“Oh I am so anxious about serving real sambar to an authentic South Indian,” a professor once told me at a grad school potluck. Nevermind that she specialized in Indian culture, nevermind that she was born and raised in India, my issue with the statement was her use of the words authentic and real. In the former, one finds the implicit belief that there is an incontrovertible actual. Everything else is measured up to the control specimen. Authentic is predicated on black and white truths. But how much of the world falls into a simple duality.
How do you quantify who has the credentials to nominate the real, the actual? Let’s do a little math. My prof was half-Indian and she had spent her childhood in Bombay. Thanks to the fact that my parents came to America from Bombay almost forty years ago, I was raised in Cleveland. By the time potluck, in my 23 years, I had been in India for a total of maybe 60 weeks and never once was I allowed to do any cooking. After all, if I was cooking, when would I have time to eat all the food my various relatives were preparing to fatten me up appropriately. Which one of us is more likely to know and make the real sambar is anyone’s guess.
Of course, then there is the implication in her statement that there is but one real sambar. My mother and her three sisters all grew up together in a food obsessed family. (Money on the fact that they are all either eating or planning what to eat right now.) In a head to head contest, I could always tell my mother’s sambar. Who is going to tell my aunties that theirs isn’t the real one? (They may seem congenial, but don’t cross them.) Not me. There is not one real, not one authentic.
During the last Daring Cooks Challenge, discussion ensued about the dosa recipe chosen. Reading both sides I felt ambivalent. The recipe was not traditional for sure. And, its derivative nature did give me the same bad taste I get when patchouli-doused hippies and curry loving old white guys try to speak to me in yoga Sanskrit and make assumptions about knowing Indian culture. (Manisha at Indian Food Rocks has a great post on dosas.) But, at the same time, dismissing the recipe out of hand as wrong struck me as problematic. Derivations and permutations are some of the best bi-products of our global food culture (the recipe was from a vegan-friendly restaurant in Toronto). I might be an authentic South Indian, but I knew nothing of vadouvan until I was in college; and they do make for some delicious Thanksgiving brussel sprouts. And, I can’t be the only Indian-American who decides that Thanksgiving is a little bland without some spice. Does that make my Thanksgiving inauthentic? The issue with the Indian dosas challenge was calling or thinking they were Indian instead of embracing the fact that they were something else.
Nominating the right way to do things is like picking a moving target. An article in the Times recently reviewing Ginette Mathiot’s Je Sais Cuisiner (I Know How to Cook) discussed how Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon was French restaurant authentic , and from a particular time period, not housewife authentic. In a follow up article, the Times explored the debate about Julia in general in the French cooking establishment. Here was a woman who was helping American’s appreciate French food but the food she was highlighting was but portion of what was French food culture (and now perhaps only a sliver.) In the end, Julia’s boeuf and the Fresh restaurant dosas highlight for me that authentic and real are slippery concepts, perhaps even illusory.
(This whole post was supposed to be about Julia’s Boeuf as that was the Recipes to Rival Challenge this month. And, yes, I can be an Indian authentic or not and eat beef.)