The real meal: Exploring the concept of culinary authenticity

BONA FIDE: Authenticity in cuisine is a construct, says chef Meherwan Irani, pictured in the pantry at his downtown Indian restaurant Chai Pani. “It is a moment in time or an experience that you try to freeze and then somehow reconstruct in a completely new environment, and it’s hard,” he says.
BONA FIDE: Authenticity in cuisine is a construct, says chef Meherwan Irani, pictured in the pantry at his downtown Indian restaurant Chai Pani. “It is a moment in time or an experience that you try to freeze and then somehow reconstruct in a completely new environment, and it’s hard,” he says. Photo by Cindy Kunst

The television’s muted, but the silenced mouths of the pundits flap on above the BBC logo on the screen at the other end of the room. You can still smell the fresh floors and drywall in my host’s new Asheville home as Ephraim Dean (or “Iffy,” as he always introduces himself) ushers me to a seat at the family’s table and starts filling a plate with food. It’s late, and his wife and kids have already gone to bed, but fortunately he’s kept some leftovers heated up. “So we basically made chicken tikka, which is grilled chicken on skewers. That’s all chicken tikka is,” he says, scooping a heaping pile onto a plate before flopping a few pillowy pieces of naan on top.

I’ve come to his home seeking something elusive that’s both a flavor and a principle. It’s a concept, but it also has a specific feeling, and sometimes even a taste. What I’m searching for is the thing that actually makes something — a drink, a dish, a meal, anything — authentic.

Food happens

“In the West, chicken tikka is like a curry dish, which is completely not true,” says Dean, passing me a bowl of homemade raita. “A bunch of Indian and Pakistani people in Britain took the chicken pieces from the grill and just cooked it in a sauce, so tikka masala was essentially invented in Glasgow, Scotland. Which is funny, because everyone thinks of that as the quintessential Indian dish.”

You’d think there’d be no better place to pin down the definition of authentic cultural cuisine than in the kitchen of a Pakistani immigrant who happens to be a very good cook, but what he says only seems to confirm my suspicions: Authenticity is bulls**t.

“The next day, I take whatever is left of the grilled chicken, I make a sauce with it,” he says. It’s spicy and packed with a dozen flavors, each unfolding a little more as you eat. Garlic, ginger, cilantro, tomato, turmeric, masala, pepper, yogurt and lemon juice. But this is not some age-old traditional dish: It’s how a person — not a chef, but someone who grew up steeped in Indian and Pakistani cooking techniques — dresses up his leftovers after grilling out.

“There’s always a point of origin,” says Dean, “and whatever happens from there, happens: It just branches out. I think Wendy even prefers it when I make it this way to when it comes fresh off the grill.”

In Lahore, his hometown, continues Dean, “There’s one guy in town that is considered the guy to get this dish. It’s called Bhatti Tikka House. You go there because he’s the one. But in Pakistan, [trademark] laws are just completely overlooked, so 10 other tikka shops opened up next to him. And the one next to him literally translates as ‘The Real Bhatti Tikka House.’ And they’ll all tell you that they are the authentic one. So it’s not even authentic when you get it over there!”

The vindaloo boogaloo

“When it comes to cuisine, in particular, I’ve come to realize that authenticity is a construct,” says James Beard Award-nominated chef Meherwan Irani. “It is a moment in time or an experience that you try to freeze and then somehow reconstruct in a completely new environment, and it’s hard.

“It’s not real: It’s virtual,” continues Irani, who co-owns Chai Pani.

Lack of authenticity is a common complaint made by reviewers of ethnic restaurants on sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor. In her scathing review of Chai Pani, for example, one Yelper named Tanyaa C. went so far as to write: “The concept is good, but they don’t serve authentic Indian food. … Customers like me, who are well aware of Indian authentic food, will feel disappointed.” A strange thing to say about a place that’s spent countless hours and months training its chefs and even traveling with them in India to learn the ropes; a place where you’ll typically see at least a dozen Indian diners in traditional clothing.

“You can argue for days about the most authentic vindaloo: Should it have potatoes in it? Should it not?” Irani points out. “But I think — hang on, time out — that entire dish was introduced by the Portuguese 500 years ago. If we’re focused on authenticity being this idea of something not changing, then in that case vindaloo isn’t an authentic Indian dish at all! So whether you take that long view or whether it’s a guy who comes to Asheville six years ago and decides to start changing the way he makes Indian street food, it’s all the same, man. Indian cuisine is not a monolith: Our regional differences are more extreme than even the regional differences in Europe, for example.”

Grandma’s dumplings

“We get the question all the time: Is it authentic Asian cuisine? I don’t know. It’s authentic to us,” says Gan Shan Station owner and chef Patrick O’Cain, whose often-praised menu serves up regionally grown ingredients put together with traditional Asian techniques. He, too, has spent time traveling and learning throughout Asia. “It’s authentic to what we do and to our restaurant. But it may not be authentic to someone who had this dish that their grandmother made in China — which is also not the same ‘authentic’ as the person who lived right down the street in China and how their grandmother makes it. I’ve found that real authenticity is only valuable to the individual. You can be authentic to what you do individually, to yourself, but ‘authentic’ as a general term, I don’t think it exists. It’s a meaningless word.”

Food Republic writer Matt Rodbard, co-author of the cookbook Koreatown with New York City chef Deuki Hong, says, “Korean food is rooted in tradition, and there’s a lot of Korean flavors that we use in America, but we’re 6,000 miles from Korea.” Rodbard, who also wrote a guide to New York’s Koreatown, has become something of an authority on Korean enclaves in the U.S. “But to say that someone’s food is authentic is to say that it’s the purest form of that cuisine, and that is total bulls**t. It’s a lazy crutch that food writers, journalists and Yelpers use, because we think we know what that means, but it isn’t pushing the conversation forward.”

Unquestionably, there are traditions in the ways we cook. And for many of us raised on a particular cuisine, those techniques and preparation methods are etched into our DNA. But the traditions and the taste are still profoundly personal, and more often than not, it was never the specific style of dumpling that made your grandmother’s chicken and dumplings so authentic: It was your grandmother who did that.

“The real issue is for people who grew up in a culture and then left it,” Dean maintains. “For me, it’s when you get to the point where you’re just homesick and you start craving stuff. It’s always missing something, and part of it is just being very nostalgic.

“There was a time when you were younger when you would just go out for something, and that experience just doesn’t translate elsewhere. So even if they make it good enough, the most they can do is bring you back a little bit, and then you’re back here again. But, honestly, it’s worth it, because just for a little while, it’s really cool.”

And then you’re back at the beginning — at the start of the search for that spark that made you feel authentic, that made something feel real.

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com

6 thoughts on “The real meal: Exploring the concept of culinary authenticity

  1. boatrocker

    That ‘food panic room’ might be a great place to learn a cooking style or two and then eventually be able to do it in your house. Yeah.
    Any style of food that makes my sweat smell of curry and spice instead of cheap beer and raw humble manliness, count me in.

    • boatrocker

      Oh, ouch for that for having read it.

      Nice work, Melania.

      Remember posters- it is still against all the laws in the world to point out anything not rosy red glasses for food.
      It’s internet baaaaaad and hurts readership-
      And…. here come the ‘troll’ labels’ for pointing out a real thing.

    • Jonathan Ammons

      Ha! That’s pretty funny. I actually hadn’t seen that one (I’d been working on interviews for this story for well over a month, and it was in my editors hands well before that one was published), but suffice it to say, this is by no means an original subject. This is a conversation we in the reataurant industry, and particularly those who have worked in ethnic restaurants, have been having for years. Hilarious too because I wanted this headline to read, “authenticity is bulls**t”, and then it would have been even closer! Ha!

  2. boatrocker

    I wouldn’t worry about who came up with the idea of the A word as BS first. In a tourist town like Asheville, that word is thrown around so often it ceases to have any real meaning here.

    From this article every reader should try the Thomas Wolfe article where he in so many words calls 1930’s Asheville not authentic. For obvious reasons.

  3. Authentic Food Yes!

    The term “authentic” may seem a heavy handed description, but it’s definitely a reasonable standard to apply to food. Is the dish more or less within the cooking tradition of the cuisine? For myself authenticity is often overrated: I look for food that might not necessarily be traditional but captures the spirit or flavors of the cuisine that make it distinctive. By the way, the term “ethnic cuisine” is a much lazier crutch than the term “authentic”.

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