One of the most delicious and interesting dishes I’ve tasted recently is the “curry leaf burrata” at a new-ish Indian restaurant, Chakra, in Notting Hill. A blob of creamy white Italian cheese is topped with toasted cumin, Korean chilli flakes and south Indian-style curry leaves, and served alongside mustard-spiked Bengali aubergines and Delhi-style cherry tomatoes with nigella seeds. As a dish it works beautifully, but it also runs utterly counter to a current craze: the quest for “authentic” food.
It’s a difficult idea to pin down. The word itself comes from ancient Greek, autos meaning “self” and hentes implying “doer” or “being”. It’s also tied up with the notion of authorship, so a working definition of authentic food could be dishes which are true to themselves and the person cooking them.
So authenticity can’t just be about place; even the ingredients used will taste different depending on where they’re grown. And what about dishes without a sense of place: the pasta primaveras chicken tikka masalas and egg foo yungs of the world? Can they never be authentic?
And “authentic” can’t mean “timeless”, or no dish would ever evolve. In many places dishes considered to be classics of the local cuisine don’t taste as they used to even five or 10 years ago, let alone back in the mists of time. The influences of travel, trade and other cultures, the availability of ingredients and changes in technology are all factors in their evolution. For example, heat was once brought to Indian curries by black pepper; chillies were only introduced to the subcontinent in the sixteenth century. Similarly moussaka, cassoulet and countless other classics have changed over time into what might now be regarded as “authentic” forms.
One of the ideas underpinning Claudia Roden‘s cookery books is that food is an integral part of identity. At the launch of her most recent book, The Food of Spain, she spoke about members of an Egyptian chefs’ organisation who didn’t want to cook their mothers’ food as they associated it with poverty. They have jettisoned authenticity in favour of aspiration; evolution at work.
So can you enjoy a traditional yet inauthentic dish if it’s tasty? Private chef Maunika Gowardhan who writes the cookinacurry blog, says: “There is always a core recipe, which in a way works as a guide. If you’re emulating flavours that have a history, then steering away … [from them] … will in no way make that traditional. But of course, adding your own take or influence … certainly isn’t flawed or wrong.”
So perhaps an “authentic” dish is one that captures the spirit of the original, however vague that sounds. We seem to instinctively know what authentic means to us, so we’re able to filter out horrors like Chinese tofu pizza. But then, one person’s “horror” is another person’s exciting innovation, and therein lies the rub.
Does it matter? It shouldn’t, but traditional recipes demand some respect. It’s useful for cooks to learn, or at least be curious, about a dish’s origins, its ingredients, its cultural context and the nuances that makes it what it is before creating their own riff. Which is why the talented chefs at Chakra, who know their burrata from their paratha, have got it right.
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