About Good Food and Origins

What is authentic really?

One evening I very nearly got in an argument with someone about “authentic” food. Some Italian chef was in some island and was serving the only authentic Italian food within miles. Throughout my years as a food writer, I’ve gotten into many discussions about the authenticity of food. And until now I find it such a baffling subject.

I write not as a food scholar or a chef or even a food editor which technically I’m not anymore but someone who who eats extensively. I won’t regale anyone with research and expert commentary. Just my own experience of how I enjoy the simple rewards of food.

What is authentic? I already know that anything I say after this sentence will will be trite and exhausted. I’m going to type the word “authentic” so many times until it loses all its meaning–because really, hasn’t it lost all its meaning?

A Mexican chef in Manila cooking Mexican food? A cook from Szechuan stationed in a five-star hotel on Roxas busting out spicy savories? A chef cooking something tasty? I read somewhere a long time ago that once you take a dish out of a country country it’s no longer authentic. A spaghetti bolognese in Japan isn’t and will never be the same experience as a spaghetti bolognese in Italy no matter where the person who cooked it came from. Let’s say you eat sushi from a Japanese place and loved it but then you find out that it’s cooked by a Filipino. Does that in any way diminish your enjoyment of said sushi? Shame on you if it does.

Was there something wrong with me when I didn’t like the food in Indonesia, preferring the Indonesian food I had here in Manila, altered for my preconditioned Filipino palate? Even Eric Kayser, the famous French baker admitted to altering his techniques to be able to bake his pastries fresh in the Philippines. Are we saying that the Eric Kayser here is fake? I know a chef who’s never stepped foot Thailand but, trained well, owns one of the most loved Thai restaurants here.

The problem is how much importance we put on the authenticity of a dish. Haven’t we realized that there are more important things? Intention. Origin. What about flavor? What about simply good food? What is authenticity anyway? Is Cebu lechon any more authentic than the roast pig I had in Pampanga? When I went to Germany, there were so many Middle Eastern restaurants that the cuisine has become part of their culture. A Manila-based German friend even made sure I tried one of their killer döners.

Filipinos failed to capitalize on Filipino food being the cuisine of the moment because they can’t bear to adjust to the global demand. They scorn at the modern tweaks made by places like LASA in LA and Maharlika in New York. I spent three months writing an article on how Filipino food will have difficulty thriving globally because Filipinos themselves look down on the Pinoy restaurants that are doing well overseas.

Boxing a dish based on authenticity already puts you in the losing corner. Origins are hard to trace and you’ll find that pizza didn’t even begin in Italy. This is why we can’t have good things, why we can’t appreciate so many good things. Because a lot of people limit themselves to what they think should taste good. Food isn’t a designer bag that has to be authentic. It just has to be good.

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