The Problem with Authenticity

The Problem with Authenticity

Authenticity in food is an issue that is fraught with contention. Arundhati Ail unpacks a few of these questions, using some of our most beloved foods as examples.

I remember the first time I tasted Hyderabadi biryani. I had served it onto my plate out of an airtight flight-friendly packet that had travelled all the way from Hyderabad to Mumbai, with my parents. My sister and I savoured every bite, fascinated by the fact that we could enjoy the delicacies of a region without ever actually setting foot there. To us, it was authenticity delivered to our doorstep.

In many ways, we seem to be obsessed with authenticity when it comes to food. I know friends from Chennai who complain about the sweet sambar in popular South-Indian joints in Pune, and Maharashtrians who critique overly-spiced misal pavs. I’ve had friends assure me that the sabudana payasam in our hostel is not anywhere close to the ‘real’ piping hot payasam they eat back home. Every time my family eats fish at a restaurant, the conversation on the ride back home is about how no ‘outside’ fish will match ‘our-homemade-Mallu-style-fry’. And haven’t we all rolled our eyes when foreign visitors describe vada pavs as ‘Mumbai burgers’ or dosas as ‘Indian crepes’, silently offended at their attempt to make something that is ours their own.

Traditional Goan bebinca. Image credit:  Pfeiffer family .

Traditional Goan bebinca. Image credit: Pfeiffer family.

We feel protective of our food. We take pride in the way we cook it, the ingredients we use and the manner in which we serve and eat it. This leads to an idea of authenticity and ownership of food, cuisine and cooking. However, the question of authenticity is a tricky one. Food history is complex, involving exchange and adaptation through decades of changing rulers and their travels as well as the opening up of new trade routes and channels of communication. The Goan vindaloo, for instance, is said to be an adaptation of the Portuguese dish carne de vinho e alhos (literally translating to meat, wine and garlic). In fact, the name vindaloo is said to be one pronunciation of vinho e alhos. When the Portuguese settled in Goa, there was a fascinating interchange of cultural practises and eating habits. The Portuguese ate with their hands like the Indians, and gave up their regular diet of bread and meat for rice, fish and pickles. They taught Indian cooks the art of pastry-making, leading to the creation of what we now know as a Goan special — the bebinca. The Goan cooks began making vindaloo with local ingredients, replacing wine vinegar with coconut vinegar. They made the dish their own, incorporating condiments like black pepper, cloves and cinnamon. The vindaloo is just one example among many, of the complex paths foods we consider authentically ours have traversed. Biryani travelled to India all the way from Persia, where it was known as pilau. When Humayun arrived in India, he longed for the food he used to love in Persia and despised the food available in the new country. However, his successors Akbar and Jahangir grew up in India and accepted it as their homeland. They savoured the range of flavours the land had to offer. Through their travels in India, Persia’s pilau became biryani in Hyderabad and Lucknow, each place offering its own twist to the rice and meat dish. It was also adapted as khichari in Gujarat, a vegetarian lentil and rice-based dish. Similarly, idli, a staple breakfast item in homes across South India, is believed to have arrived in the country from Indonesia, where the dish was known as kedli. Even the chicken tikka masala, served in restaurants across India actually owes its origins to the British. It is said to have been invented when a chef added Campbell’s tomato soup and cream to make a gravy out of a dry chicken tikka, to pacify a complaining customer.

The question of authenticity, however, remains one ridden with complexity even at a more personal level. Food is an integral part of any culture. In many, as in India, recipes are often passed down from one generation to the other and are a matter of great pride. But even within these intergenerational transfers, food undergoes subtle changes. We know these subtleties as that ‘personal touch’ added by mothers that gives us the maa ke haath ka khaana we all talk about. Every so often, I have seen my mother experiment with preparations taught to her, adding a little kaccha mango in a prawn curry, replacing rawa with rice flour for a fish fry or throwing some potato wedges over a layered biryani. That minor intervention — the last-minute addition of an ingredient, or the spontaneous shift in the proportions of spices, becomes a trademark of the home-cook, adding a new layer of complexity to the entire question of authenticity in food.

In many ways, food is closely associated with identity. Not only does food directly affect nutrition, it is also culturally linked to various personality characteristics. It is often believed that the consumption of food transfers the characteristics of the food to the eater. For instance, red meat and hot or spicy foods are associated with strength. For the French, eating turnips leads to spinelessness. The three Ayurvedic gunas — sattvic, rajasic and tamasic, also link specific foods with personality characteristics. Foods that are fresh and light are considered sattvic, and consumers of such foods are thought to be compassionate and caring. Spicy or salty (rajasic) foods are associated with aggressive and egoistic personalities, while preserved or overly-processed foods are associated with characteristics like greed and materialism. These associations also lead to foods being considered particularly ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ in different cultures. The concept of a cuisine also links us inextricably to our culture. It subtly draws a line, marking in those for whom the foods are a staple, and other-ing those who eat differently. This is why, often, when living in a country or region other than our own, we find ourselves longing for the food we would find in our kitchens back home. This is why immigrants try their best to hold on to their ways of cooking and eating, often even resisting adapting to the local cuisine, afraid that they would lose a part of their identity in the process. Maybe this is also why we find so much pride in ownership over food and cooking, and the idea of authenticity. As the proverb goes, you are what you eat.

Arundhati Ail is a Pune-based student researcher interested in exploring the intersections of food, culture, history and identity.