On The Pointlessness of "Authenticity" in Food
Clay Oven Indian Cuisine
A note to the reader: What started as a click-friendly piece on "Obscure Indian Dishes You Probably Don't Know," turned into a conversation about authenticity. So, no, you won't get a list here filled with pretty pictures but you will (hopefully) stop asking every Indian restaurant if they have a buffet. We were throwing chutney-dipped donuts down our throats in Seattle at the kind of Asian-fusion joint peppered with Buddha statues and LED lights.
"I hate the word authentic," huffed a friend, wiping powdered sugar off his stubble. "What is authentic exactly? Who's to say what traditional means. No one's been around long enough to know what authentic food is."
As I gulped down the oily pastry, I pictured a grandma in a sari wearing Nikes.
From traditional Vietnamese pho in Westminster to an authentic mid-century Ekenäset chair circa 2014 Ikea, the word "authenticity" gets thrown around like No Downpayment flashing across the TV screen in a car commercial. In the food-obsessed internet culture, bloggers fresh out of college with a culinary experience limited to cold, microwaved ramen become self-proclaimed experts on fine dining overnight. This sensibility leaks into the keyboard warriors of Yelp and the average eater popping into a new restaurant. Suddenly, California bagels aren't New York enough, Santa Monica cronuts are a sham, and "authentic Chinese cookery" in America is more elusive than a regular-season Ducks fan. If there were ever a beginning to a culture's signature food, there certainly isn't an end.
Now, more than 1000 miles south of the fried globes, I'm commiserating with Tarun Bansal at Hopper & Burr in Downtown Santa Ana. Tarun, who works at Clay Oven Cuisine of India in Irvine, has a few choice words for patrons who lecture him on "authentic Indian food."
"When you think Indian food, most people think curry, bread and tandoori chicken," he says. "But there's so much more than that."
Over the mochas with ornamental foam and cookies we've declared breakfast, Tarun plays tour guide on a crash course to Indian cuisine. We begin in Northern India known for its Punjabi cuisine heavy in sauces, gravy and curry, then move over to the lesser-known game of Rajasthan (a state bordering Pakistan) where peacock can make an excellent dinner. We move to Goa, West India's smallest state, and the vindaloo echos the annexed Portuguese India. As we move south, Tarun notes that Southern India enjoys more spice than the north, and we visit Andhra -- a region known for its tangy, hot cooking loaded with chili powder. In Eastern India, the abundance of vegetarian greens and fish transition to rich pork dishes further inland. You can see the Chinese and Mongolian influence in the flavors, Tarun points out. "East, they eat way more rice than bread there since that's one of the region's main exports."
Despite India's vast culinary history, it hasn't escaped the dilution of time and western repackaging. Like orange chicken and fettuccine alfredo, foods that never existed in India were concocted to suit the palates of a new, foreign audience. Dishes were pumped with chilli, butter and oil; the UK's desire for gravy-soaked meat birthed chicken tikka masala and buffets became a staple of a "true" Indian restaurant. In the end, what happened to Chinese food and so many other cuisines, happened to Indian food in America: It was dulled so we could understand it and the most identifiable meals -- a small collection of meaty dishes from Northern Punjab -- formed a stateside interpretation of "traditional." In turn, this newfound authenticity came with its own set of expectations. "We get people who will walk into the restaurant, sit down, order water, then when they realize we don't have a buffet, they'll leave," says Tarun. "We got rid of it because we wanted to focus on quality."
For Clay Oven, a restaurant that takes on the ambitious task of creating a menu that pleases both the past and present, it's a fragile situation to be in. On one hand, they get customers who complain the curry isn't spicy enough (and assume that all Indian food packs heat), then demand Ben Stiller-crying-his-pants-off spicy. "Spices are overhyped, a base thing like curry is not supposed to be spicy," Tarun explains. On the other hand, their very California invention -- baby back ribs smoked with tandoor and sweetened with a mango glaze -- is a current Orange County favorite.
So, if authenticity were a timeline, are we back to where we started or are we simply in a perpetual middle? Is it inauthentic to call doughnuts American when the Dutch claimed olykoeks ("oil cakes") theirs since the 19th century? Even then, the Smithsonian notes that "archaeologists keep turning up fossilized bits of what look like doughnuts in the middens of prehistoric Native American settlements," which would make doughnuts at least 10,000-years-old but nevertheless, quite American.
Middens aside, and as someone who relishes in pouring Mang Tomas over my buche tacos from De Anda at 3 a.m., to hell with the word authentic but let's keep tradition in our pocket. Food, like our political sentiments, is ever-changing. While breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules is hardly impressive, it takes a certain daring to understand (and respect) culinary tradition and transform it into something unprecedented.
Just don't be the schmuck who walks into a restaurant beside yourself when things aren't how you expected. Shut up. Sit down. Eat. Decide. Authentic or not, if something is brilliant, it's brilliant. All the authenticity in the world can't change that.
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