Saturday 15 February 2014

Keeping it Authentic

Someone pulled me up the other day on my use of the word 'authentic' in relation to my review of Red's True BBQ. In hindsight I probably shouldn't have used the A word. There are plenty of experts around who will tell you that no this is not authentic American food at all, but a bastardised faux version, as far removed from the real thing as McDonalds. People often say the same in relation to 'ethnic' food, that it's nothing like the cuisine you get in the homeland. This week, someone on twitter was complaining about the gunpowder chips in Mughli for this very reason. (Quite wrongly in my book. Does it really matter if you can't find these in India if they're as tasty as hell?)
These people suck the joy out of everything like Buzz Killington from Family Guy. Yes we should try and look for 'authenticity' I guess, but any restaurant over here, by it's very nature will be a British version. If we stick to the strict rules on absolutely everything all of the time, we're left with a country like Italy. Although their home-grown cuisine is fabulous, the rules people follow are so strict that they will not allow any deviation. So even modern Michelin star restaurants are fairly thin on the ground over there because of this conservatism.
I'd argue that it's precisely when cultures combine and clash that it gets interesting. Everybody knows that Chicken tikka Masala wasn't created in India, but it doesn't stop it being a classic, and sometimes it's just what you want, albeit after several pints of lager (another Great British tradition).
So at the moment there's the never ending burger craze, now it's hot dogs and perhaps BBQ. (I'm hoping for pizza next). We've taken from America just as we've taken from everywhere else, this in fact is the British way.
I've been here in Manchester for over 20 years and it's really never been better for eating out. Yes I moan as much as anyone, we always want it to be better still, but look at what we had even 5 or 10 years ago. It's staggering how much it's changed for the better. There's so much choice now. If you want high end Michelin style you have The French or Manchester House, right down to cheap eats. There's loads of places to get a good burger (no matter what the purists say) in Solita and Almost Famous et al. Indian restaurants are getting more authentic, but they'll do it in a British way like Mughli have done. Taking the best bits and adding their own twist. Cuisine evolves, and things will only get better.
So sod authenticity, whatever it means. I'm going out for a dirty hot dog tonight. (Does anything say Valentine's more than a tube of meat?)  It might not be exactly like Nathan's in NY (or wherever) but does it actually matter if I enjoy it?

Disclaimer: I am not an expert, I just like to eat.


  1. tl:dr - I hate the word

    Completely agree with this, the "A" word is a sure sign that bullshit is following shortly. It's used by the following kinds of people

    1) People who've been to the region/country and use this as one-upmanship whenever the item/style is being discussed or eaten. Sample quote "well this pizza is ok but for the authentic experience you need to go to Naples"
    2) Luddites who are scared of change, (especially when it comes to Sous Vide, thermomix etc) just because something has been done that way for ages doesn’t mean it’s the best. An intelligent cook will pick whatever technique gives them the best result.
    3) “That’s not how Mummy made it” I think Mr Freud had some words on this subject
    4) Casual racism, “It’s only authentic when someone from that country cooks it” – so no one else can study & learn?

    My main problem with authentic food is that it’s just not possible to define. What is authentic? The implied notion is that it’s “honest, local and traditional” all of which can be wonderful things. If that was the meaning in which people used the word it’d be fantastic but it’s not. It’s used as a snobby “I know more about this than you” attitude. Fish & chips and a roast dinner, two of the UK’s most famous dishes, involve potatoes which aren’t indigenous – are they then unauthentic as British cuisine? Should you exclude any Italian dish with tomato in it for the same reason? Of course not, they’re classics. It does seem that the authentic brigade can’t agree on a precise date before which ingredients and techniques are authentic and after which they’re not.

    I love my sous vide machine, but I also love to cook with a cast iron pan. I prefer my Japanese knife to a hunk of sharpened flint. I know that food that is local and in season right now is going to taste at its best, but I’m not going to forgo spices because they come from the other side of the world.

    I can’t remember a review/comment about food that didn’t use the word as either an insult (as in the food not being authentic) or for the writer to show off as having some knowledge about the subject and is thus better than the reader. Especially in the days of smartphones all the facts about a dish you could ever want (and thousands you don’t) are available to everyone. Google and Wikipedia have their (vital) places but don’t use them as a tool to make yourself feel better than anyone else.

    To quote Alastair Little from Keep It Simple “The diner is interested in taste first, texture second and appearance lastly”. Does it taste good? Does it eat well? Those are the questions we should be asking, not is it authentic?

  2. To be fair to Maccy D, their food is authentic American scran. It might not be to everyone's taste, however it's still a genuine slice of corporate Americana. Anyhow, I digress, this is a good article, I enjoyed reading it. And you're right.