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Apr 8, 2014 04:14 AM

“Authenticity,” he confided to me, “is a bourgeois value posing as an aesthetic one.”

Interesting article on Korean chefs and evolving food culture. I dug up some old recipes for cassoulet and, since I can't eat duck, I tried to find one without confit. Turns out there are lots of cassoulet recipes from the south of France that use lamb or pork or whatever and have no duck at all. Yet the version with confit seems to have been deemed the "most authentic." Kimchi wouldn't exist without chilis from South America. Cajun cuisine wouldn't exist without Acadian techniques and Carribbean spices and cooks whose descendents came from Africa. Is kimchi on a taco less "authentic" than giardiniera or slaw or the iceberg lettuce at Taco Bell? These foods evolved over time and will continue to do so or as people adapt them to their particular tastes, authenticity be damned.

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  1. I have little interest in "authentic". It always seems to me to be a totally meaningless word - often used (on this board) to suggest that my taste is better than your taste - and my choice of restaurant is better than your choice. Now, if someone wants to use "traditional", then I can relate to that - from my own regional cuisine, I can tell you what a traditional Lancashire Hotpot should be like, but an "authentic" one is nonsense.

    15 Replies
    1. re: Harters

      I think you're just pointing out that people are really using the wrong adjective.

      1. re: Worldwide Diner

        No, I don't think so, WD. "Authentic" and "traditional" have different meanings and, to my mind, imply different things. My sense is that, on many occasions, folk use "authentic" to indicate the accepted meaning and it is simply a false claim. And it's used with the perjoratives that I suggested.

      2. re: Harters

        I liked the part of the article where he said said authenticity had replaced sincerity in restaurants. And definitely agree with his point about cooking as communication. Reading a book about formal dining in Japan during the Edo period. Meals were constructed and arranged like haikus: dishes designed to resemble a woman's hand in a kimono or a mountain range or clouds in the sky. And the names of the foods were sometimes elaborate puns. And some formal dishes were assembled and not even meant to be eaten, but only admired, and there was a whole etiquette around how you were supposed to compliment the host on how beautiful the food was. The whole process was about communicating and reinforcing a class structure and heirarchy. And the wealthiest hosts would try and outdo eachother by using the most exotic and expensive ingredients. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

        1. re: monkeyrotica

          May I ask what book you're referring to?

          1. re: Skippy1414

            Japanese Foodways Past and Present by Eric C. Rath. A collection of heavily footnoted essays on the evolution of Japanese cuisine.


            Also highly recommend Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity by Katarzyna J. Cwiertka. A little more accessible than the former, but still a good read. Really interesting passages on the influences of Western culture after the Meiji Restoration, particularly the influence of British cuisine (currys and canned beef) and the evolution of restaurant culture.

        2. re: Harters

          I think that going down the "traditional" rabbit hole is less fraught than "authentic" - but discussions chasing those terms do end up in similar places where the terms are used as a means of implying that the inauthentic or nontraditional is lesser.

          I recently told a US food truck operator that his baba ganoush was better than most of what I'd had in the Middle East - and his face was this confused mix of "wow what a compliment" and "I'm not sure I should take that as a compliment". Now the reason I like this version so much more than most of what I've had overseas (in addition to the excellent texture and smokiness of the eggplant) is that he makes his with less olive oil than what's often served in the Middle East. So in a way my compliment is telling him "your baba ganoush isn't as authentic/traditional because I like it more". And then it plays as this bizarre compliment/non-compliment.

          1. re: cresyd

            I think "authentic" is a subset of "traditional." It depends on what/whose traditions we're talking about and at what time. Look at musical traditions. Take authentic music from any region--Africa or Brazil or China--and you can find traditional styles of music and each style can be authentic or not, but none exist in a vaccuum. African tribal rhythms were carried by slaves to the Carribbean, then to the South where they evolved into ragtime and dixieland and jazz and blues. Those traditions were discovered and exported to England where musicians adapted those styles and brought them back to Africa as Western pop music where musicians re-incorporated them into their traditional styles of music. And food tastes and styles evolve in the same way, cross pollinated with other traditions to create new ones which is what makes "inauthentic" and "nontraditional" foods interesting. Whether it's better or worse is entirely subjective.

            1. re: monkeyrotica

              I agree that it's subjective in theory (i.e. my example of using a less traditional amount of oil) - but I find that more often those terms do come with a value judgment.

              1. re: cresyd

                Yeah, there's definitely a mindset that "authentic" pizza or ramen or bbq exists like a mosquito sealed in amber and everything else is puke. I find it interesting that cooks who have been around for the long haul, like Jacques Pepin or Julia Child, weren't nearly as obsessed with perceived authenticity as they were with what tastes good and what fresh ingredients you have ready access to. Pepin's "instant" cassoulet tastes as good as any super-most-authentic cassoulets I've had, and I've had plenty.

            2. re: cresyd

              I agree about both rabbit holes.

              Neither are words I use in respect of my day-to-day eating. I am interested in whether my food is tasty and enjoyable, not whether it is authentic (something almost impossible to evidence, except in very particular culinary circumstances) or traditional (something difficult to evidence without some detailed knowledge of the dish's origins and culture)

            3. re: Harters

              I agree that it is can be meaningless to attach pejorative meaning to references regarding specific food experiences that are NOT authentic because their ingredients or preparation have strayed from the "traditional" way of preparing them. For me, though, the pejorative applies when the DEGREE of inauthenticity reaches a level that materially changes the experience of the cuisine.

              That may simply be a verbose way of saying that I'm OK with "Americanizing" Chinese dishes so long as the dish still retains the 'essence' of it's origin. That's admittedly very subjective,and probably only has meaning if one is familiar with the 'authentic' preparation. If you're not it IS meaningless. Beef with broccoli, in a gloppy starchy sauce, is what it is. But it's not at all the same experience as an 'authentic' dish made with Gai Lan. It just isn't.

              1. re: Midlife

                ....and then there is a point when the dish becomes a new dish. It is so far from the ethos of the original dish it becomes a new dish. For example my local bar does a great boudin noir burger - is it a burger or just a great way to eat boudin noir.....and who cares.

                True the association with the original does become meaningless if you don't know about the original. But we should care if the bastardisation of the original is so bad people are put off the original dish.

                UK Mexican food totally put me off Mexican food, I consciously avoided it. I thought it was a disgusting gloopy mess and not worth bothering about. But I was so wrong - the real thing is a wonderful. I wonder how many other diners are put off Indian, Thai, Chinese etc by having bad renditions off great food.

                1. re: PhilD

                  You make a good point about UK "Mexican" food. Similar issues exist, to my mind, with UK barbeque food. Neither are generally trying to offer authentic/traditional Mexican or BBQ food. Rather, they seem to be trying to replicate the food of American chain restaurants which offer Mexican/BBQ food. The sort of food British visitors to the touristy areas of Florida may have eaten. They don't even do it too well.

                  1. re: Harters

                    That's an abomination on an abomination. An abomination^2.

                2. re: Midlife

                  While I understand the point of using terms like authentic or traditional in regards to dishes that have traveled very far from their point of origin - I often think that the use of 'authentic' as a pejorative usually fails to engage in dynamic and open conversation. There are more creative ways to engage that kind of discussion and push someone's horizons to experiences that may be foreign or often inaccessible to them.

                  If I've never been exposed to Gai Lan - and a discussion about beef with broccoli turns to the pejorative then it usually just serves to alienate. It's a wordy way of one person saying "I like Kraft mac n cheese" and someone getting up in their face and going "WRONG".

              2. I hate to let the writer in on a secret, but the Publix stores on the Space Coast have had kimchi in a jar for at least 20 years. And we do not have a large population with Korean ancestry.

                We do have a significant population that has served in the far East.

                1. I am reminded of an episode of The Mind of a Chef, where David Chang says that authentic ramen in Japan involves a lot of innovation that would be criticized by authenticity fetishists if it were done by American chefs in the US.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: FoodPopulist

                    You have this attitude particularly among BBQ fetishists. These techniques are authentic and those aren't, even outside the regional meat/fuel variances. I say if you want authentic, you need to dig a trench, line it with rocks, burn a bunch of logs, then lay green wood branches over the hot coals, put your meat on those branches, and sit by the smoldering trench overnight because that's how slaves did it in the Antebellum South. (There's a guy who actually does this.) Or if you want super most authentic bbq, build a pimento wood platform three feet off the ground in Barbados and smoke fish, iguana, and whatever else you can find while wearing a palm frond bikini like they were doing when Columbus arrived. But there's a reason why we use drum smokers and briquettes and remote thermometers and the "Texas crutch." Innovation. It's not always a bad word.


                    1. re: FoodPopulist

                      See last weekend's Splendid Table for interview with an American running a ramen shop in Japan.

                    2. I thought the key word in the article was "sincerity".
                      The problem with "authentic" and to a lessor extent "traditional" is that they imply a dish has been codified or documented and thus regulated.

                      OK a few are: French baguettes and German beer are examples, but most food evolved over time, a different speeds in different regions, and in different households. Food was also driven by fashion going back to the mists of time - think of the spice trade to Europe, or Columbus and his potatoes and tomatoes taking the old world by storm. So food constantly changes and you can't go back to a point in time and call a version of the dish the base dish.

                      So to me "sincerity" makes the most sense. A chef can be pushing the envelope for a dish, trying to evolve it, the they do it because they sincerely want to improve it. Or a chef may want to recreate the taste ofd their heritage, and again they do this sincerely by using ingredients from the region and the old techniques.

                      The reverse of this is a lack of sincerity, it is the company that cost engineers a dish to make it more profitable i.e. cheddar not mozzarella on a pizza. Or the chef who wants to take short cuts to make life easier, for example the two big pots of sauce in a curry house kitchen that can be turned into as many as 50 different "indian" dishes.

                      If its bourgeois to want sincerity in cooking then I raise my hand up as guilty. But, I am not certain it is. Lots of "common people" across the world like the real deal in their food, they may eat cheap food but they are still picky about quality: be it a Singaporean or Malaysian at a hawker centre; a HK resident at a dai psi dong's slurping their noodles; a Mexican enjoying a carnitas taco; or a lancastrian scouring bury market for black pudding. They all appreciate the finer points of good food, and I suspect they are looking for equal sincerity in their food (they just don't blog about it).

                      18 Replies
                      1. re: PhilD

                        "The reverse of this is a lack of sincerity, it is the company that cost engineers a dish to make it more profitable i.e. cheddar not mozzarella on a pizza. Or the chef who wants to take short cuts to make life easier, for example the two big pots of sauce in a curry house kitchen that can be turned into as many as 50 different "indian" dishes"
                        Even this is a relatively tricky line to draw in the sand. If for no other reason than because so many of the foods we think of as traditional were actually just borne of convenience, penny-pinching, and necessity. Cassoulet was most likely a way to use up leftovers and scraps. The duck confit found in the idealized 'authentic' cassoulet - well, ducks and geese render a lot of fat in cooking that had to be used up somehow; the legs are often the least desired parts of the bird; and curing, cooking, and then storing under fat served mainly as long-term storage in the days before refrigerators, with any enhancement of flavor from that process being ancillary.

                        1. re: cowboyardee

                          I don't think the line's that hard to draw. It's a question of motive. I'll take the food from the provider who has a "sincere" interest in perfecting product over that from another who's interest is in profit, personal pride, or ease of production.

                          1. re: MGZ

                            Producing a very good, worthwhile product is not mutually exclusive with profiting, taking pride in one's contributions, or streamlining extra work out of the process. Aiming for 'perfection' is just as fraught with silliness and BS as aiming for authenticity.

                            1. re: MGZ

                              Those interests aren't mutually exclusive. Restaurants trying to deliver "perfection" regardless of bottom line don't last very long. I've lost track of all the "high concept" eateries that fold after 18 months (or less). I just rewatched "Big Night" recently. No doubt the food was perfect. They still went out of business. Like when Secondo tries to convince Primo to drop the risotto because it's so expensive and takes so long and people don't like it anyway. So he says maybe he should start selling hotdogs instead.

                              1. re: monkeyrotica

                                What can I say? I loved the risotto..

                              2. re: MGZ

                                Isn't the issue with the profit only an issue when the producer takes out something that is the essence of the dish - cassoulet with no meat for example, or cassoulet made with Spam.

                                1. re: PhilD

                                  I think the issue is simply the elevation of profit over product. When the former becomes primary, in the production of any good or the provision of any service, the consumer suffers.

                                  By way of slightly tangential example, let's assume there's a chef out there who makes a mean, meatless "cassoulet" for her vegetarian clientele. Clearly, she would like to make some money from her overall endeavor. Nevertheless, if her purpose in developing the recipe was to offer a delicious, "healthy" version of the plate, I'd label it "sincere", and gladly try it.

                                  At bottom, I s'pose, it still all comes back to notions of motivation - even when it comes to discussing "authenticity". It seems a great deal more acceptable to explain to a dining companion that "I think the Caesar here is terrific. It may not be the most authentic, but I love the extra anchovies" than to dissuade her from ordering the salad by exclaiming "Don't you know? It's horribly inauthentic to use anchovies in that dish. I won't order it."

                                  1. re: MGZ

                                    The idea of a vegetarian cassoulet is interesting. I agree the chef is sincere in catering for vegetarians, but if they were sincere to the ethos of the dish could they cook it without meat? So sincerity is the sincerity to the dish not the diner? (I realise pedants may take exceptions about sincerity expressed to an inanimate object).

                                    For me the meat in cassoulet is responsible for the texture. The gelatine from the pork rind, the fats from the meats, meld with the beans to give its its texture and flavour. I suppose you could substitute agar for pork rind and use some molecular techniques to get the texture......but has it strayed too far from a cassoulet. Would the chef not be more sincere if the just cooked a great vegetarian bean casserole.

                                    1. re: PhilD

                                      Personally - when something without chickpeas is called hummus, it rubs me the wrong way. Black bean hummus makes no sense (to me) as the word hummus in addition to the dip also translates to the legume itself.

                                      However, kicking up a fuss about how it's not black bean hummus but rather black bean dip neglects how cultures fuse and interact. Does vegan 'mac n cheese' need to be called 'mac n creamy stuff' because of how it's strayed from mac n cheese? If it does a good job of evoking the point of origin is that not enough?

                                      If I hear vegan mac n cheese or vegetarian cassoulet or black bean hummus - the cook has given me heads up that a memory is about to be evoked. As long as that's achieved to a certain degree, I don't think that sincerity demands labels such as bean casserole.

                                      1. re: PhilD

                                        "So sincerity is the sincerity to the dish not the diner?"

                                        Honestly, I don't really care. I laud the sincerity to the purpose. I can even respect sincerity to profit. I don't have to eat McCassoulet when it comes out, but I can appreciate the commitment that went into its engineering.

                                        Upon reflection, I realize that each passing day makes me less of a prescriptivist. Gathering knowledge and accepting definitions are inherently worthwhile endeavors, but part of the value of learning the "rules" is to understand their bases and purposes so that one can know how to bend and break them. There would be no Glass without Schubert, no Kelly without Monet, no cassoulet without casserole.

                                        Which all kinda comes back to why hearing "non-authentic" used as a knee jerk pejorative by those who are still merely acquiring knowledge ruffles many feathers. It suggests a lack of understanding, of lingering ignorance, disguised by an authoritarian presentation. Perhaps it should have been labeled a "'petite bourgeois' value"?

                                        1. re: MGZ

                                          I don't think "acquiring knowledge" ever ends. At least I hope so. We've all been the ignorant ones at some point, so I'm more than happy to let the "non-authentic" proclamations slide. That is, until I read about some foodie millennial writing a memoir.

                                          1. re: monkeyrotica

                                            I agree that the acquisition of knowledge should be lifelong, but I think that its ultimate purpose should be to foster understanding.

                                            1. re: MGZ

                                              I'd agree if your statement goes on to "understanding" of how to cure disease and make people's lives better in general. I'm sure I could add a few more things as well.

                                2. re: cowboyardee

                                  I did once read that duck confit was a by product of the foie gras industry, but I suspect whilst that is true, the confit preserving technique goes back a lot further.

                                  Agree that it is a tricky line to draw - but not impossible. Some dishes are made with the stuff that is to hand, but is it not true that they eventually start to evolve to a definite form and have reasonably set ingredients for the area/region.

                                  So cassoulet varies from town to town across the Languedoc based on the traditions in that town. Some use breadcrumbs, others add tomato, some have mutton, some pork, most have duck some all three (I guess villages in the hills had sheep and those on the plains pork). But all have beans because they grew so many in the area.

                                  I would argue that once the dish had taken on these characteristics it becomes established as a dish in its own right - so cassoulet with no beans and no meat and that isn't slow cooked isn't cassoulet.

                                  1. re: PhilD

                                    Agreed. I put this in the same semiotic category as putting Kung Pao Shrimp on a bun and topping it with pickled cucumber salad and fried rice noodles and calling it "a burger." At some point, cassoulet needs beans and a burger needs some kind of patty. It can be beef or turkey or soy or even ground shrimp. But I don't think there's any riches left to be mined in that "burger or sandwich" vein.

                                    1. re: monkeyrotica

                                      I suppose that opens up the "deconstructed" argument. If you deconstruct a dish is it still the said dish. I have been served what can best be described as a plate of separate ingredients termed a deconstructed tiramisu. Many dishes qualities are a result of how the ingredients blend and meld during the cooking/preparation. If you don't let them meld are they really the intended dish....?

                                3. re: PhilD

                                  Well put.

                                  I think, if I may be indulged, I'd most like to eat "sincere" food, made by a chef who is "authentic", in a place where "altruism" is lauded and the "proletariat" are welcome. If it has kimchi, that's fine - - but it better be spicy!

                                  1. re: PhilD

                                    Very well said.

                                    That reminds me of various gyro/doner/shwarma threads about what meat is 'traditionally' used - and the honest answer is "whatever's cheapest in the immediate area at that time".

                                    I do think that the ultimate problem with the search for authenticity/traditional is this search for first base. In the same way that Michael Pollen talks about eat what your grandparents ate.....for some of us, that answer is a great role model and for others a dreadful one (my grandmother never met a convenience food she wasn't 100% interested in using).

                                    However, having a sincere interest in seeking and creating quality food - that's a conversation worth getting excited about.

                                  2. Seems as if there's little distinction being made here between food cooked and served commercially--whether from food trucks or restaurants--and food made at home. For the former, there always has to be some "traditional or "standardized" reference point for customers (ok, eaters) to create expectations, even if the chef banks on re-working, revolutionizing, or whatever. Whatever: old-school or new-school, I think it has to start with a chef making some claim on "tradition" or "authenticity" based on his or her perceived authority, and our lack of same. Restaurants are about rules, wherever they come from. (Though that can backfire--my father, a food-obsessed first generation Italian, would regularly complain to waiters in typical Brooklyn places that This is not the way real chicken scarpariello is made"--how he knew this, who knows?--and the waiter would usually shrug and say, "Well, that's how we make it" and walk away. Dad would eat it with relish anyway. For home cooks, seems to me, that authenticity or, more commonly, tradition, almost always begins with memory, even if what's being remembered might itself be a little peculiar to that family or not even, by most standards, representative of a larger tradition. And that memory can start a road to creating a new dish in its name. The number of "traditional" variants of any single dish (and I'm only really familiar with Southern Italian-Italian American) can be staggering. A broad culinary template/practice may define the style or use or meaning of these dishes, but much below that level? And frankly, I've had more than few proudly traditional dishes I'd never want to eat again. They served different needs and tastes, stood for different domestic and cultural worlds.