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What Really Makes Your Food Authentic? | Beyond The Pass

What Really Makes Your Food Authentic? | Beyond The Pass

I don’t know whether it’s the rain, or whether it’s just old age creeping in and forcing my guard to lower, but I feel like taking a (slight) risk this week; I’m going to talk about what I think makes food authentic.

Why is this a risk, you might ask.

Well, because it’s a terrain fraught with potholes, where any misstep could cause offence to an entire population of people. And it’s because of this that I will endeavour to tread very carefully indeed.

After all, why wouldn’t a pale guy from Northern England be an authority on a vast array of cuisines?*

*This is a joke, or at least an attempt at one. There will be many more attempts to come, for which I apologise in advance.

Let’s begin with what I understand to be many people’s prerequisite for a certain cuisine’s authenticity: the place where the person making it hails from.

One time, I remember eating at a family owned & operated Italian restaurant and my friend told me that the owner’s mum was in the back every night making the gnocchi by hand. Naturally, I had to order some and I have to say, it was probably the best gnocchi I’ve ever tasted.

It makes sense to believe that an Italian chef will cook you a more authentic Italian meal than, say, a Brazilian, or a Swedish one (especially if Jim Henson has anything to do with him), right?

And I’ll admit there was a certain comfort gained from seeing my gnocchi being lovingly rolled out by some Nonna with forearms the size of baseball bats. It was like each plate leaving the pass was served with a warm hug from those enormous arms of hers.

Nonna hug

I think it’s because there’s a certain amount of accepted history behind each little dumpling she made. A trust that the techniques involved have become honed over years of practice and generations of knowledge passed down.

And hey, that’s a perfectly reasonable point of view to take. It’s damn near normal, I’d say.

Quite often the most authentic meals I’ve had were prepared by chefs and cooks whose backgrounds were the same as the food.

In the same way, I’ll put my pot of Scouse (it’s really just a stew, but it’s all I have, please let me keep this!) or my roast dinners, or any other collection of beige-looking foods up against any pretenders to the throne, any day of the week (although probably just Sundays for the roasts, I’m not a savage), confident that a lifetime of tasting and tweaking will see me reign supreme, as I’m sure you’d back your takes on the foods of your people.

After all, we were raised on the real deal. We’ve tasted how it should taste when prepared by a master (more often than not this master will be your Nan/Nonna/Yia-yia/Oma etc.) and would surely recognise if something were to seem ‘off’.

But that’s not the be all and end all; far from it.

Because whilst heritage and lineage goes some way towards achieving authenticity, there is of course merit in passion and the pursuit of knowledge and those things can bump the scales in the favour of those committed enough to dedicate the time to them.

Let me give you an example.

Recently, I had the privilege of cooking alongside Rising Sun owner and chef Nick Smith. For those of you who don’t know, Rising Sun is famous for their Japanese-inspired menu, most notably their ramen.

And, in case you didn’t catch it, Nick Smith is not the most Japanese of names. It’s probably about as far away from a traditional Japanese name as you can get.

But what he lacks in pedigree, he more than makes up for it in passion and skill. There is an obvious and vast knowledge of Japanese cuisine inside that beautiful head of his, and it’s quickly realised as soon as he opens his mouth. 

The bloke knows more about Japanese food than I know about Japanese cars and you’re looking at a guy who’s owned two Nissans, so…yeah.

A glossary of food terms and names that I’ve already forgotten spill out whilst I look on with this glazed-over, dumb half-smile on my face.

Dumb smile

A respect and an appreciation of the ingredients and the techniques used is evident. Not just the ‘what’ but also the ‘why’. And the cleverness and ingenuity to apply this knowledge to create more dishes in a similar vein is something that cannot be ignored.

And after an evening cooking with him, it’s hard to label his food anything but authentic. Seriously, close your eyes and taste his food and you’d swear to god that he grew up on the mean streets of Yokohama.

But he’s not unique in this. Many chefs have tried their hand at different cuisines with varying results.

Whilst I like to kid myself sometimes that I can whip up an authentic Neapolitan pizza because I’ve played around with dough hydration a couple of times and invested in a pizza oven, in reality I know that the fact that my pizza oven is gas-powered and my sauce is just salted Polpa straight from the tin will condemn me forever as a pretender. I can almost hear those ‘woodfired boys’ laughing at me as I type.

I will never open my own pizzeria, and that loss will be mourned with nary a whimper.

And I do hear you at the back, bandying around the old ‘cultural appropriation’ phrase, and please know that I acknowledge more than a few people are guilty of this. In fact, there’s an entire cuisine devoted to these values, and it’s called Tex Mex.

But the thing about cultural appropriation is that if you are a person in tune with society, you can always spot it from a mile away. Even the most subtle examples have a tendency to make you feel uneasy.

But sometimes it’s so glaringly blatant that you can’t believe anybody thought it was a good idea.

And on that note, I’ll leave you with the most tone deaf example I’ve ever seen.

It was for a local Greek restaurant and their New Year’s Eve party which, for some reason only the owners of this place would know, was Mexican Dia de los Muertos themed. 

The mind boggles.

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