What Does Authentic Mean in Food and Does it Even Matter?

I am sitting at the table of one of the hottest restaurants in town. It has been deemed by many as the it place of the moment, a walk-ins only joint, with craft cocktails and deliberately chic interiors. I fall for their tricks, the semi-secret location, the novelty of it all. But plate after plate plops down on the table, and the food is at times, very well done, but I know—I’ve seen this all before. Some recipes or elements seem incredibly familiar, and it’s happening to quite a few restaurants in Manila. Some restaurants let you know immediately that they’re inspired by concepts abroad, but others hide behind the mantle of “authenticity”. So let’s get things straight—what does the word ‘authentic’ really mean in food anyway? Does it even matter?

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When dining out, the word authentic is often important in two entirely different situations.

First, the word is slapped on labels, on menus, on restaurant slogans—it’s a buzz word to get diners through the doors. When they see the word authentic, they are brainwashed into thinking that whatever they’re eating is reminiscent of its place of origin, that it is so close to the real thing, you feel as if you’re in a trattoria in Italy, a taverna in Greece, a pub in London, an asador in Argentina.

There are a lot of places that use it as a tactic to peddle their wares, in the hopes of attracting 1) people who have never been there, then giving them an experience that will make them feel as if they have or 2) diners with a sense of nostalgia who are looking to recreate memories of places past. The trouble with this, however, is that hardly any of these restaurants are really “authentic”, and end up disappointing customers with a promise they just can’t keep. At the end of the day, these restaurants still have to make money, and might end up adapting their cuisines to suit tastes and palates that are foreign to their authenticity.

Because they’ve made that promise, and indeed slapped that label on their food, people leave their dinner tables unsatisfied, with their memories tarnished. But what if the label authentic was left behind? Sometimes the word doesn’t matter, especially when you’re trying to deliver food to an entirely different market. If the food is delicious, then ultimately, no one cares. There are so many genius hybrids out there that make great meals, (pasta with mentaiko, chicken wings with Vietnamese fish sauce caramel, burrata with pomegranate seeds) that the word authentic is just a means of painting yourself into a box, with less room to play around.

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When we talk about authentic, we talk about copycats too.

The first restaurant, and so many others in the market, have lots of places to thank for their interiors right down to their dishes. I remember a little food group of mine discussing that a famous chef made a living disguising several of David Chang’s recipes as his own, and even other restaurants from New York. The guy was serving the exact same pork shoulder or bo ssam family-style that made Chang famous, down to the oysters, kimchi, and lettuce wraps.

Inspiration is fine, really, nothing’s original these days, but claiming this recipe is yours and authentic is a major cop out. A cheeky nod to the original recipe is always a good one, maybe even a play on the name of the original will do, but if you’re just CTRL+Ving everything on your menu with no recognition of the source, then you’re doing something very wrong.

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So when it comes to the word authentic, things get tricky, but it all boils down to this: don’t use it. Sometimes, the word doesn’t matter at all, and it’s true—when the food is incredibly soul-satisfying and delicious, who cares if the recipe is handed down from a French grandmother in Lyon, or dreamed up by a chef while he’s looking at today’s produce? If it’s good, then damn it, it’s good. Everyone’s experiences are so personal that what’s authentic to them might not be authentic to anyone else. If you don’t tell people beforehand you’re authentic, then they won’t expect way too much, and be horribly let down. And when it comes to copycat chefs, the word is even more of a hoax, and will get you vilified and hung out to dry by your peers. Why tout authenticity when everyone owns the same cookbook as you? Just get rid of the word and pay true homage; at the end of the day, it’s the food that matters.

Do you care if what you’re eating is “authentic”? Tell us your thoughts below!


6 Responses

  1. I don’t believe that “authentic” is useless in the culinary scene. It allows you to set your expectations at a suitable level (and I’d argue that this could actually mean a high bar). Yes, it should always be about the food, but the authenticity level can do much in enhancing the overall experience (think of it as a consumption terroir).

    As an aside, I view authenticity as something intrinsically honest and true to the source. So, yeah, if a restaurant is proclaimed by all and sundry to be truly authentic but the food just isn’t to my liking, I’ll just put the blame on my Pinoy-centric palate 😉

  2. Saying your dishes are authentic maybe a defense mechanism to hide insecurity about their dish. They know you won’t try their food so they try to hook you by saying it’s authentic. If you don’t like it, at least they already have your cash.
    Parang Special Buko Pie lang yan or D’Original Something.

    1. Bad example (because freshly baked D’Original buko pie at its non-cocolisap best is simple yet delicious), but I agree with most of what you’re saying. “Authentic” restaurants can be a ripoff at times.

  3. I’ve long since accepted that many foreign cuisines here will be adapted to the local palate, and that’s OK! As long as it is very tasty and not overly sweetened Pinoy-style.

    As for the copycats, I have mixed feelings. On one hand, since I can’t get to New York to try those pork buns, Crack Pies, or Compost Cookies, I’m glad someone did the dirty work in recreating it for me to try. But on the other hand, I am also rolling my eyes at the lack of originality.

  4. I too don’t care much for authenticity. The way I see it, authenticity is nothing compared to actual cooking skills.

    I look at this way: if Rene Redzepi or Heston Blumenthal made their own version of adobo in their home countries, it would probably be better than any adobo you’ve ever tasted. However, your Mom’s version would still be considered more authentic because of the simple fact that she’s Filipino and they’re not. 🙂

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