What gives the label of authenticity to a dish? The term is used to loosely describe traditional dishes of a particular region, but that by no means is all that gives it the label. Well, it also has certain ingredients that make it so. And of course, the recipe gives it authenticity. And while you are at it, don’t forget the method of preparation. After meeting all these criteria, a particular dish could still have hundreds of different versions, all of which vie for the label.
If you ask me, we can never have a single version of any ‘authentic’ food item.
Let’s take sambar – for I can write with some authority about it 😊. It is made in all the four southern states with small and big variations. Even within each state, there are so many variations. So if someone from Madurai tells me that she is sharing an authentic sambar recipe, she could be sharing the recipe of Tamil Nadu/Madurai/her community/family/her own.
Sambar can be rather simple with just the sambar powder (oh, there are so many variations in the recipe of the powder too!), tamarind water, some vegetables and a tempering of mustard, hing and curry leaves, or an elaborate affair with fresh-ground masala, that includes any number of ingredients including dals, coconut, dry coconut, khus-khus, cinnamon, cloves, jaggery and more.
In our house, the sambar made with fresh ground coconut and spices is reserved for special occasion. And I have the authentic recipe for that one! 🙂 To know how many varieties you can find in terms of appearance, colour and ingredients. just Google for images of sambar. And that is just the tip of the sambar-berg, I tell you.
Sambar in my parental and marital homes are slightly different from each other, though both are Tambrahm versions. This is mostly due to the varied proportion of ingredients in the sambar powder and the size and variety of vegetables used. My mother cut the vegetables into large pieces and used only one vegetable; my MIL cut them smaller and sometimes used two or more vegetables. Both versions were very tasty and ‘authentic’ for all intents and purposes.
If we are to go by the basic ingredients of sambar, the one made in southern Tamil Nadu, would not qualify as sambar, as there is no tamarind in it. But sambar it is and served with idli-dosas. The recipe for this amazing dish was shared by a friend. It is quick and tastes great mixed with rice too. I make this in lieu of sambar when I am rushed for time. So how can I be sure this is an authentic version and not just one which had been tweaked by my friend’s family or by her, for that matter?
Let me stop before this turns into a treatise on sambar 🙂
For years I didn’t know how to make rajma as the north Indians make it. I cooked it like chole – potatoes and all! Those were the days when food blogs or cookery shows had not yet made their appearance and one had to rely on food columns in magazines or buy cookery books to learn a recipe.
Then we moved to Delhi, where we lived temporarily in the outhouse of a friend’s kothi till we found a flat. Their kitchen was very close to our house and I heard the cooker going on and on. After half-an-hour I began worrying, thinking that the lady of the house had forgotten to switch off the gas. I rang their bell to alert her. The lady – who was a local Punjabi – laughed and told me that she was cooking rajma and that it needed to soften sufficiently to prevent flatulence when eaten.
She not only shared her recipe but also showed me how the skin of the rajma broke and thickened the gravy with its soft juice, when it was cooked on slow fire for a long while. I don’t know if her recipe is ‘authentic’ or not, but I have followed it ever since and it has been appreciated by those who have tasted it, including north Indians. Incidentally, her recipe doesn’t have rajma masala. Does that make it unauthentic? What do you think?
Sometimes a dish assumes authenticity because one gets used to the taste and any other version seems a pale comparison to that one. For me, my mother’s version of the ubiquitous kootu is the most authentic and I would unhesitatingly measure the authenticity of another version by that scale. And mind you! I am no food nazi by a long shot.
One of my neighbours made sambar with amchur instead of tamarind. She had her own recipe for sambar powder too, which had some ingredients that were not remotely connected to that dish. I must confess that it didn’t taste like any sambar I have ever tasted, but for her family, it was the most authentic sambar! Why, I had been rather peeved by their unfavourable comparison of my ‘authentic’ Tambrahm version with hers! Oops! There I go again on a sambar soliloquy!
And then some tweaked dishes also get a stamp of authenticity over time. Like the Chindian and Chinjabi Chinese dishes that one finds at all street-corners of the cities and towns of India. I can only imagine the reaction of the Chinese if they were to be searching for some home food and wandered into one of these ‘authentic Chinese’ eateries!
Given all the above facts, wouldn’t you agree that the authenticity of a dish is completely subjective? There is no point in trying to prove how one version is the most authentic one and the rest are all, ‘impostors?’ Also, who is going to be grading the thousands of versions on some imaginary scale of authenticity? And then, what is the guarantee that it is accurate?
So, if you like a particular version of any traditional dish that you might have eaten – cooked by your mother, at a friend’s house, a wayside dhaba or in a village home — just enjoy it without sitting and analysing the ingredients or the method of preparation, comparing it with another version favourably or otherwise. And please, don’t get get into heated arguments over it! Let us leave the hair-splitting about its authenticity to the food experts, shall we?
Do you have a favourite version of any ‘authentic’ dish? Do share the recipe if you know it.
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