What makes for ‘authentic’ food?

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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10 comments

  1. Gyana Geetha · · Reply

    Loved reading this… The best part… Reminder about recipes from cook books. When I got married, I carried with me a hand written recipe book with all my mother’s ‘Authentic’ recipes!
    Also could relate to the rajma story. Once when my father was in the US, he tried cooking rajma and did not know it was to be soaked over night! No matter how long he pressure cooked it he couldn’t make it soft!

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    1. Hey, nice to have you here! Hope you have preserved the book bearing your mom’s recipes. They are heirloom recipes, make no mistake! I could visualise your father’s bewildered face at the stubborn rajma that wouldn’t soften 🙂

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  2. LOl..Sambar-berg had me in splits…I agree with you…, especially in the U.S, when most of the Indian restaurants claim to be serving ‘authentic’ Indian food, I keep laughing to myself..what authenticity are they trying to provide? Most of them serve Americanised Indian version of Paneer tikka masala or chicken tikka masala with a lot of gravy and butter in it. For me, authenticity is the taste that appears as your grandmom made, as your mom made and the legacy it carries. Each curry cooked the same way by two different people carries two different tastes…so 🙂 I can go on and on about this topic 😀

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    1. For overseas restaurants it IS authentic Indian food if it has paneer or ghee, never mind other ingredients, right? And yes, authenticity is partly the handing down of the recipe over generations too, but as you say, the tastes can vastly differ even when the same ingredients are used. So have you got any authentic recipe handed down from your grandmom/mom?

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  3. To every man his mother’s version is most authentic and the benchmark to judge other versions. After marriage the standards are altered, lower mostly or higher rarely, to maintain domestic harmony. But with the invasion of Mexican, Chinese, Italian and Dhaba cuisines, what authenticity are we talking about?Anything edible is authentic!

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    1. You have said it perfectly. I wouldn’t agree about the benchmark being lower after marriage, even for the sake of harmony. It totally depends upon the woman/man cooking 🙂 ‘Anything edible is authentic’ indeed! We raise or lower the standards for judging a recipe on its authenticity too.

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  4. Dear athai, totally loved the post and found myself giggling. Just yesterday we were discussing the variations of sambar in our office canteen, I am of the opinion that the sambar we get in hotels is not sambar at all plus lauki is never put in sambar which is perhaps the most used vegetable in sambar outside ! Will share this post with them 🙂

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    1. Thank you dear. Hope your friends liked the post too 🙂 Not just lauki, but also matar is added to sambar. Perhaps it became common after someone whose ‘authentic’ recipe contained the vegetables was copied by others. Soon, a tweaked recipe became ‘authentic’, see? 😀 I can’t imagine lauki sambar, especially since the veggies in sambar are all selected to impart their unique flavour to the dish and everyone knows that lauki is one insipid veggie though loaded with nutrients!

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  5. Ah a post on food. Yum. I am a bit of a stickler for ‘authenticity’. Not in terms of my recipe is better than yours but more like a dish tasting like what it is supposed to taste. I mean a sambar without tamarind water would not feel like a sambar. And people putting mustard seeds and curry leaves in rajma or chhole does change the taste for me. So my classification is very simple. It can deviate but the basic preparation method must be similar. You can’t put coconut in say rajma. I mean you can but don’t serve it to me. 😉

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    1. My point is, even something as basic as a dal is made with different ingredients in the same state. For instance, I never knew that onions were added to rasam till very recently when a dear friend sent across hot rasam during my illness. It was authentic Tamil rasam, no less!

      I agree about not being a food Nazi. And like you, even I find it sort of incomplete when a recipe misses a key ingredient. A sambar with amchur could at best be amti or khatti dal, I guess. We once had a cook who used to temper aloo matar with rai and urad dal blithely till we told her to stick to South Indian dishes 😀 Rajma with coconut sounds too bizarre!

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