The Search for Authentic Food

Pretzel purchasing in Istanbul, Turkey

Authenticity. If you’ll allow me one dictionary cliché for this post, the word ‘authentic’ is usually defined either in the strong sense of being “of undisputed origin or authorship”, or in a weaker sense of being “faithful to an original” or a “reliable, accurate representation”. But how does this word translate to the very complicated global food context? Ask any food or travel writer worth their salt and they will probably tell you that the search for an authentic experience is at the heart of their work. I certainly can’t disagree. However, while many people seem to have very strong convictions about authenticity, I’ve still yet to receive a consensus on what it means. Frankly, the “I’ll know it when I see it” or worse, “trust me, I know what I’m talking about” definitions don’t really cut it.

Is it technique? Ingredients? History? I was on the phone with a good friend of mine last night when we landed on this topic. After a thoughtful pause, she offered, “I think…it is authentic if it’s the kind of food that someone’s grandmother would have made.” Without a doubt, she’s probably picturing a loving Italian nonna who spends all day massaging tomatoes and folding up pasta triangles into tortellini, flour flying everywhere and excited to have everyone gather around her rustic dinner table. Then I directed my thoughts to my own childhood. My paternal grandmother’s idea of a good homemade meal is (still) walking downstairs to supplement her cooking with fried rice and noodles from the Guy Down the Street, while my maternal grandmother wouldn’t have dreamed of serving anything without a hearty dose of MSG.

Istanbul, 2009—I was attending an international conference here where each day’s activities were organized by a different group of people instructed simply to “prepare something authentic for the delegates”. The result? We were served dry kebabs at every single meal. Authentic doesn’t necessarily mean good, but it’s a part of the equation. The pain of not being able to find a dish that tastes like something you had on your travels, or worse, being in a culinary travel destination and unable to find good food, is a feeling I know too well. The lightness of a perfect French crepe, the finesse of a perfectly sliced piece of Japanese sashimi, or the richness of a bowl of Texan chili—the perfect match of ingredients to method to geography somehow acts as an emotional trigger to signify that something is being done well.

Barboncino’s famous “brunch pizza” with fior de latte, eggs and prosciutto in Brooklyn, New York

More than ever, food is at the heart of many interesting political, social and economic discussions. Recently, TVO launched The Food Chain, a multiplatform series of documentaries, current affairs and articles that discusses food through these various lenses. TVO kicked off the launch with the airing of the 10-part travelogue Girl Eat World, where fellow food blogger Kamini (like harmony) Pather goes around the world visiting other food bloggers to discover how food is changing the way people think about themselves and their city. From Tokyo to Milan, from Dubai to Copenhagen, Kamini eats as the locals do, soaking up the history, culture and food story of each place she visits. And guess which word Kamini uses more than any other? That’s right—authentic.

And rightfully so. Though it’s not explicit, a large part of the show is about Kamini’s internal thought process of trying to decide whether an unfamiliar dish presented to her by a total stranger is representative of, and authentic to, the city that they’re in. Instead of opting for “meat and three veg” options in Sydney, food blogger Billy Law takes Kamini to all the best (and arguably weirdest) Asian spots, presenting her with kangaroo hot pot and a 17 day old embryo egg (clearly his M.O. was seeing how far he could push it). In Philadelphia, Drew Lazor forgoes the perfect cheesesteak and presents her with a beloved roast pork sandwich from Dinic’s instead. Finally, Kamini addresses the idea of authenticity head on while learning from Bangkok blogger Chawadee Nualkhair that Pad Thai was actually the result of a Chinese man trying to make a Chinese dish as Thai as possible for the sake of a contest.

Los Angeles, 1996—I was wearing a sparkly fancy kid outfit and had just tasted what was then the best meal of my young life—a prime rib, creamed spinach and creamed corn from Lawry’s. I dreamt about that meal for many years before finally getting the opportunity to go back to Lawry’s again in Chicago last year. While the décor was just as ornate as I remember it being, I didn’t experience the same feeling of grandeur (getting older sucks sometimes), and other than the prime rib itself, I couldn’t believe that the creamed mess before me was what I had used as my benchmark of a truly authentic, timeless, American culinary experience for almost twenty years. The problem with that kind of timeless authenticity is that it doesn’t really exist outside of our imaginations. Even the best dishes that have stood up against the test of time have had to evolve somewhat along with the advances in science and technology. Classics like the tourtière (a Quebecois meat pie) are hardly ever made with lard anymore.

And I’ll be damned if you can find yourself an un-ironic aspic.

Ecuadorian “chuple” corn snack

Quito, 2011—I had finally gotten a little break from my summer camp leader duties and was overjoyed to be eating food outside the camp, hoping that I would finally be able to experience something that “real Ecuadorians” eat. We were near a museum and there weren’t any other food vendors around, but whatever this lady was mixing looked great. The only problem was, I couldn’t convince her to give me a straight answer on what it was exactly that she was making. Frustrated, I turned to my friends for help with classifying this new dish.

Ecuadorian friend: Annie, do you like it?

Me: Yes.

Ecuadorian friend: Good. it’s just a delicious corn snack. There’s no name. Just enjoy it.

Does authenticity even matter? After thinking about this for quite some time, I still don’t have a clear definition of what that word in this context means. However, I am comfortable with standing by the notion that it is something made with fresh ingredients, pays respects its historical cultural context, is made with integrity, and above all, tastes good. Innovation in the kitchen is very important, but I think it’s equally important that cooks learn about a dish’s ingredients, origins, and cultural context before putting their own spin on it. No dish is an island, and exploring the connection of food to place is what makes our journeys in culinary travel so exciting.

[small]Please note: This post was sponsored by TVO. Photo One taken by Claude Chen during our trip to Turkey. Girl Eat World is available for streaming at, and on TVO Mondays at 9 pm from October 26 to November 23. Join the discussion using the hashtag #feedyourmind. [/small]


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