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Jan 25, 2007 12:19 PM

Does authentic always = good and does un-authentic always = "un-good"?

As I peruse the boards, I occasionally ask myself this. In order to qualify as good chow, must a dish be authentic? And can an unauthentic dish ever be considered superior chow? I ask because it seems that for some members, authentic is a pre-requisite of being good chow (see discussions of Tex-Mex, Thai, Chinese, and taquerias, for example).

Frankly, I could care less if a dish is "authentic" or not, as long as it is delicious. For instance, my recent trip to Angie's Mexican restaurant yielded excellent carnitas tacos. Authentic? I have no idea. But they tasted great! Others might quibble with the cut of pork used, or whether the size of the tortilla was the original. On the flip side, I've been told that the Bob Armstrong dip at Matt's El Rancho is "authentic" or "the original", yet I thought it was just average - authentic or not.

And for those that DO insist something be authentic, who is the arbiter of what is and is not "authentic"? If you gathered 100 of the best chefs of Mexican cuisine and asked them for an "authentic" mole recipe, how many different recipes would you get?

Anyway, talk amongst yourselves...

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  1. If the Bob Armstrong dip is "authentic Mexican", it certainly isn't like any authentic Mexican food I've had. I would say it is authentic Tex-Mex -- a creamy, soupy, melted yellow-orange cheese with a bunch of stuff thrown in.

    While I'm pretty much a gringo, I'd imagine authentic Mexican would involve white cheeses, queso flameado, or something like that. I bet one of the big brains on Chowhound will be along shortly to answer that point. In my opinion, Angie's is much more "authentic" than Matt's.

    Like you, I simply enjoy eating what tastes awesome. It doesn't matter to me whether it cost twenty cents or twenty dollars; it doesn't matter to me if a dish is prepared in the Ancient and Revered Tradition of Atlantis or was prepared in a way that occurred the chef five minutes ago. A place can be the hippest of the hip, or the lamest of the lame, and I still wouldn't care. When evaluating the food, I consider only the food.

    I guess I have to ask: What the heck does authentic even mean, when applied to foods? An adherence to a predetermined style? If authenticity doesn't generate deliciousness, then who even cares about it?

    An authentic hundred dollar bill? Important, because a forgery is probably worthless. An authentic Picasso? Same deal. An authentic meal? I don't care as long as the meal's deliciousness quotient rock my socks off.

    12 Replies
    1. re: tom in austin

      Let me take your metaphor farther. An authentic dish would be a perfect representation of what that dish was meant to be originally. So in a sense an authentic piece of art (picasso) is still just a representation of the ultimate goal of the dish, which itself was probably a product of fusion or neccesity.

      That said, there is inherent value in the authentic. It is important to see what went into making a dish that became very significant for whatever reason. Just like watching someone authentically reproduce a picasso, in the same way he did, would be a very revealing experience. (or for some, a Jimi Hendrix performance). However, we recognize that this isn't a possibility. If someone gets very close, then it has value, but outside of that it seems to me that we should recognize every dish for what it is, a product of past experiences with the immediately available resources.

      To me it's a terribly inauthentic enterprise to try to produce a dish that doesn't take local ingredients and traditions into consideration. Some think authenticity is about a specific dish, i think it is about the whole dining process. The moral of the story? I love Chipotle.

      1. re: amkirkland

        Sure, but... What is wrong with the creation of whole new cuisines? Be it deliberate or spontaneous, as long as it is delicious, who cares?

        A master chef might not do something "authentic" -- for instance, they might use some spices or ingredients when making Thai food that were never available in Thailand or the surrounding countries. As long as this enhances the dish, why complain? I don't want authentic Thai food nearly as bad as I want DELICIOUS Thai-esque food.

        1. re: tom in austin

          I think I miscommunicated. In that third paragraph I meant local to where you are currently. So in New Mexico, you should be using hatch chiles in stuff, regardless of the origin, or what is "authentic." I'm totally down with delicious is the key. I just want to say there is some benefit to a truly authentic dish, but not striving for it in all cases.

          1. re: tom in austin

            I'd say it's about setting expectations. If I go to a Thai restaurant, I expect Thai, not Thai-esque. I am disappointed if it's not authentic, because I expected it to be the real deal.

            On the other hand, if I go to an Asian fusion restaurant, I'm all for Thai-esque.

            I'd also add that when most people complain about something being "inauthentic," what they really mean is that they think it's been diluted or "dumbed-down" for mass appeal or cheap production. Can this result in deliciousness? I'd say occasionally, but more often than not, it leads to blander, less interesting food.

            1. re: oolah

              Oolah, I agree, with one minor quibble: Necessity is the mother of invention. The necessity to make delicious-yet-cost-effective food can lead to new inventions that either improve food quality or introduce new ways of doing things that aren't necessarily worse than the original way.

              Over time, these new ways become "authentic" traditions of their own. For example, chicory was originally put into coffee because it made coffee production cheaper; now, some people think it is a delicacy. Provel cheese was originally used in St. Louis-style pizza to make pizza production more affordable. Now, people who were raised on St. Louis-style drive miles to get a slice that has Provel. Another example: the introduction of the pressure cooker to make fried chicken both time- and cost-effective.

            2. re: tom in austin

              This reminds me of the historical performance debate in classical music circles. Would Bach have approved of the piano for his fugues? Probably. But, some people think they should be performed only on the harpsichord, despite the range of dynamics offered by the piano's action, and the way the fugue subject and its variations can be brought out on the piano, simply because the harpsichord is what was around when Bach was writing.

              Similarly, if a dish can be improved for some palates with the use of non-authentic items not available in that region. what's the problem? However, I should add the caveat that I certainly have times when I strive to be very authentic, and also make meals where my goals are different from authenticity.

              Authenticity does not necessarily equal good.
              Inauthenticity does not necessarily equal bad.

              One example: my highly-cultured food snob FIL has spent quite a bit of time in China and Japan and says that he thinks American chinese food is much better, although it's not authentically chinese. Still prefers Japanese food in Japan, though.

              1. re: IndyGirl

                To continue the music metaphor: The Beatles borrowed from Chuck Berry, but they obviously weren't black Americans; they were British white guys. Would we argue that their music is "inauthentic" and thusly innately inferior to Chuck Berry? Or would we sit back and let them continue to create and synthesize, using whatever influences they could draw inspiration from?

                I see it that way with food, as well. Just as appreciation of the roots of music helps you appreciate today's music, appreciation of the origins and inspirations of the food you're eating probably helps you enjoy it even more. But there is no requirement that food be authentic to some classical form to be good. Rather, it simply must be good.

            3. re: amkirkland

              Can't help but reply here.....your description is akining food to Plato's allegory of the cave.....I sense a blog post coming on.....

              1. re: mrbunsrocks

                NICE! What we consume is not the true food ideal, merely the shadows of that food cast on our plates.

                1. re: mrbunsrocks

                  oh no! I didn't even notice that when i wrote it. Plato gets his foot in whatever door he can i suppose.

                  1. re: amkirkland

                    Please, no Foucaultian deconstructions on the "burrito-ness" of the burrito. That way madness lies, along with "lots" of "quotation marks."

              2. re: tom in austin

                Point of clarification - I don't believe I was claiming Bob Armstrong was authentic MEXICAN. Everything I've heard is that the dip us the authentic/original queso dip...perhaps my verbiage wasn't clear on that. Anyway, I agree with your assesment of the issue!

              3. I want the food to be good but there are some traditional dishes that should not be messed around with. I was horrified to find a recipe for Saigon Hoppin' John in a recently published new southern cookbook. That is just so wrong!

                4 Replies
                1. re: Candy

                  Mongrelization of cuisines is part of what makes the Western hempisphere so wonderful. My neighborhood, for example, is full of Trinidanian and Guyanese Chinese joints... and I'm sure Soul Food, Cajun cooking and Italian-American cooking traditions all came about from the cheerful and necessary bastardization of recipes from the old country. And takeout Chinese is a fascinating cuisine unto iteslf. Inauthenticity is what makes us American; I'd give the Saigon Hoppin' John a try.

                  1. re: Yaqo Homo

                    I guess I did not make the point clear enough. mongrelization is okay. But if a cookbook is trying to pass itself as authentic and classic as this one did, then Saigon Hoppin' John has no place in it. It may be tasty but it belongs in a book of bastardized recipes.

                    1. re: Yaqo Homo

                      It's not just an American or Western Hemisphere thing. Indians have their own version of Chinese food, as do Koreans. In fact, I had a Chinese dinner in Paris that was definitely French-influenced. Turkish cuisine has been borrowed from and modified throughout the old Ottoman empire. I think the assimilation and transformation of others' cuisines is a very human thing and can often result in new forms of deliciousness.

                      It all probably goes back to some anthropoid giving another a bunch of his favorite roots and getting peeved when the recipient sprinkled it with some tasty little white crystals he had stumbled upon - creating the first "inauthentic" dish.

                    2. re: Candy

                      The term "Saigon Hoppin' John" may be new, but the combination of rice and black eyed peas is very much a Vietnamese dish. It is available at many places near where I live in Arlington, VA.

                    3. More often than not, "authentic" is a buzz word used for PR purposes when it comes to cooking. My concern is not how authentic something is, but how delicious it is.

                      Here in Phoenix metro, we have a restaurant called Chino Bandito. It is a funky place that is a Mexican, Asian and Caribbean fusion place. Nothing fancy or expensive, but the food is fantastic. Things like the Jade Chicken Quesadilla or the Egg Foo Yong Burrito or the Refried Beans and Pork Fried Rice are stellar, but hardly "authentic."

                      I don't worry too much about the whole "authentic" label. I want something that makes love to my palate. Both authentic and inauthentic foods can do that.

                      1 Reply
                      1. I think taste is most critical. However, you can't use the name of something and completely change it. For instance, if you were going to make baklava, it would have to bear a great resemblance to authentic bakalava. If it's made with puff pastry (rather than phyllo) and melted jam (rather than honey) and fruit or something in with the nuts, then you really have to distinguish that it's not really bakalva. You can say "Fruited Baklava" or something like that, but it's not baklava.

                        A true example of this - I was at a local restaurant and ordered a Caesar Salad. This salad came out - carrots, tomatoes, no romaine whatsoever, other assorted vegetables, and a couple of croutons. When the waitress set it down, I said, "Oh, I'm sorry, I think you misunderstood. I ordered a Caesar Salad." She said, "That is a Caesar Salad." Before I even realized what I was doing, the words popped out of my mouth, "No, it's not." She said that was the way their chef ("chef") made a Caesar Salad.

                        I guess I'll open a restaurant and put a piece of parsley on a hot dog and call it filet mignon!

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: luv2bake

                          LOL, you do have a point ... I once made the mistake of ordering "peach cobbler" at a fancy restaurant ... it involved (unripe) peach, but not cobbler. Huge mistake ...

                          I'm a big believer in authentic Tex-Mex. I used to work with a bunch of H1-B guys from all over the world, and when they would ask to be taken out for American food, I usually took them to eat Tex-Mex.

                          1. re: luv2bake

                            I got in such trouble with my BF when I won a chili cook-off with a white bean, no-meat chili that included a full 16 oz of sour cream in the recipe (an Epicurious recipe).

                            He said "That's not chili! Next year I am going to enter a picadillo criollo and call it chili and I know it will win because it tastes so good!"

                            1. re: luv2bake

                              Yes, that's annoying, and I hate those "indiana caesar salads." YUCK!

                            2. Well, as far as authentic/inauthentic, I think it is one of those things that "you have to know the rules before you can break them". That is what fusion is about...knowledge of two different cuisines and combining them for new food experiences. It can go terribly wrong too...I had a flash of Taco Bell coming out with a foie gras chalupa with butter sauce..... I believe though, that some inauthentic cuisine has become authentic cuisine in and of itself-american style chinese food is a good is probably an even better example--not an authentic italian food, but it has branched out and you can have authentic new york style, chicago style, california style, boston style apparently too. I tend to think authentic is kind of an arbitrary thing.

                              3 Replies
                                1. re: sunshinedrop

                                  I'll thrid that...know the rules before you break them. I'll add, having a connection before you break them helps too.

                                  1. re: sunshinedrop

                                    Ummm, pizza is most defnitely authentic Italian food. Just sayin'.