Authentic cuisine. That phrase gets thrown around as carelessly as “world famous,” “award winning,” and “I’ve never done this before,” but what does it really mean? What makes a dish authentic?
One of my all time favorite foods is Thai massaman curry. The mere mention of it sends my eyes rolling back into my head in an ecstasis rivaling Sunday morning snake handlers. The unmistakable aroma of roasted coriander, the juicy bites of seared meat, soft chunks of potato and peanuts lingering seductively in a complexly spiced, but slightly sweet coconut sauce that unties it all in a “Bohemian Rhapsody”-like chorus of goodness.
I regularly make a pilgrimage to Sawasdee Thai Restaurant to pay homage to this king of curries. Tucked into a small lot behind Manny Rico’s headstone emporium as you enter St. Elmo, this small restaurant makes the best massaman I have ever tasted. Sawasdee also has one of the most confusing arrays of Yelp, UrbanSpoon, and Trip Advisor comments ranging from “The best Thai food in Chattanooga!!” to “This is not authentic Thai food! I’ll never go back again!”
Yes, the service at Sawasdee is sometimes just a step above Mel’s Diner, and if you catch the owner in a bad mood she may try to talk you out of a dish because she thinks you won’t like it, but I have never had a bad meal there. But I have never questioned the authenticity of the food, even when my massaman is served to me garnished with slices of avocado while Tony Bennett Muzak plays in the background. Authentic cuisine is like porn or hipsters—hard to define, but I know it when I see it.
Your idea of what’s authentic about a restaurant’s food depends completely on your own ideas and preconceived notions about that cuisine. The question then becomes “authentic to who?” What do we base our judgment of authenticity on? Is it that the cooking techniques and ingredients are from the motherland? Is it inauthentic for a Thai restaurant to use a modern gas stove instead of a single propane burner? Should the cook sit on a low stool to prep the ingredients rather than using a Robot Coupe?
And what about regional variations? The differences in food between regions in Thailand are just as varied and distinct as the differences between Memphis dry and Kansas City wet barbecue or New York- and Chicago-style pizza.
There are so many factors that affect the choices a cook makes when creating a dish, the very idea of authentic food is at best reductionist and at worst misleading. It flirts with gastronomic imperialism that looks at restaurants like reservations where the “other” can serve food that that’s been preserved for our enjoyment. Food, just like the culture arises from, has variations that stretch across time, geography and individual tastes that cannot be boiled down to a list of criteria to check off like you’re buying car insurance.
More often than not, authentic tends to be a value judgment rather than a descriptor, but “authentic” and “good” are not necessarily the same thing. Growing up, I had a friend whose grandmother made very authentic southern cornbread but it had the flavor and texture of dry potting soil. On the other hand, an authentic tuna casserole wouldn’t use béchamel sauce, shiitake mushrooms, fresh bluefin tuna and hand-made noodles, but it would probably taste amazing.
Finally there is the matter of restaurants that intentionally change a dish to meet the tastes and expectations of another culture or because certain ingredients are costly. Mediocrity is a foundational principle of our capitalist economy leading many restaurant owners to believe that creating food to appeal to the masses is a proven recipe for economic success. This purposeful dumbing down of dishes to appeal to lowest common denominator’s taste buds is what those who cry for authenticity are usually upset about. That’s what turns ground beef seasoned with chilli powder and piled into a crunchy Doritos shell into a “taco.”
There’s something to be said for being able to enjoy a particular variation of a dish that’s informed by history and culture. Sure, it’s fun to hear a recording of one of Shakespeare’s plays that’s been updated to modern-day English; but seeing a live performance of the same play where the actors speak the words as Shakespeare wrote them adds another dimension to that experience. Neither way is necessarily “better” than the other. Each has its place and the same is true for food. So stop sweating if food is 100 percent authentic or not. It’s too slippery of a concept to matter unless you’re a gastro-anthropologist or you’re trying to relive a particular dining experience. Just relax and enjoy your massaman, it’s delicious.
Mike McJunkin cooks better than you and eats quite a bit of once forbidden food. Visit his authentic Facebook page (Sushi and Biscuits) for updates and recipes. You’ll thank us.