In Search of Authentic Food

It’s such an interesting word: authentic. I keep seeing it pop up in so many different areas of my life. From the business that’s sending advertisements for their services to my email inbox to the travel agents pedaling tours that are supposedly off-the-beaten-track, from the restaurants vying for my money seven days a week to the food packaging in the local market whose bright colors and carefully crafted logos are deliberately designed to jump out at me from their places on the shelf, authenticity proclaims itself to be everywhere. Everyone and everything claims to be the most authentic interaction, experience or flavor I can possibly have, all in an effort to convince me that it’s the best choice.

But what does that really mean, anyway? Is a sushi roll made in Mexico somehow less authentic because of the distance from the original source of the recipe? Or is a pizza made in South Africa with imported ingredients somehow more authentic because its components come from the country of origin of the dish? Does the heritage and/or training of the cook play a role in this determination?

For sightseers who may be traveling to a particular destination for only a few days or weeks before returning to their normal lives, attempting to capture the truest and most pure essence of a location in a single meal is the holy grail of vacation adventures. If one can also capture the spread in an artfully composed photograph to share on social media, then that individual truly has mastered the highest levels of culinary nirvana in the 21st century, right?!

However, as the sort of global citizen who is making her home in another part of the world for an extended period of time, I know that the process of drilling down which flavors, textures and combinations characterize a dining experience in a particular corner of the world can be a much more complex undertaking.

It involves a myriad of dishes, sampled over weeks and months and even years in a variety of establishments. It often involves multiple visits to numerous hot spots, including the upscale tourist trap in the heart of a big city and the hole in the wall family restaurant with no name or blazing neon sign to announce its existence to oblivious passersby. It means spending time in conversations with locals who can articulate the history and tradition of the unique ingredients that come together to make a dish special in their eyes. It means shopping and cooking like a native to the area, utilizing the tools and cookware available to them to recreate the sauces and stews that grace their tables on a regular basis. It sometimes includes working with whatever kitchenware is available in an entirely different part of the world using whatever ingredients are in season at the time in order to attempt the closest possible facsimile a cook can bring forth to satisfy the nostalgic palate. For the most particular of cooks and eaters, it also involves adding that special twist to make the dish personal and unique.

Image courtesy of Karen Ricks

The irony of our interconnected existence in 2019 is that now, more than ever before, we have the ability to move ideas and foods around the globe faster than ever before in human history. A person who is homesick and missing mom’s cooking from oceans and continents away has the ability to order and receive a package of herbs and spices delivered directly to her door via an international shipping company in a matter of days. She can then link up with said mother (or another cook who specializes in that particular cuisine) via video to learn and practice the intricacies of the techniques that created the flavors of her childhood. The fact that we can move around our planet so easily and frequently means that this phenomenon of recreating regional specialties in different parts of the world is on the rise and can help provide some comfort for those who might be missing out on the taste of ‘home’. It also means we have the unprecedented ability to travel the world without ever leaving our current location through the dizzying array of international cuisines that we can whip up wherever we are!

As a foodie, I’ve frequently found myself on the learning end of the equation in a new-to-me region. I have stopped complete strangers in the markets to inquire about a particular piece of produce and how it’s traditionally prepared and consumed in her household. I’ve been that curious foreigner who was welcomed into the kitchen of a neighbor and a new friend, eager to demonstrate the hows and wherefores when language has proved an obstacle to clear communication on the subject of sustenance. And as a chef, I have also been on the instructing end, as well. I have been the professional who suggests locally available substitutes when that specific ingredient just isn’t grown in the learner’s part of the world. I have been the teacher who provides work-arounds for the cook operating under a time crunch or without a crucial piece of hardware. I have been the inspiration to add a spice from another region or a fruit from a different dish in order to customize and personalize a dish.

So, as a lover of food, I will always seek out what is good and pure and true in my culinary travels. I will continue to learn all that I can about the dishes that shape my unique experiences and form my food memories of each and every place to which I travel, and I will encourage others to do the same. I will formulate the recipes with the utmost care, and I will recreate them to share with new friends and neighbors as I travel to even more new-to-me destinations. And, like the bees who are constantly scattering the pollen of one flower onto the next and onto the next, I will faithfully distribute this knowledge as my nomadic wanderings take me to more and more locations around the world. Because the most authentic food experience is the one that earnestly attempts to communicate the singular cultural perspective of the cook, shared lovingly from the heart.

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