Thoughts | Alex Whitwam
What does it mean for a dish to be “authentic”?
It seems like an easy question to answer. Shouldn’t an authentic dish just be any food that was created by its culture of origin? Or maybe it’s easier to define authenticity by what it isn’t: Taco Bell is not authentic Mexican food, dipping spring rolls in ketchup isn’t authentically Chinese, and spaghetti made with “zoodles” has clearly diverged from its Italian roots. However, it’s important to keep in mind that food evolves over time. Cooking techniques and ingredients have been exchanged across cultures for centuries; how far back do we have to go to be able to pinpoint the transition between authentic and not? Immigrants to other countries typically bring with them the recipes and traditions of their upbringings, but in the past the foods and ingredients they had access to in their home countries would often be difficult or impossible to find without spending exorbitant amounts of money and time to import them. Over the years, people have had to compromise and make do with what’s available.
So why do we obsess over “authenticity” when it’s kind of an arbitrary distinction to make in the first place? It’s almost a status symbol. Being able to access the “true” form of a dish might entail purchasing imported or expensive ingredients and tools that, while commonplace in the recipe’s time and place of origin, aren’t readily found by the person making it. If they were, there wouldn’t be a problem in the first place; you wouldn’t be actively trying to create the authentic embodiment, you’d just be...making food.
This isn’t to say that there is no legitimacy to complaints over inauthenticity. It can be genuinely frustrating seeing a food with heavy ties to your culture and upbringing essentially bastardized and watered down for a different type of palate while still claiming to be what you know. But maybe it’s best in this day and age to acknowledge the limitations of importing ideas and dishes from different cuisines into a new environment. Culinary aspects of cultures are far from static; over time, much has changed to suit people’s changing needs and circumstances, and that’s not a bad thing.
In closing, here’s a quick recipe for baked tofu that’s pretty blatantly inauthentic. It goes well in sandwiches (if cut into slabs) or wraps (if cut into cubes).
Chili Garlic Baked Tofu
● 1 package (340 g) extra-firm tofu
● 1 tbsp canola oil or other neutral oil
● 1 tbsp soy sauce
● 2 tbsp chili garlic sauce
Preheat oven to 350°F and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.
Wrap tofu in paper towels and manually press as much water out as possible.
Replace towels and stack heavy things on top of tofu. Leave to drain for 30 minutes or so.
Slice tofu into desired shape (recommended: 1 cm cubes or 5 mm thick slabs).
Combine oil, soy sauce, and chili garlic sauce in a large bowl. Add tofu and toss to coat.
Arrange tofu on baking sheet, leaving room between pieces. If there is excess sauce, re-dredge each piece individually to use up if desired.
Bake for 45 minutes or until tofu has reached desired appearance. The bottom sides will not be as crispy or attractive, but as the tofu has a tendency to stick to the foil, flipping is not recommended.