I was perusing the menu of a local Italian restaurant and came across a dish called “Authentic Spaghetti Puttanesca” and I instantly imagined a couple of prostitutes out the back of the restaurant kitchen, whipping up their special ‘putana’ pasta dish.
What does ‘authentic’ mean anyway when it comes to food? Does it mean that there is only one true way to cook a particular dish?
Take for example Spaghetti Bolognese. What’s authentic about it? The people in Bologna certainly don’t make their pasta sauce with mince meat, they also add milk, not a splash of red wine to their ragu. But does it really matter if my bolognese has too many erroneous hidden vegetables if it tastes good and my family are licking their plates at the end?
What about foods like Tika Masala and Spaghetti and Meatballs that evolved in expatriate communities in the UK and USA, can they ever be authentic?
I remember my mother used to regularly cook her version of stirfry that was so far removed from anything Chinese, yet it was strangely delicious and unique. I call it her Cro-Asian stirfry. It uses Vegeta stock powder and not a drop of soy sauce in sight! I’d kind of like to think that though it deviated from the original idea substantially, it was still authentic to her and perhaps even I will cook it like that for a kick one day, why not?
The problem with searching for that one authentic recipe is that it just doesn’t exist. Even regional specialties are subject to household variations.
So can you enjoy a non-authentic dish even if it’s tasty? Absolutely yes. It’s called evolution and it’s been happening all the time. Creating your own food traditions, tinkering with recipes and making them something that you and your family and friends really enjoy is manufacturing your own authenticity. There’s no point in cooking something that you don’t enjoy.
I think ultimately being authentic is being true to yourself. This applies to food and life in general. Cook the things you love for the people you love and serve up your own authentic meals.