and animals that thrived in an area from day one. As our world shrank these regional cuisines were influenced by new ingrediants as they became available. some stuck, some didn't. I can't fathom Italian food without tomatoes. Italy, however, had never seen a tomato until the mid 1500's. Being a member of the Nightshade family, they were though to be poisinous. It took another century or so for pomodoros to find their way into the Italian kitchen. A similar example can be made of polenta. Corn came to Europe from the Americas. Now dishes with corn and tomates are widely accepted as "traditional" Italian fare.

I'm O.K. with making mention of deviations that are far from the norm. In a past thread on California's Bay Area board there was discussion of an Indian restaraunt that used olive oil, rather than ghee, in the prepartion of it's food. Is this food no longer "genuine" Indian food because of this deviation? Stuff like this is common in California.

What do you think? What makes an ethnic restaraunt genuine? Is it possible for a chinese cook to make "traditional" soul food? Is it right to label a place as bogus? Does anyone know where I put the lid to this can of worms?


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  1. You're reminding me of a funny experience that I had a few years beack.I was drving towards Atlanta,from Alabama,looking for some 'local' food in the endless strip mall-o-rama.Finally,I see a place called Paw Paws' home cooking.I go inside,and it'a a cafeteria,completely staffed with Chinese cooks and counter help.The food was good!But in a ever more homogenized world,we're looking for a connection to other places or past memories ,through the food that we eat.

    1 Reply
    1. re: m.k.

      I encounter a similar issue as a teacher. Three weeks ago my 6th graders were starting tapestry weavings, and were beginning to work out designs. One Sac & Fox student just sat and stared. Early on, I'd have nagged him to get started, but I'd learned to leave him be because he eventually comes up with very personal original ideas (which is the main thing in 6th grade art, to me) Midway through the next day he came over and asked if he could weave a dream catcher. Now, he's Sac&Fox, dreamcathers are, I believe, Oneida, but everybody makes them now. So we went through the supplies and I found a large stainless-steel hoop and we decided to start Monday. That weekend I worried about this kid making (from a very traditional family) a stainless steel & acrylic yarn dreamcatcher. I phoned a Chickasaw/German friend who feared it would have nasty plastic pony beads on it and Faxed me a photocopy of an Oneida dreamcatcher. I cut and bent a Myrtle branch. I went to a nearby town's trading post for simulated sinew. Monday I gave him a wide choice of materials, no explanation, and he looked at me like I was insane and grabbed the stainless steel hoop. He wove a beautiful bald eagle on it (original design) and is really proud of it (so am I) and it is on display in the hall. Now we're tapestry weaving an eagle feather on a rainbow background. (He also plays french horn and wants to be a surgeon)

      In short, the lesson I re-learned is that materials and techniques change, but authenticity comes from within the individual doing the creating.

    2. Hmm. Gonna wade in here. Have a variant of this discussion often with my friends, Wheels and The Gentleman Attorney.

      I like to use Chinese cuisine here as an example as its flavors have been in my mouth since childhood, it is my mother tongue.

      Most of the time when I taste fusion cuisine of the chinese/western variety, I think to myself, "why do they/I bother?" Authentic Chinese cuisine (when you can get it) is the result of several thousand years of balancing flavors and perfecting recipes. Most chefs don't have the chops to even get these dishes RIGHT, much less presume to modify them.

      In general you'll get a better, cheaper, less pretentious meal at a restaurant that hews to the traditional than at a fusion joint any day. Truly authentic cuisine requires skill, attention to detail and a commitment to getting it right. It is the work of millenia made manifest on the table.

      Which is not to say that cuisine can only be truly good if it comes from a recipe carved on an ancient scroll handed down unchanged from time immemorial. Traditional cuisines often lack certain ingredients not because those ingredients were tried and found wanting, but simply because they didn't have them. The Chinese traditionally ate no chicken, beef or corn. These ingredients have been brought into the canon by chefs who truly understood the cuisine and the dishes created with them are uniquely chinese dishes.

      I guess what I'm trying to say is that one has to be steeped in a cuisine to cook it well. To fuse two cuisines and do a creditable job, you have to be a master of both. So far, I've only encountered one chef who manages to pull this off and that is Tadashi Ono of Sono. The other who appears to have a similar ability although I've never eaten his food is Masaharu Morimoto. That these men are both Japanese says something about the Japanese attention to detail, strong apprenticeship traditions and fondness for novel cuisines.

      Before enlightenment, chop wood, fetch water. After enlightenment, chop wood, fetch water.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Roger Lee

        "Before enlightenment, chop wood, fetch water. After enlightenment, chop wood, fetch water."

        I came across this (Zen?) saying a few weeks ago and have been circulating it since. Nice to see it here!

      2. j
        Janet A. Zimmerman

        I do see your point, but I think you're confusing "delicious" with "authentic."

        It's one thing to ask whether a dish tastes good, but it's another one entirely to ask whether it is authentic. Certainly there's a point beyond which a dish has changed so much that it really can no longer claim to be the original dish. To use your example, suppose your onion rings were made with, say, turnips rather than onions, and boiled rather than fried -- then could you still call them "Sioux City Onion Rings"?

        Or, to use a real example, it might seem overly picky to argue about whether an authentic Boeuf Bourguignon should contain any tomato paste, but at the other end of the spectrum, you can't decide you'd rather use pork than beef, white wine rather than Burgundy, and add sauerkraut, and still expect to call your dish Boeuf Bourguignon. It might be that the pork dish is great indeed -- that is not the question at hand -- but it is undoubtedly not Bouef Bourguignon.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Janet A. Zimmerman
          Brandon Nelson

          Hi Janet

          Not confused really. I often find someone attacking whether something was authentic or not when it was just bad, or unsatisfying.

          I often use the term myself. My favorite victim is the "Red Hen Cantina" that lies just North of Napa. The place has a great location, and a huge patio. During the spring and summer it is a tourist trap in every sense of the word. They serve "Mexican" food. The menu is geared towards the W.A.S.P. tourist that has little to no experiance with spicy heat. Aside from sliced canned jalapenos there is nothing to keep your tongue awake. It is not bad food (I must mention that I did get a horrible case of food poisining there once), but when I am in the mood for Mexican, I want something a little more spirited and spicy.

          I guess what I'm searching for is feedback on the frequent misuse of some very ticklish words. I know where I draw the line between to notions of bad and not authentic. I was curious to see what responses a thread on the subject would prompt. Thanks for being a part of it.


        2. The mythical attribute of absolute "authenticity" is, of course, something that's deviated from each time a chef thinks for his/herself and injects--in even the tiniest ways--personality or creativity into the process. It's impossible, even for the most uncaring chef, NOT to inject--if only inadvertantly--iotas of personality or creativity into the process. There is no true "purity". But nonetheless, there are streams that are further from the source than others.

          Like most chowhounds, I'm concerned mostly with deliciousness. Give me something that tastes really wonderful and I'll think much less in terms of authenticity, because I'm communing with the heart and soul of whoever created this experience for me. When eating a really great tamale, I tend less to sigh "Ahhh....Mexico!" than "Ahhh....Nuria!"

          So I think for most eaters authenticity is an issue which arises mostly in reaction to food that's not particularly good. Our palates are unstimulated and our fancies are untickled, so we start analyzing and speculating. And inauthenticity is one of the symptoms we can wag heads and cluck tongues over.

          There's a difference between a confident, talented chef who's going his/her own iconoclastic way and a confused chef who is just bastardizing/diluting aimlessly. The former is doing something new and inspired, while the latter is caught out in the cold, with neither tradition nor personal vision to guide the results. Sorry, chef, but risotto Milanese shouldn't be made with Uncle Ben's rice or seasoned with oregano. You're being clueless, not creative. You're missing the point. You are being (yes, I dare say it) inauthentic.

          There is, wedged in between those extremes, the concept of "fusion" cuisine. I think it's a totally artificial and silly term. You're either doing something fresh and personal (in which case you're inherently bringing the disparate elements of your background and experience together in what you're doing), or you're cooking more or less from a tradition. Truly fresh, innovative cooking busts categories. To create a category to capture the very concept of innovation is ridiculous. Sort of like The Society of International Iconoclasts, it's for people who talk a good game. Indeed, fusion is a concept that's been nurtured by marketing people and food consultants.

          Sorry...digressing (to reply to that part, please start a new thread)

          Authenticity is a slippery matter indeed, and there are people (only one recently on this site, who seems, thank goodness, not to have returned) who do yield the term with a disturbing tone of ethnic chauvinism. My take, to sum up, is that "inauthentic" is an important term to describe someone who's tried, cluelessly or cynically, to cook from a tradition and failed. And "authentic" is a difficult, less-important term for something that evokes a tradition. Which is, philosophical complications aside, a real phenomenon.

          I've spent much time in Spain and have had trouble finding cooking here that recalls what I ate over there. I've eaten very good food that happened to be shaped like tapas (which I enjoyed greatly), and bad food shaped like tapas (which I decried with extra venom because of its inauthenticity). But though the place has become mega-inconsistent, I've had a few things at Manhattan's Xunta that recalled so strongly what I'd had over there that I had no choice but to grin widely and say "yep, that's the real deal. This is really authentic".

          It's an experience most of us have had, and there's nothing wrong with boiling it down into a word...even a troublesome one!

          1. I think "traditional" can be a useful adjective to denote that a certain well-known dish is prepared in accordance with certain long-held customs.

            For example, one would expect that a traditional Jewish-style chicken soup wouldn't contain cilantro.

            It's hard to find a traditional (and delicious) chicken pot pie in Manhattan -- one that's made with a dough crust surrounding the filling like a pie, not with a layer of puff pastry plopped on top.

            1. I enjoy delicious food, authentic or not, but when I order something, I expect to get what I ordered. Small subtitutions are fine, but huge deviations in flavors aren't. If I ordered grilled fish with sauce "A", I would expected to be served grilled fish with sauce "A" and not sauce "B" or "C". Similarly, if a restaurant proclaims the presence of mee siam (a noodle dish commonly found in Singapore, simply as an example) I would expect to be served mee siam, and not rice noodles in some unsual tangy broth that I have never tasted before. It could be good, and maybe really really delicious, but I'd like to get what I ordered. If I had wanted rice noodles in some unsual tangy broth I would have asked for that. And some days, I probably would. But for today, I'd prefer to have mee siam.

              My gripe with "authenticity" and the lack thereof is mainly with the "honesty" of the menu. If you can't make mee siam, don't call it mee siam. Call it by some other name - it would still smell just as sweet. And I and many others would certainly be adventurous enough to try it.

              I've learnt that it helps to adjust your expectations a little, not lowering standards but loosening them, when eating certain cuisines here (at least in SF). It's certainly improved some of my eating experiences here.

              4 Replies
              1. re: Limster
                Brandon Nelson


                You will have to indulge me in borrowing the line "loosen you standards, don't lower them" frome time to time. It's a great one.

                I am having some real fun with this thread. Agree or disagree with the responses, they have been thoughful and interesting.


                1. re: Brandon Nelson

                  One thing in this thread has amused me greatly. That being the question " who are these mysterious arbiters who decide what is authentic / traditional and pass it down to the great unwashed" I believe there ARE patterns that can be found but having grown up in a family where my mother and her sisters ( all taught to cook by their mother ) all produced great food - each to her own style . I looked forward to every family dinner as a chance to sample many variations on familiar themes.
                  To try to freeze a living art like cooking into rigid patterns is fatuous.

                  1. re: Gene
                    Dr. Julius Kelp

                    I'm with Roger Lee. What develops in a local cuisine over a period of time is what is authentic, and we rely on serious researchers/writers like Bugialli to bring it into our kitchens. In answer to the question--I can see it coming -- "what's important about authenticity," I would argue that, in an evolved cuisine, such as Italian, the authentic version will virtually always have attained a balance and perfection that is the product of generations of trial and error. When you adhere to such recipes you not only prepare some good food, but you can often appreciate techniques and the relationship between ingredients that have developed over time. That, at least, is how I learned to cook. If, after time, you want to divert, so be it. My personal feeling is that with most of these traditional dishes there's no need to embellish. They have attained a degree of perfection that wants nothing more. So if I continue to prepare bucatinni all'amatriciana (sp?) the same way, it's because Bugialli's recipe is so good I see no reason change it. But either way, I feel strongly that until one has learned the basics, and for me the authentic is basic, there is no foundation for flights of fancy. Moreover, if Italian is a great cuisine, it is these traditional recipes that comprise its greatness. Alter the dishes, and you are altering what made the cuisine what it is, and then you have what?

                    1. re: Dr. Julius Kelp

                      Beautifully expressed!

                      If I were to disagree at all, it would be with the implied notion that folks don't have the right to create their variations. To my mind and taste, they do, only so long as they make clear that's what they're doing. However, to do so effectively, they have to--imo--understand and perhaps even be proficient at the original first.

                      My theory-in-the-making is that some people have a great need for "excitement" and find themselves quickly bored with traditional dishes, desiring constant change in place of adherence to prescribed renditions.

                      That would be more understandable if one even began to have available the multitude of original preparations--from countless regional cuisines around the world. Hundreds of regional French, Italian, American dishes, as well as thousands of Asian and other European treats, go totally unrepresented in most of the world's restaurants (I don't mean to omit any other regions, just don't feel the need to mention each to make the point).

                      To go even farther afield, I feel the same way about folks who embrace the philosophies/religions of other cultures before becoming familiar with those of their own culture.