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Jun 25, 2009 11:21 AM

It has to be authentic!

Wow, so many posts on the Chow site are searching for the “authentic” {fill in the blank}.

What exactly is it for which we are looking?

Webster defines “authentic” as

a: worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact <paints an authentic picture of our society> b: conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features <an authentic reproduction of a colonial farmhouse> c: made or done the same way as an original <authentic Mexican fare>3: not false or imitation

By that definition just about any restaurant or any recipe is “authentic”. And, isn’t “authentic” really about personal interpretation?

A case in point: There is a taco shop down the street from me. The owner lived and traveled through much of Baja California. He describes his tacos as “a combination of many Baja traditions.” He even claims that his tacos are “the best in the county”! While the actual food is tasty and entirely edible, I think as tacos they are a horrible example. They are on soft flour tortillas, have pre-melted cheese, and soupy whole beans! How dare he call them tacos!

But that’s just my opinion, right?

So, when you want authentic, what is it you really want?

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  1. An excellent point, IMHO. Most really authentic ethnic food is prepared in conditions that would probably make most of us gag. Should one strew roaches arund one's kitchen, and use water from the toilet bowl to insure the highest degree of authenticity.?

    I recall once scouring a series of supermarkets in the Dallas area trying to find authentic Mexican chorizo. Almost everfy brand I found listed as the main ingredient the "salivary glands of hogs". Fortunately, I found, in a upscale Mexican store, some "Luxury" (i.e. not authentic) chorizo where the main ingredient was just pork. Even then, who knows?

    In regard to Mollygirl's story about the taco maker, I once met a guy who assured me that the best cheese comes out of an aerosol can.

    6 Replies
    1. re: ekammin

      LOL @ the chorizo ingredients. I shopped once at a huge Mexican market place. The ingredients to chorizo were in English and that's the day I stopped eating it.

      Additionally, I was watching World Trekker and they were in a thrid world country where a family was preparing a meal for the host of the show. Dirt floors, flies buzzing, no running water in the kitchen..... yep, it was authentic, all right.

      1. re: ekammin

        Really? You think poor people cook with toilet water? That's really offensive.

        1. re: babette feasts

          I see nothing in ekammin's post about poor prople.

          1. re: BeaN

            OK, then 'ethnic' people of all income ranges. But of course there is no toilet bowl to get water from if you only have a squat toilet or an outhouse, so s/he must mean the rich 'ethnic' people with western flush toilets are cooking with toilet water.

        2. re: ekammin

          <Most really authentic ethnic food is prepared in conditions that would probably make most of us gag.>

          Well! Your idea of "really authentic ethnic" and mine are quite different. I have no hard & fast, bullet-proof definition of what "really authentic ethnic" means, but I can say unequivocally that it is not a synonym for "filthy."

          1. re: ekammin

            Who is using water from their toilet bowl? If you have a plumbed toilet why in the world would you scoop from the potty bowl??? Oh the need for a hint of urine for a proper.... no can't think of anything needing that.

            Please enlighten me.

          2. What is so confusing about 'conforming to the original'?

            2 Replies
            1. re: babette feasts

              Who's confused? "Conforming to the original" can incorporate variety. And, that's my point. What are you looking for when you ask for Authentic?
              Consider Pho. All Pho's conform to the original but Pho'licious is good and Tom's Noodle House is not so good. Are they both authentic?

              1. re: mollygirl

                Sure, you can have a poorly executed example of authentic. Something can be made with the same basic ingredients, recipe, technique, but lacking love, understanding, or some mystery component the result mau be less than stellar. I'm sure there are bad cooks in Vietnam as well as good ones.

            2. I once spent some months in a Mexican town, San Antonio Tlayacapan, near Guadalajara. Not everybody there was poor, some people had more money, newer cars, bigger TVs, than I did,

              The municipal water supply consisted of a well, whose output was dumped into the town's pipes with no purification, examination, or anything else. That's what came out of everyone's faucets. A few gringos (and Mexicanos) like me drank bottled water, other people either used purification tablets or relied on boiling to kill any germs, other used it as is, taking their chances. The choice seemed to have nothing to do with any economic or social issues.

              True, nobody I knew removed the water from their toiiet after use, to be reused.

              Also, everybody, myself included, bought their tortillas at the local tortilleria, where I never heard any questions about the provenance of the water used. The tortillas were very authentic, and very good.

              1. I find that the term authentic is neither useful or valuable when it comes to enjoying my food. I want to enjoy the flavor and aroma of food and I really do not care if its authenic or not. I want to apreciate the skill, passion and creativity of a chef and would not ding him for not following rules. I think this pursuit of authenticity has gotten out of hand and arguments/discussions about authenticity eventually degrade to chest pounding or ego bashing. Both of which are bad karma. I would prefer discussions about the taste, preparation, freshness, skill of the chef or the thousands of the things that make a meal great. There I have said my piece. Sorry if anyone is offended.

                11 Replies
                1. re: bgazindad

                  Yes indeedy! And, that is what was driving my original post. I, too, think the use of the term "authentic" has gotten way outta hand.

                  My Mom's tuna casserole is authentic and I STILL don't like it.

                  1. re: mollygirl

                    A friend of mine once made what I thought was a very intersting point on the question of "authentic food". His idea (which I can't really find a way to refute) is that you can't think of "authenticity" in terms of the food alone, since the food is only a small facet of the whole nature of the culture and cannot be seperated from it. Therefore the ONLY way to have a truly "authentic" dish of food from any nation/region/ethnicity/culture, is to be BORN into that culture and live your whole life in it, totally excluded from any and all foreign influences and in an environet that it similarly isolated (basically live in one of those tiny villages tucked away in obsucre corners of the world, that no one ever goes to and no one ever leaves, which has had no contact at all with anyone outside the village since as far back as anyone can remember as as far as all records go. Truly "authentic" food would be what you ate every day, not becuse you chose to, but because it was the only thing availabe, the only thing that ever had been available and the only thing that ever would be alvailable. Basically under his definition, NOTHING any of us could ever eat could be cosidered "authentic"

                    1. re: jumpingmonk

                      being cut off from everywhere else doesn't happen by chance. If it happened at all, anywhere, it would be the result of tremendous effort, i.e. not 'authentic'.

                      1. re: saacnmama

                        true but that effort may not nessecarily be yours. a lot of those little isolated places may have been created untold centuries ago by people making a huge effort (i.e. fleeing to somehwere totally cut off from eveyone else). but if they did a good enough job of cutting themselves off picking a location that's almost impossible to get to and still more impossible to get back from. so that contact with the outside world is infeasible, then presevation of that isolation can require little or no effort on the part of those people living there now. It's BREAKING that islation that takes the effort. part of the problem of course is that such isolation can only be talked about in the theoretical; the moment such a place is KNOWN to the outside world the isolation is broken. (its a bit like the old African riddle "What is the worlds most cunning animal? Answer: "That which no man has ever seen") That tribe the found in New Guniea (or was it the Phillipines in the late 70's) who had basically lived in the rainforset completely seperated from all other tribes and peoples since the Stone Age would be an example. now THEIR food must have been authentic.

                        1. re: jumpingmonk

                          The Tassaday "tribe" found in the Philippines was an elaborate hoax.

                          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                            There is an ongoing controversy as to whether the alleged Tasaday first contact was a hoax. But there is no dispute that first contact has happened fairly recently with isolated groups in the highlands of Papua New Guinea and in remote areas of the Amazon basin.

                            Regardless, it seems unlikely that stone-age hunter-gatherer cuisine is going to be the next big trend for new restaurants.

                            1. re: alanbarnes

                              There is no controversy other than the Elizalde group trying to make one. Any anthropologist could see from the beginning that it was all faked. Completely. I'm not aware of any new groups being found in the Amazon.

                              1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                Are you familiar with the work of Lawrence Reid of the University of Hawaii? He lived with the Tasaday in the '90s, studied their language, and determined that people on both sides of the debate were stretching the truth.

                                The current academic consensus seems to be that the Tasaday are in fact a distinct people, that they had indirect contact beginning in the 1950s, and that direct contact occurred around 1970. The problem is that that direct conduct led to their exploitation by competing political groups. That'll teach 'em to come out of the jungle.

                                As for groups in the Amazon, the Brazilian government did a helicopter fly-over of an uncontacted and previously unknown group of people in May of last year.

                                1. re: alanbarnes

                                  Until relatively recently, the Philippines has had groups of people living in relative isolation from the lowlanders. The Mt Pinatubo Aetas were slash-and-burn farmers and hunters and gatherers with a language much farther from lowland languages than the Manobo spoken by the "Tasaday". I would conclude, as have others, that the "Tasaday" were are relatively isolated group (like those of Mt Pinatubo) with a somewhat distinct language, but who were in no way stone age. Their performance art would not and did not fool any ecological anthropologist. Many peoples of tropical forests have made clothing from forest fibers; none have worn leaves per se. Hunter gatherer technologies and tool kits, on the other hand, look simple to the untrained eye but are almost always finely crafted, effective tools - darts, spears, knives, arrows, traps, woven things to haul other things, water gourds, little cages, baskets, nets, and much more - none of which the "Tasaday" had. The caves were a joke: I don't know a group in the world that has lived in such "caves". At the time of “contact” the group did not have the means, skills, or area to support themselves.

                                  I met Reid, briefly, when I was spending quite a bit of time at the East-West Center to and from the Philippines - and don't really remember him and didn't keep up with his work after I left the Philippines.

                                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                    You and alanbarnes are amazing. I lived in Manila at the time and you guys know more about the Tasaday story. Of course, I was in high school and was more concerned about... you know, it wasn't about some stone age tribe debate. Elizalde was an interesting story though. Here is a link to his obituary from 1997. Talk about authentically dissolute.


                              2. re: alanbarnes

                                isolated from who? Are they in contact with eachother? They must have neighbors. Even if, like the Yanomami purportedly did, they spear anyone who trespasses on their land, that is still a type of contact.

                  2. My grandmother and mother were both born in Transylvania, and, of course, made a great deal of typlical food, a lot of which I still enjoy, when I can find it or make it (although my grandmother had the unfortunate habit of waiting until the hottest day of the year to serve some blazing hot Romanian soup in her un-airconditioned kitchen.

                    My favourite dish of hers, onviously utterly inauthentic, was a pasta sauce she got from a Sicilian neighbour.

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: ekammin

                      The sauce was inauthentic to Italy or Transylvania? Either way, an original recipe might be authentic to the neighbor. You may pass this recipe to your grandkids as an authentic version of'neighbor Carmina's pasta sauce'. I don't think you can speak of authenticity without speaking of a place. Take American barbecue. There are so many regional variations so what is authentic to eastern North Carolina is not going to be authentic to western North Carolina. Maybe delicious, maybe not, but not "conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features".

                      1. re: babette feasts

                        It was inauthentically Transylvanian because Salsa Bolognese simply isn’t a Transylvanian dish. It was inauthentically Sicilian because my grandmother was kosher, and substituted all beef for the original beef and pork mixture.

                        1. re: ekammin

                          I thought Bolognese was from Bologna... not Sicily.

                          1. re: Blueicus

                            Yes, you are right, Bologna is not in Sicily. But people from Sicily can still prepare food in the style of Bologna, just as New Yorkers can make Southern Fried Chicken.

                            Also, my apologies - I think the dish was rightly called Ragu Bolognese, not Salsa.