There has been a constant debate over the years about what is ‘authentic’ in terms of recipes and flavours and what is not. Innovation in food has taken traditional recipes a step (or many) forward to make them more global or let’s say, locally acceptable, depending on where a restaurant is located. For example, a traditional Chettinad flavour might be too hot or spicy or a lentil from the east may be too runny for someone in the north. So, how does a restaurant make some of the most amazing dishes from different parts of the country more accessible? On the other hand, there are many who may ask why one should tamper with original recipes at all? Even if it is not a coup for the masses, it’s all right as long as it serves its niche and the flavours are not lost in any way.
With the rise of disposable incomes across the country, people like to go out and try new cuisines and have different experiences a lot more than say a decade ago. There are all formats of food joints that have opened all over, be it the metropolitan cities or tiers – I, II and III. With the competition at the highest level, restaurants need to serve the ultimate in taste and quality, along with maintaining their prices as well as manage footfalls constantly. With authenticity being a question at most times that most restaurateurs grapple with, one needs to understand what it means to them.
Let’s find out!
According to Rachna Desai, owner of Chateau de Pondicherry, “Food culture is changing all over the world even within the countries of their origin; recipes are changing and evolving to suit their modern needs. My food is Franco Tamil or Pondicherry style. Now, when the French adopted a Tamil dish they ‘frenchified’ it a lot by adding jaggery to sambhar to mute the chillies and adding white flour to dosa batter to suit their palette, it has been adopted as original Pondicherry food by my restaurant. I would call that authentic; would you?”
“Food culture develops slowly from necessity when cultures collide and populations intermingle and slowly it becomes a cuisine like Anglo Indian cuisine; is that authentic? So, we have to ask ourselves what is authentic! I think if you use local products that are fresh and somewhat organic and you infuse those with a foreign recipe and put your touch and magic to it with love and passion that food is authentic,” she adds.
A lot depends upon the place that you’re catering to, and, to a large extent, cooking styles and personal choices as well. “We source all our food locally, with most of our produce being seasonal and fresh. With the produce is locally sourced, and keeping in mind the palate of the region, the food at our F&B outlets like Fire and Mist carry original recipes, cooked in a style that is most adored by our clientele,” says Corporate Chef, Abhishek Basu, at The Park, New Delhi.
Pikkle has opened its doors to the public a couple of months back and is located in West Delhi, they serve world cuisine, including a wide variety of sushi and dim sums. The owner, Jasneet Sahni, feels, “What’s authentic for me is what I have grown up with; what may be authentic for another person from the same city might be totally different, depending on the taste that she/he has grown up with. As far as possible, the ingredients and quantities have to match the recipes. However, the food served needs to be for the people and the area that the restaurant caters to. I believe in regional Indian food & Ingredients, which is why you will always find a lot of influence of the forgotten ingredients in my food.”
Chef Harangad Singh of Prankster adds, “We Indians are the most innovative species on earth when it comes to food. According to me, there are region-specific ingredients and techniques or methods in India, which are used for a particular dish that we can call a dish prepared with authentic methods. But, I try to stay away from people who ask me to cook authentic food.”
India being a country with numerous cultures and traditions, where the dialect changes every 50-100 kilometres, why should food and cooking styles be any different?
Chef Basu continues, “Our traditional dishes from different parts of the country at Fire are a huge hit with the walk-ins as well as our resident guests. Some of the favourites are Panchkotakisabji, which is a traditional Rajasthani dish, Millet biryani, and Gilnar ki tikki – one of the main ingredients is amaranth (called cholai in Hindi), which grows only in the summers. Even with traditional recipes, cooking styles would still differ; that doesn’t make mine less authentic than anyone else’s. It’s what we love to make and our customers love to come back for again and again.”
Rachna feels that “Authenticity is a challenge every chef must take if the produce of the region allows it. For example, we can procure kokum from the south and make a genuine sambhar or rasam; ferment our rice in a humid temperature and make idlis that are quite close to the Bangalore idlis, and duplicate an Italian pasta with an Indian version of the sweet red Mediterranean tomatoes and use the best Parmigiano Reggiano. So, of course, we should keep it authentic with what ingredients we have and the style of cooking we follow; we need to keep it authentic for ourselves first. If we bend the rules too much and change things around to suit palettes of each of our customers, we will eventually fail since everyone has a different version of authentic. Yes, it’s difficult to maintain a balance but we must keep at it.”
Harangad adds, “In India, there are 40 plus cuisines and some of the tribal cuisines are yet to be discovered. My question is that how have these cuisines come into existence? These cuisines came into existence due to the availability of resources in different regions and also cultural diversities. So, we need to celebrate our cuisines without setting an ‘authentic’ barrier. Yes, the basic ingredients and method need to be given most respect but out cooking styles can vary. Like Japanese say they have umami as one extra flavour, we Indians also have an extra flavour called “chatkora”. I love creating a balance for my dishes by using ingredients which make each dish worth achatkori.”