Authentic Food: Does it matter?

Yesterday morning when I woke up, I found a platter on my dining table laden with delicious stuffed parathas along with some homemade mango pickle complemented with regular juice and boiled eggs. These parathas were quite thick, unlike that of the parathas made by my mother. My mother was eagerly waiting for me to wake up only to tell me that she has made Amritsari kulcha, purely authentic one! But, I wasn’t really sure if those parathas qualify to be called authentic. Of course, they tasted heavenly but authentic? Really?

So, the rest of my Saturday morning went in taking the thought-showers about the true meaning of “authentic food.” Is there an objective definition for an authentic-food? Also, does it matter? Just by the definition, “authentic” means “being what it is claimed to be; genuine”. This definition in my view is a little deceptive. I believe that one dish remains authentic until a new version of it arrives.

Let’s deconstruct this argument by exploring the history of popular Indian dishes. The evergreen kulchas, butter chicken, pasta, biryani and dosa-sambar.

Medieval Era
Medieval Era | Picture Courtesy

To begin with, the history of kulchas goes back to the Mughals and the Nizams. The khansamas during Shah Jahan’s reign used to stuff kulchas with vegetables which gained further popularity after Aurangzeb ascended the throne. He preferred kulchas filled with dal and vegetables. Legends also have it that Shah Jahan preferred these loaves of bread over biryanis during his exile. If we go by this story and trace the origin to what is being served today, clearly it has taken different imaginations, textures and forms. While being in Amritsar, you will find stalls claiming to offer authentic Amritsari kulchas. Yet, you feel each of them taste a bit different with equally different taste. In my last article, I have talked about the origin of kulcha in much more detail.

Talking about the most revered Italian dish in India that is pasta, the cafes in Delhi serve some of the best recipes. All of them claiming to be authentic Italian. But in India what we eat is an Indianised form of pasta which we know as gravy pasta. In one of the cafes I have worked in the past, I wanted to change the way we served pasta by using a soupcon of pomedaro/red sauce and additional flavours of ingredients like of parmesan cheese, olives, some grilled chicken and fresh basil on top. It tasted delicious to me, but the customer complained and said “it is not “authentic”, the sauce/gravy is missing”. The sudden realization about the subjectivity of “authentic” came only after having my share of a laugh.

Cookbooks: The medieval editions
Cookbooks: The medieval editions | Picture Courtesy

Being in the industry, I got chances to travel at stretch from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and as someone who has experienced the incredible and vibrant taste of India, I believe it is our duty to educate the mass about the dishes and the ground they hold on! Often, we come across the feeds on food blogging websites and Instagram pages where the claims of the dish being best and real, are made. But, the question remains the same, is it real? And does it really matter?

Well, if you ask me, I would categorize them under the “fusion food” bucket because under here you can serve anything.

We often take pride in saying what is “ours” and what have we been accustomed to eating. This sense of conserving one’s food culture and debates around the best food is known to us all. We all have that one place which serves our favourite dish and we often go there to devour in the flavour and taste of our favourite dishes. “That” place and “those” dishes become the symbol of authenticity.

However, even these dishes cannot be claimed to be the authentic ones. If we trace the route to explore the history, we will realise that Butter chicken was given by the businessman, KL Gujral who wanted to prevent his Tandoori Chicken hanging on the seekhs above the tandoor, at his restaurant Moti Mahal, from drying. That’s when he came up with the idea of cooking a basic gravy with tomatoes, butter-cream and spices to immerse the Tandoori Chicken pieces in, and the rest is now history.

The “real” biryani which was popular in Persia and still is in some Parsi households, they do not put rice but simply put meat and serve flatbread. Another story of biryani comes from 2nd century A.D, Tamil Nadu. The dish is known as ‘Oon Soru’ and is composed of rice, ghee, meat, turmeric, coriander, pepper, and bay leaf which was used to feed the military. I am very certain that the biryani which is served nowadays is everything but real by the books! In fact, every state has a multitudinous range of biryani with all variety of flavours, usage of rice, meat, dry fruits and spices.

Sambaar & Dosa also hold an altogether different story, texture and flavour than what we are eating now. The original Tamil dosa was softer and thicker whereas the popular, thinner and crisper version of dosa was first time prepared in present-day Karnataka. A recipe for dosa known as ‘Dosaka’ can be found in Manasollasa, a 12th century Sanskrit encyclopedia compiled by Someshvara III. Sambaar, on the other hand, goes back to the rule of Shahuji 1 (1684-1712). It is believed that he was hosting Sambhaji, the Second Emperor of the Maratha Empire. On the day, his royal cooks were supposed to be cooking amti but the kitchen was missing major ingredients like tur dal and kokum. Hence, the chefs had no option but to tweak and add moong dal and tamarind pulp. Many believe that this dish was named after the royal visitor- Sambhaji.

A history of Mughal Cuisine
A History of Mughal Cuisine | Picture Courtesy

Our history is evidence to the fact that fusion defines the very essence of food and cooking which is a necessary tool to keep history alive.

A few days back when I was visiting one of my favourite Chefs, Ashish Bhasin, Executive Chef at Leela, Gurgaon. He was hosting the cuisines from the Mughal empire. I asked him about one particular dish whether he can say it is authentic on which he very humbly replied no; this dish perhaps won’t qualify as authentic but he called them authentic because of the ingredients which were used. Perhaps, diners’ idea of “authentic food” comes from the sense of taste they have been familiar with.

We can’t really expect the food to remain untouched by the era of Globalization. For me, “authenticity “also depends on the availability of ingredients in any particular continent/city. Globalization exposed us to that unexplored world of unbound food histories.

This confluence is probably the reason why different community these days are doing different kinds of pop-up and special food menu in restaurants or their homes to retain their dying “idea of the authentic dish.”

I, however, explore the old and lost dishes simply because I want to bring those dishes back and give them respect and value they deserve. They are the base of our present food culture. We should value the creativity of the chef or the creator of the dishes but at the same time, we must also be aware that perhaps what we are eating is their version of the authentic food.

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