Foodosophy of the Evolution of Taste (Part 2): The Meaning of Authenticity

A lot of time spent in airports usually means one of two things for me. Either i get caught up on my music by tuning out the world and listening to my iPod, or I spend a lot of time thinking. Lately, it’s been the latter.

I’ve noticed lately some interesting trends in how taste continues to evolve – both personally, and culturally. In part one, I discussed the personal, as i shared my thoughts on some things that have been bothering me lately. Specifically, how information I had posted a few years ago has gotten stale, partly due because my tastes have continued to evolve and change. Trying to think of ways to manage this has left me with nothing but a headache, but discussions about this are ongoing and i feel hopeful that someone has an ideal solution!

Today, i want to discuss the idea of a cultural evolution of taste. What im referring to specifically is how a culture’s culinary traditions and tastes continue to change, and how that impacts how we look at food experiences, especially when it comes to the idea of “authenticity”.

Why do i care and what does this have to do with Foodosophy? Well, when sharing experiences, providing context is an important part of what you are describing. They are like signposts for the reader – identification of things that are important to them, and things that they don’t value. Adjectives all have some personal meaning to readers. So does the word authentic. I wonder though, should the word authentic never be used when discussing food?

I first became aware of the idea of culture evolution in a completely unrelated manner. I was on a trip to South Africa, and I met many Dutch travellers. With only a superficial, mostly historical understanding of the tenuous connection between the Dutch and SA, i inquired to try to get a better understanding of how the two cultures were still related. On the matter of language, one comment they made has always stuck with me: they felt that Afrikaans, which they understood as it’s roots are in Dutch, was the equivalent of speaking to a 5 year old Dutch child.

Now ignoring any of the cultural superiority implications, it got me to thinking. How did this happen? At some point, they shared the same language, and then diverged. While Dutch continued to change and evolve, developing their own idiomatic expressions, changes to language, along with ever changing colloquial terms, so did the form of Dutch that was the root of Afrikaans. It would be silly to assume that both languages continued to evolve in the same manner – and the differences today create some gap of understanding between the two, where one group perceives the offshoot as lacking authenticity, while the other group sees the shared roots that between the two.

The idea of authenticity in food seems to be important to people. When people ask questions about dining experiences, I hear the question “was it authentic?” as often as I hear “was it tasty?”.  So if we assume authenticity is important in how we look at our food experiences, how  do we measure this if cultures do continuous evolve in their food tastes?

With increased immigration and cross cultural mingling occuring since the 1800’s, there are many cases where food tastes and food culture have diverged, and then changed and evolved . In the past, if you look at Italian immigration to Argentina, you’ll find that many Italian immigrants in the late 1800’s brought all of their food culture with them, roots that are still very prevalent in Argentinian food culture today. Yet they have both obviously evolved – some what differently – and what Argentine tastes in Italian food are, are clearly quite different than what Italian tastes are. However, surprisingly to me, Italians i’ve met who have travelled to Argentina seem to feel that the pasta is of equivalent quality as Italy – authentic in the techniques and flavours used to create it – even though they have nothing good to say about the sauces.

In this case though, how do you measure an experience as authentic? If you have good pasta with bad sauce, do you say “it was authentically Argentinian-Italian pasta”? If you have good pasta with good sauce, is that suddenly “authentically Italian”? This is obviously a bit extreme, and tongue in cheek, but  it illustrates my point –  what the heck is authentic?

With a more recent example, we can look at the changes in sushi, a subject we seem to address ad infinitum here on Foodosophy. At one time essentially exclusively Japanese , you can see how Japanese chefs are taking sushi around the world, and then adapting and changing the cuisine to suit local tastes, and to push the envelope of a cuisine. In every culture i’ve visited, sushi has a different meaning. Some places sushi is traditional – zushi – neta and gari, minimalist, quality ingredients,  high precision skill. In other places, sushi means maki – rolls of stunning color and ingredients, creative art palette expressions using anything edible. Sashimi. Temaki (hand cones). Different places around the world have very different expressions of sushi.

The thing is, what sushi was when Japanese trained chefs began to leave Japan has changed. If you assume that tastes can change reasonably quickly, if what was brought to North America in the 70’s and 80’s was maintained to the exact standard of authentic Japanese sushi at the time, it would no longer be authentic. Japan has moved on. Or does that mean what Japan currently serves as sushi is no longer authentic either, since it has changed from what sushi was 40 years ago? Or has the cultural changes in taste meant that what is now served in Japan is the standard of authenticity?

I remember having a discussion with Yasuda-san of Sushi Yasuda, and he felt that he had the most authentic sushi, and chefs in Japan had “lost their way”. Itamae’s on the west coast feel the same way about their counterparts on the east coast. Same goes for itamae’s in Tokyo who feel that way about what is happening in Kansai. Everywhere, people place great value on what is authentic, and hold theirs up as the standard by which things should be judged.

Authenticity in restaurants used to be very important to me – i think partly because it was a way for my palette to travel when my body was confined to one city. But by acknowledging that tastes will continually evolve, both personally and culturally, I feel that the word has lost any meaning in relation to food. There really is no such thing as “authentic” cuisine – just something you either like, or don’t like.  Thoughts?

8 thoughts on “Foodosophy of the Evolution of Taste (Part 2): The Meaning of Authenticity

  1. I like to use the “traditional” rather than “authentic” to address the issue origin. Similar to your thoughts, I believe food evolves based on ingredients availability and other factors. Sticking with the “old ways” would be the “traditional” way to do it and the use of newer/different ingredients would be the “new” form (for the lack of a suitable word. Contemporary?). Of course, time will tell which one will stick and, in turn, that one will become the “traditional” version, at which time, things will evolve again in an endless cycle.

    However, this one does not address the question of which one is “better”. Truth is, to me, such thing does not necessarily exist: everything is in the diner’s mind. If they like different methods but one has a slight edge over the other, well, that will work for him/her. There is the example you mentioned: nigiri vs maki. I believe the later takes away of any skills requirement, as pretty much anybody can make a roll. However, people love it. Are they wrong? Nope, that’s what they like and that’s what matters.

  2. To me, authenticity stems more from rigour more than actual execution (which can vary with the skills of the cook, availability of ingredients, etc). Outside the place of its origin, a dish is authentic if it is prepared towards a perceived ideal rather than away from it.

  3. KH: the issue I have with the word traditional is the same problem i have with authentic. Traditions are changing constantly, and there’s no clear way of being able to identify what “traditional” is…if we were to try and reduce the definition of a traditional cuisine down to it’s atomic level, where it applies to all traditional cuisine without eliminating some actual traditional cuisine, you wouldnt be left with much. Can you give me an example of somewhere you usually use the term traditional?

    Gastro: i like it. I should just let you write these articles 🙂 So your definition of authenticity has to do with whether you are trying to meet an ideal, or move away from it. Makes it easier to define. But, does that mean there is no implied level of quality involved in the term authentic?

    • Authenticity and quality level are mutually independent. (Bad authentic food is pretty easy to find.)

      Many people in the foodosphere discuss authenticity as if it belongs on some sort of spectrum or scale. Attempting to place a particular dish somewhere on this imaginary authenticity axis is usually when the discussion starts breaks down. They start invoking questions about sourcing, localizing, execution, etc. And they start to compare this dish here to that dish there.

      Soon, we realize that this Authenticity Axis is quite elastic as we find yet another rendition that is even more “authentic” than the ones we just discussed. Or that there are regional variations of the dish that are all equally authentic. The discussion spirals out of control and you start to invent new criteria to judge the dish.

      IMO, Authenticity is a question of intent – and the intention to move towards an ideal comes communally from both the cook and the eater. You both have to buy into it to gain an authentic experience.

  4. Pingback: Hida Takayama Ramen | I'm Only Here for the Food!

  5. Gastro: I like your definition of Authentic as the intent. I like it alot. 😛
    Unfortunately, more often than not, a chef has to make compromises. The reality is most, if not all, restaurants have to make some concessions for the better of the business and profitability.

    Authenticity also has to do with the the flavor profiles and characteristic of the food item. Generally, when a cuisine is introduced in a new culture, more often than not, some changes are made to the flavor. Some of it done consciously and some indirectly due to the variances in available resources. But using Gastro’s ‘intent’ clause you can make a case whether one is trying to be authentic or not.

    Unless there is large enough community to support an authentic restaurant. In most cases you will fine that restaurant-ers have to be inauthentic to cater to a bigger demographic.

    The challenge is that now the public will have mis-conceptions about the what the food is suppose to taste like. As well as what the food culture etc.. for the country is like.

    Just curious to learn what would you consider authentic resto in Vancouver? I have a very hard time thinking of one. There certainly cant be many.

    • Authentic in Vancouver? – I think I can make a case for places that operate in a vacuum (eg Seri Malaysia), or places like Bo Laksa King (for certain dishes), or some of the new ramen-ya, or some of regional Chinese places (eg the now closed Chuan Xiang Ge, S&W Pepperhouse, even a place like Bing Sheng).

  6. Foodosopher, have several examples here for you:

    Nuevo Latino: the new interpretation of Latin cuisine. While they use most of the ingredients from traditional Latin American cuisine, they give it a twist by adding other ingredients, plus plating. Interestingly, they make the distinction they are not traditional; instead, how it has evolved. So, if you were served a tamal wrapped in banana leaf with a side of sofrito, everybody knows that’s the traditional way. If you are served a tamal with some esoteric sauces and non-traditional ingredients, that would be Nuevo Latino. Would it replace the “traditional” version? It might not in the next decade; however, as “fancier” interpretation gains ground, a century later, what we know now as Nuevo Latino would be the “traditional” Latin cuisine.

    Pizza: “Traditional” pizza, which most people associate with Neapolitan pizza. But now you have NY style pizza, Chicago deep dish (technically a pie but it is called a pizza anyway), California style (more based on ingredients that technique but you get the gist). Do they take away Italian “traditional” pizza? Nope; each pizza type listed here have some uniqueness of their own and rights of their own. (Of course, there is your fight with the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana which I would rather not touch).

    Dim sum: Do you really want me to go there? I mean, how is done in mainland China vs HK vs Vancouver…

    For a strange(r?) example, let’s take cheesecake. Nowadays, the one most people know about would be the NY style, baked cheesecake but, going back to pre 1900’s, chances are, whenever you hear “cheesecake”, you would get a unbaked version. But, given the consumption of the newer version, it has now became the “traditional” one (or, at least, from the perspective of most people nowadays).

    Again, my key point here is that it is a constant evolution and, eventually, once there is the general acceptance, the new recipes will overtake what was known as traditional, becoming into the new “traditional” and things will start over again.

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