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Authentic--One More Time (sorry)

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Authentic--One More Time (sorry)

e.d. | Mar 11, 2002 11:26 AM

I am always amazed at the ability of my fellow ‘hounds to compose their thoughts and make interesting contributions to the discussion on a deep, meaningful thread seemingly instantaneously. Often a really good thread will just start my brain cells percolating (notify the mixed metaphor police) and it takes me days to sift through what I really think, and by then the damn thread seems so old that I am reluctant to post or if I do post I feel like nobody reads it. On the other hand, sometimes a posting will push some of my buttons and I immediately type some intemperate screed and post it much to my future chagrin and embarrassment.

Anyway, the paragraph above is my justification for coming back again to the discussion of authenticity. I have spent days thinking about authenticity in food and why that subject attracted so much debate. Please forgive me if I go over some old ground, but I have been trying to focus my thoughts using all that wonderful input in the previous threads.

First, I think that the best definition of authentic cuisine is that it presents traditional foods, made with traditional ingredients, and prepared in traditional ways. With authentic food, the preparer is attempting to cook and serve food that is like the food that he/she ate in the past. Of course, authentic is not set in stone; traditional cooks have always been alert to new and better ingredients and preparations, but they are using new techniques/foods to try to achieve a taste from the past.

Second, whether we like it or not, sometimes truly authentic foods can’t be prepared or presented in a restaurant setting. After I had been thinking about authenticity in food for a couple days, I had dinner with a relative I hadn’t seen in years, and we ended up talking about how we couldn’t get real traditional spaetzle anywhere. These days, all restaurants, even in Germany, use machines to make spaetzle, rather than hand cutting the noodles into boiling water in the traditional, home-style fashion. Machine made spaetzle is shaped differently—the noodles are rounder, rather than the flattened ovals of true spaetzle. Also machine made spaetzle is not tapered at the ends, but is simply cut off, like spaghetti. And because the noodles are forced through a press, they are denser and less fluffy than homemade, and the dimples in the noodles are smaller and more regular in appearance. Anyone who did not grow up eating spaetzle would not notice these differences, yet I am convinced that any chowhound could tell that the homemade noodles were better, without necessarily knowing why.

Third, even though some truly authentic food is also truly great food, I think part of the problem in our discussion is that too many of us tend to assume that authentic is automatically good. Yet, for example, I had a friend who traveled in China, and her experience was that the further into the country she got, and the more authentic and peasant style the food became, the more it tended to involve serving the innards of pigs in interesting ways. So for her, the most authentic foods were not the most enjoyable. Similarly, some of the most authentic Mexican taquerias I’ve ever eaten at don’t serve chicken of any sort—all their meat choices were pork, goat, or beef—including, again, organ meats. So as a lover of pollo asado, I can’t get my favorite at these super authentic places.

Fourth, I don’t care if food is authentic or not as long as it’s delicious. But I don’t like to feel like I’ve been lied to. When I go to Taco Surf in San Diego and have a chicken fajita burrito or a tostada grande with chicken (and lettuce, guacamole, onions, beans, sour cream—almost a taco salad on a fried corn tortilla) I am not expecting food prepared the way it is in Guadalajara. But if I order soontofu at a Korean restaurant I expect that it will be made with soft, not firm tofu. A Sonoran grilled taco should be in a flour tortilla, not corn. Kung pao chicken should be crunchy, spicy, and chickeny. If words on a menu are to mean anything, they should describe the food we will be served. A restaurant that calls itself "authentic" should try to prepared foods in traditional ways, not because those ways are inherently better, but because that is what authentic means.

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