The Food Freak

Cooking, dining, and appreciating food through the written word. A young West-Coast food-lover has been displaced to numerous small towns and cities on the East Coast; in New Jersey, New England, and now the Hudson Valley. This is his story.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Rustic Authenticity versus Subtle Gourmet

The flavors of "authentic" dishes are a lot harder to describe, review, and critique than upscale gourmet dishes. With gourmet, originality and complexity are necessary to the overall experience of the dish, as are expensive ingredients, and the many years of training and work-experience behind the creation of that dish. None of these necessary elements for a good gourmet dish are part of good authentic ethnic cuisine.

An good "authentic" dish is not necessarily a dish with a specific, untainted ethnic history, and is not necessarily a dish that is true to the history and tradition of that dish. A taco, filled with tender chopped carne asada in two three-inch fresh corn tortillas, accompanied by nothing more than chopped white onions and cilantro, is an authentic dish. Stir-fried clams in black bean sauce, fried over a ridiculously hot wok, with peppers, onions, and a squirt of everything from oyster sauce to sesame oil, is an authentic dish. But so is Kushari, the Egyptian dish of rice, pasta, and lentils in a seasoned tomato sauce, a dish that screams of Egypt's colonial past and the fusion of ingredients and cooking techniques that always accompany such histories. None of these are good dishes in virtue of their "authenticity" in any interestingly anthopological sense of that word.

Yet, I think there is something to the judgment that some good ethnic dishes are good because they are authentic, and others not. What is the difference? Here is one thing I could think of. I think authentic dishes should be characterized as rustic, not in the literal sense of being "charmingly simple and unsophisticated" and "lacking refinement or coarse", although many authentic dishes are these things. Rather, I think of good authentic ethnic dishes as rustic in the sense that we mean the word when we want to characterize a film, a book, a picture, or a song, as beautifully rustic. We understand what this sense of "rustic" means, because we have all seen and felt rustic art and entertainment. The good authentic ethnic dish is beautifully rustic in taste and texture in the same way that the Beatles' "Mother Nature's Son" is beautifully rustic to the ear. It comforts even when it is novel; the experience survives seconds, thirds, and fourths, and even at breakfast the next morning. Authentic dishes remind us that the simple life-which requires the transformation of a very limited number of coarse ingredients into a desireable meal- and not the abundant one, spawns the richest culinary creativity.

So while not everyone has the taste to appreciate the subtlety and complexity of high gourmet meals, in all of their expense and lavishness, what we always miss when far from home is the rustic authenticity of our favorite ethnic meals, especially those of our home cultures. Eliminate the dreaded balsamic reductions, foie gras, and white asparagus dishes of the world and they will be missed very little. Eliminate carnitas tacos, lamb kababs, steamed red snapper with soy, ginger and scallions, and blueberry pancakes with warm maple syrup, and you lose a life worth living!

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