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May 5, 2008 03:35 PM

Authentic-What Does It Mean To You?

I, for one, would like this word to go away from our lexicon.
It seems that american/- (insert the cuisine of your choice) is no good unless you can find
the "Real Deal".
Is this valid, or just an elite view that doesn't take in to account our great country and the mutations/variations that take place?

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  1. It's not that I have anything against regional variations - look at the thread on "Chicken Fried Steak" for examples of how that dish varies from place to place, or the multiple variations of chili. But when I see something billed as "authentic", I do expect to get the real deal. For example, I have dined on sweet and sour chicken in Hong Kong. There, the sauce is as much sour as sweet, the chicken is not rolled up into little balls, but are flat pieces with a light, crispy batter. The sauce is only lightly thickened with corn starch, so it's fairly liquid. It is quite delicious. So, when I see a place here in Toronto offering "authentic" Chinese food, and I get a sauce that seems to be 50% sugar, has so much corn starch it could conceivably be used as wallpaper paste, the chicken balls are deep fried to the consistency of rock (I actually chipped a tooth at one spot biting into one of these), and are coated with so much breading, they are as much batter as chicken - well, I feel both disappointed and misled.

    Same thing with BBQ (check out the Ontario board for a thread on this). There are a bunch of places here that claim to offer "authentic" Texas/Memphis/Carolina/KC BBQ, and they are all terrific disappointments compared to the real thing (half the restaurants don't even have a smoker!). If a place wants to offer "BBQ ribs" that are boiled, grilled or baked, and slathered with a sweet sauce, that's fine with me. Just don't fib by telling me they're "authentic" when they're nothing of the kind.

    7 Replies
    1. re: KevinB

      What makes you think the food in Hong Kong is any more 'authentic' than what you got in Toronto. My Grand-mother-in-laws are both Cantonese. born and raised in china. One in the very rural parts of Canton, and the other in one of the larger cities. They disagree about most dishes as far as how to make them and what ingredients are authentic. It just depends on what was avaiable in that region.

      Both of them deny that Hong Kong style dishes are Chinese food. One calls it "Brithish Food." 150 years of colonial rule has changed it substancially.

      All 3 styles are good. All three are radically different. All three are authentically something, I just don't know what.

      1. re: KevinB


        The one big problem is, “authentic” to what? Take Carolina BBQ, for instance. Do you mean Eastern Carolina BBQ, Western Carolina BBQ, or Upland Carolina BBQ? All with some similarities, but really quite different.

        Same thing for Chinese cuisine. Where in China? What Provence? China is a very large place, with hundreds of different cuisines.

        We get drawn into this same debate, on the Southwest Board, with “authentic Mexican” cuisine. Which state? They differ radically from one another. In AZ, most people speak of Sonoran. In TX, it is much different. Same for So. Cal - Baja, which differs from almost every other state/area in Mexico. Which would YOU say was “authentic?”

        There is an on-going debate on gumbo, on the New Orleans board. Some folk have claimed that there are “rules,” for the various recipes for gumbo. Well, I’ve had gumbo, that was like an almost clear broth, over rice, with a few tiny shrimp and some herbs. This was from a fifth-generation Cajun in Donaldsonville. I’ve also had gumbo, that was almost black and had to be eaten with a fork. Rules? What rules? Who is authentic there? Also, I’ve had many hundreds that were in between, and these were recipes that had been handed down for generations. Wife’s is thick, is mostly, but not exclusively, seafood, and is dark brown. She comes from New Orleans stock, with Cajun and Parisian chef ties. Which gumbo is “authentic?”

        “Authentic” Hawaiian is something that I also know. However, while attending Allan Wong’s New Wave Lu`au, I got the same dish, from the same island, but done differently, just because of the family recipe. All were “authentic,” but differed greatly, depending on whether the family was from the North Shore of O`ahu, or the Honolulu side - not to mention the various sides of the other islands.

        I’m with the OP. “Authentic,” is usually a marketing term, and should not be taken to heart. Even tiny spots, like O`ahu, have strong variations on the same dish.


        1. re: Bill Hunt

          Variations on a dish is always thrown up as something that negates any value in using the term authentic. Baloney. At the extreme of the argument, if someone were to take a bowl of chilli and call it gumbo, it wouldn't be authentic gumbo by even the widest acceptance of authentic gumbo. Authentic doesn't mean that there can't be a broad range of variations, but at some point it stops being authentically whatever it was supposed to be.

          Authentic is a useful descriptor when the parties involved share an understanding of what it means to them. If I take my in-laws to a burb sushi place and they like the california and philadelphia rolls, it is absolutely useless for me to tell them that this isn't very authentic sushi. But if I'm talking to my Japanese salaryman friend and we discuss a new place I went to, and I say that it was authentic, he understands what I'm saying. That one word communicated a great deal of information, concisely.

          Authentic is a word that often gives away the user's level of understanding. As you said, saying authentic Mexican isn't a very meaningful term, but it could be used by someone who understands that Tex-mex isn't all there is to Mexican food. If they were to say authentic sonoran, authentic yucatecan, then you would guess that this person understands Mexican food better.

          I don't agree that it's a marketing term, but if a restaurant had a sign that said authentic bbq, it would definitely set me up with some expectations. I would look forward to any of the styles you mentioned, as well as those of Memphis, St. Louis, KC, and Texas. I would expect low and slow cooked meat, cooked over embers, although an adjunct heat source would be acceptable. What I'd be pissed off with, would be sweet sauced up baby back ribs, cooked in the oven with a splash of liquid smoke (like at a Chilli's chain). I'd be even more pissed if I got a hamburger or a hot dog at a bbq. These non-authentic foods might very well be delicious, but they would not be authentic bbq.

          1. re: applehome

            Agree very much. To me authentic refers to a range within which certain dishes can vary from the traditional context. There can be variations which are all authentic. Furthermore, there can be degrees to which a dish is similar to the genuine versions, it's doesn't have to be a black or white thing, and to some extent, it will depend on the threshold of the person.

            I care most about authenticity in the labeling sense -- it helps me figure out what is in the dish and how it's made, just like the words "roasted" and "chicken."

            1. re: applehome

              The word 'traditional' works perfectly fine as a descriptor. 'Authentic' tends to be either a value judgement or a rubric so broad as to be meaningless. As I noted below, one hound on the International board was grousing about finding 'authentic' Belgian cuisine in Brussels. I was gobsmacked. We had been recommending traditional fare in excellent and respectable spots-- the most delicious of items. But meanwhile, this hound kept asking for authentic. I finally asked what he meant. He had no idea and confessed as much.

              ETA: Marketing isn't restricted to chains, BTW.

              1. re: applehome

                Applehome, I really like your elegant defense of the term "authentic." I would agree that in the proper context, this word can convey a lot of important information.

                Unfortunately, one does not need a license or certification to use this word. The marketing world has co-opted this term and devalued its meaning and relevance. The same thing occurred when the term "organic" began appearing on food items. Although government legislation has improved the understanding of the term "organic", there is still some confusion. However, it has become easier to figure out whether something is "organic" because the term has been defined by a regulatory body.

                To a certain degree, authenticity has been regulated by governments for specific food products such as cheese, wine, certain meats. We have the French system of AOC food products, the Italian DOCC system for wines, etc. When you buy an AOC cheese, or an AOC poulet de Bresse, you know that you are getting a product that has been produced in a certain way with certain ingredients, and of a certain quality. You also have the context of who the governing body is, so at least you have some idea that someone with experience has designated this product to be worthy of a label. I think this is the closest thing we have to a standardization of the term "authentic". But even this system has significant marketing implications, as evidenced by food/wine producers who don't conform to the regulations, lose their status, and lose market share.

                It is easy to regulate and label a food-making process. It is much harder to regulate a cuisine, so I don't think we'll be seeing AOC cassoulet anytime soon. There are just too many regional variations. One only has to travel between neighbouring Italian villages to see how acrimonious arguments about cuisine can get.

                In the absence of strict guidelines, the term "authentic" remains a vague idealized notion that requires clarification on the part of both parties. You can label something authentic. I still need to do some legwork to figure out what criteria you have used to make this statement. Are you an artisanal cheese maker who uses a generation-old recipe to make raw milk cheeses? Are you a Philly cheese steak vendor whose been living and eating in Philly for years? Are you an avid fan of jelly beans who takes every opportunity to sample beans from around the globe? I still need to figure out your context in order to get meaningful information from your use of the term "authentic" (not to mention your agenda! Are you trying to sell me a bridge?). Similarly, you need to figure out what I understand when you say "this is authentic". Am I a food historian? Am I looking to recreate a long-lost memory of a childhood food experience from my hometown, or am I looking for food that has been validated by experts in the field? Oh the baggage that comes with the term "authentic"!

                I wouldn't want cuisine regulated anyways. I revel in the variations and regional differences that arise when different people step into the kitchen to cook.

                I have known many immigrants and children of immigrants who have gone back to their country of origin, and been very disappointed with some of the "authentic food". Ingredients aren't as good or as readily available. Also, cuisines evolve, and sometimes the older, "more authentic" version of a recipe can be preserved in the enclaves of an isolated immigrant population, but change dramatically in the country of origin. Which version is more "authentic"? Difficult to say.

                BBQboy, many thanks for starting this thread. It is always fun to read so many interesting, informed opinions, and to have this great dialogue.

            2. With global movement and tourism, these days the word "authentic" really doesn't add up to a hill of beans. In some cases the difference between "original" and "regional variation" are fairly obvious. Pizza is one where I feel this is fairly easy to figure out. The difference between Chicago deep dish crust, or how in some parts of the world they add corn - compared to "authentic" pizza in Italy is obvious. However, with plenty of other foods or cuisines things get a lot more murky.

              I know that "authentic" Irish cuisine is one that has gotten really murky given the numbers of immigrants who left Ireland. Many Irish left Ireland, and brought what Irish food was at the time to where they moved and/or adopted their style to new ingredients (i.e. corned beef). Those Irish immigrants continued to cook their Irish food in their new countries, and then started visiting Ireland in large numbers expecting what they believed to be "authentic" Irish food. So in Ireland, they continued to make that "authentic" Irish food in restaurants despite it not reflecting authentic food the Irish in Ireland were eating. Or - new traditions would develop in these Irish hybrid communities and then travel back to Ireland because that's what tourists want. The tackiest example of this being green beer for St. Patrick's Day.

              At the end of the day "real deal" and "authentic" are words people love to toss around, but things mutate so much so quickly these days with the movement of people.

              1. When you find an authentic Bavarian Pretzel in the states, that is made in the states, come talk to me, until then there isn't one !! Most of the time when I hear the word "authentic" and I am not in the region that is known for making it, then I take it for what it is, another sales pitch.

                Who ever came up with the word "Famous" in pizza place names?? Look around, I guess they are all famous.

                1. is there such a thing as authentic when it comes to food? Surely it's all about interpretation. A spaghetti bolognaise in one Bologna restaurant will be different in another. I think it's about expectations not authenticity. KevinB's sweetn sour chicken in Hong Kong may have been different if tried in 10 different Hong Kong restaurants.

                  1. The original comment has been removed
                    1. I'm not at all anti-authentic, as my past posts have indicated. It's neither good nor bad, it's just another property which you can use to describe something, meaningful only if the two parties using it have a common understanding of the term. But I'm sure not going to rehash all that again. It just means different things to different folks. For some, it's meaningless. For others, it's the most important property of food amongst many. For most, it's somewhere in between. That's good enough for me.

                      Try this one on a cold night with nothing left to do: