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The Myth of Authenticity

We have a lovely (older) couple that visit the restaurant regularly, oftentimes they bring family, sometimes their friends from medical school in Mumbai, people they've known for more than five decades! He, is very proud of his wife's cooking skills (naturally), though they love to visit River Green too! So one day I asked her what her signature dish would be? As it turned out, it's an aubergine bharta. Anyone who knows me, knows that anything aubergine is my favourite dish! I have my own version of the bharta; Slow roasted with coconut, fresh spices and heritage or cherry tomatoes, all preferably locally grown, and only ever in season! Well, we compared notes, but we haven't yet compared dishes! If we had put our dishes side-by-side, you may be justified in declaring one 'authentic' and the other 'derivative' (if, you could discern which was which...?)

Welcome to the Ploughman's Lunch that is the debate over authenticity....

So, what do we mean by authentic? The same root as 'author,' 'authority,' from the Greek meaning 'self,' 'principal,' or 'origin.' We could say that 'authentic' could mean 'self-defined,' but we usually take it to mean something close to the original version, which leads to a paradox in the English language, in that something can be 'Authentic' (as in 'like the original,') but not 'original,' OR 'original,' but not 'authentic!' Something that is original, only becomes authentic if it is slavishly copied, if the copies vary in any way, they become 'derivative,' which seems to be a bad thing.

This is not science however, food is culture; Culture is not static, it flows and evolves, it migrates from one people group to another, it borrows from itself, it revisits its triumphs, it lends itself to others; Two churches in the same town may have Gothic architecture, but have been built 700 years apart. We will say they are both authentic Gothic, but one is early medieval gothic, and the other Victorian. We fix our idea of authenticity by an arbitrary demarcation of styles (even medieval gothic, has three principal styles, but you'd be hard pressed to pin down where one starts and another ends.) So it is with food culture; Our idea of authenticity is a fantasy created by arbitrary distinctions, a snapshot in time, ingredient provenance, and dare I say it, cultural prejudices.

Let's return to 'Indian' cooking... OK, I know you can't define the cuisine of such a populous country in one paragraph, but there are some commonalities; The use of spices, particularly 'earthy' spices such as turmeric and cumin, the use of chilies, peppercorns, garlic, a lot of use of long grain rices, potatoes, tomatoes, strong herbs such as coriander, many vegetarian dishes due to cultural and religious influences, a lot of milk, especially clarified butter (ghee.) For most Brits, our experience of 'Indian' cuisine comes from the Indian restaurants that sprung up in the sixties and seventies and onwards. But a lot of the early restaurants were set up by Bengali sailors, not necessarily cooks, and versed in recipes from the North of Indian and Bangladesh. They immediately started adapting them to suit English tastes, with more meat and thicker sauces, different cooking styles and equipment. Before long their food would be unrecognised by many in the subcontinent, and a later influx of Tamils and cooks from the south muddied the waters still further. To this day, many 'cognoscenti' will claim only southern Indian dishes in Indian restaurants as 'authentic.' Indeed, famously Britain's favourite 'Indian' dish, Chicken Tikka Masala, was invented in Scotland of all places, and is now exported back to India. Does this mean that Chicken Tikka Masala can never be authentic? Or perhaps it can be, but not if it made in India, or perhaps outside of Scotland?

But just back up a little bit further; Going back to that list of 'typical' Indian ingredients... Wait? What? Potatoes, Tomatoes, Chilies? Three key ingredients without which Indian cuisine would be unrecognisable. Where did they come from? Well, from South America, via the Portuguese, who brought with them their love of wine and garlic, so without the Portuguese we wouldn't have the classic Vindaloo (literally; wine and potatoes!) But isn't that even more British than Chicken Tikka?

What could be more typical of Italian cuisine than pasta and rice? Both imported from China. I once had a head chef who insisted that paella had to contain saffron because that's where the name comes from? I don't know where he got that idea, and yes paella mostly has saffron in it, but the name is clearly derived from the word for rice or rice bowl or rice dish which you can trace back around the southern Mediterranean, to Turkey and through the Persian empire, back to India again (Pilaff, Pilau). Chilli Con Carne? Texan. Garlic in French cooking? Got the idea from the English. (Yes!) Saffron Walden used to be the centre of the British spice growing and export trade, but by the 1920s its (saffron's) use was almost almost unheard of in British cuisine. Yams, bananas, chilies and sweet potatoes in Caribbean cuisine? Imported from India via Africa. Arguably the chilies in Caribbean cuisine had completed an almost round-the-world trip, heading back towards South America!

And the ploughman's lunch? Famously, a supposed concoction of a 60's advertising exec...

Cooking, like culture evolves constantly. You might be able to trace a dish back to a certain region, but the ingredients may well have come from a completely different continent. Even if you did narrow your search down to a particular hamlet you would probably find as many versions of a dish as there were cooks who made it.

If you codify, regulate or fix a cooking culture, what do you get?....

...French cuisine.

I rest my case Your Honour.

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