As far as “authenticity” is concerned, I like this definition by S L Kinsey:
"Authentic" has to do with the extent to which the food duplicates what is currently being done in the cuisine's culture of origin. If Thai people in Thailand are using ketchup, then it would be "authentic" to do so in a restaurant here. … "Authentic" doesn't necessarily equal "good" nor does "inauthentic" necessarily equal "bad." … Part of looking at it this way is understanding that "authentic" changes with the times. The Thai cooking that is happening in Thailand is always going to be "authentic" on this basis. When Thai people began using ketchup with any frequency, it immediately became "authentic."
I’d only add this: Sometimes it’s not very easy to work out “what is currently being done in the cuisine’s culture of origin” – because there may be quite a wide variation of practice. (To take an example from the carbonara theme: I was taught to make carbonara by two Italians, one of them Roman, from a very old Roman family. The version they used, which they called carbonara, included both cream and onions, and by conventional standards would not be regarded as “authentic”. But it undoubtedly represented “what [was] currently being done in the cuisine’s culture of origin.) Some dishes, even in their “culture of origin” involve (sometimes notorious) “contests” about authenticity.
Now the main question I have is this. Apart from intellectual curiosity – either “grand” curiosity such as that of the social anthropologist, or “pragmatic” curiosity such as that of the person who would just like to taste a dish “as it is made where it comes from” – does authenticity matter at all?
On the thread which started me thinking about this, Maureen B Fant commented. She said she:
gradually came around to being convinced that in the matter of traditional Italian foods, it was foolish not to give the Italians the benefit of the doubt. And I've often said that the chaos that invades so many aspects of life is not found in the food. If you order carbonara in a Roman trattoria, the sort of place to which it is native, you have a right to expect to receive a dish containing only egg, guanciale, cheese, and pepper, and maybe a little olive oil, though that isn't quite "philological". Otherwise you have chaos. To give you an oft-cited example, the restaurant Al Moro in Rome serves "spaghetti al Moro," which is carbonara in which the black pepper is replaced by red. That's the only difference, but they changed the name. If you add leftover chicken to your carbonara, it becomes something else, not carbonara.
My immediate reaction to this was rather negative: that this involved a highly conservative “mystification” of food – that, as S L Kinsey put it, authentic does not necessarily equal good. The question should be “what tastes good?”, itself always a rather personal matter.
But on further reflection, I’m not sure I agree with my own initial view, though I don’t think I agree with Maureen either.
I still don’t think that authenticity is valuable for its own sake. But I think experience may teach that all too often fine traditional dishes are “taken over”, and that in the process of playing “variations on a theme” they are definitely debased, so that inauthentic does (in practice) come to mean worse. The pattern seems to be depressingly familiar: the dish becomes overcomplicated and its subtleties are lost, all too often by the removal of “challenging” ingredients (anchovies, recognisable fat...), and the addition of “non-challenging” ingredients (extra cheese, sweet tomato sauces) or simply by loading so much into the dish that it becomes a sort of garbage bin. And thus we arrive at such dishes as many kinds of commercial pizza, or compost-bin “quiches”, or “chicken Caesar salads” which are just salads with creamy cheesy dressings and a hunk of chicken dumped on top.
This makes me think that there may be some value in trying to maintain knowledge about what is “authentic”, and at least to be both cautious in departing from it and clear about when a departure has occurred. A custard-based tart with cheese, onions and bacon may be worth eating, but it is not a “quiche Lorraine” – or even a legitimate variation on it. A pasta sauce with cream, chicken, bacon, mushrooms, cheese and eggs may (or may not!) be worth eating, but it should not bask in any reflected light that the word “carbonara” could offer . A gelatine-set mousse on top of a cracker crust may be a fine dessert, but it is not a cheesecake. A concoction of vodka and fruit liqueur is not a “martini”. Or, to take an example close to my own culture, a ring of poached sweet dessert apples with sandy crumbs sprinkled over the top does not deserve the name “crumble”.
Whatever the (sometimes dubious) merits of these dishes, they should not be permitted to trade on the reputation of quite different recipes.
Perhaps we need authenticity police, not to prevent innovation, but to insist on keeping the innovation honest, because all too often bad food uses familiar and reputable names as a disguise to insinuate itself onto our menus.
Or is this simply reactionary nonsense?