Authentic, or not? Sri Lankan, or not?

When would you say that a new recipe creation belongs to a particular cuisine? How would you define it? Or to widen the topic of this discussion a little further, when would you call a recipe authentic? Or inauthentic?

Sri Lankan-style chickpea saladBeing someone interested in exploring different world cuisines and cooking different national dishes, I encounter these questions often. When I was writing the previous post on Sri-Lankan-style chickpea salad, I was wondering which categories to assign it to, whether to label it Sri Lankan, or not?  The dish was inspired by a Sri Lankan style of cooking (albeit cooking of vegetables), I used Sri Lankan spices and flavours. But I still felt unsure, and called it Sri-Lankan style. Perhaps partly because I wasn’t sure about how Sri Lankan my addition of coriander leaf is.

Curly kale

Let’s consider another example, the kale aloo recipe, my version of the classic Indian Punjabi dish aloo palak. Except that I used kale. Here, I felt somehow more confident. The spicing was completely Indian/Punjabi, and the technique. It was just that I’d used kale, which was available to me at the time and seasonal, rather than spinach.

Also, when I made the Sri Lankan fish curry with salmon, which can’t be a traditional ingredient, I confidently labelled it Sri Lankan, because Jasmine cooked it, and it was her recipe. And she is Sri Lankan.

Am I being nervous and insecure just because I don’t belong to these nations? A dish can’t be called Sri Lankan/Punjabi only when made by a Sri Lankan/Punjabi? Surely that can’t be right?

Creativity is an integral part of cooking, and Indian and Sri Lankan cooks use spices and ingredients in many wonderful and diverse ways. Spicing differs from cook to cook, and dishes differ from cook to cook. Cooking with a Punjabi friend opened my eyes to it; her spontaneity, her creativity taught me to relax when cooking with spices. These cooks also pride themselves on being different, original within their national style of cooking. And when they go abroad, they use the ingredients they’ve got at hand. Like the salmon in fish curry. So I’m inclined to think that kale in my aloo doesn’t stop it from being Punjabi, and perhaps my chickpea salad is Sri Lankan after all, as long as I’ve used the ingredients, flavours and techniques pertinent to that national/regional style of cooking.

What do you think? When would you say a dish belongs to a cuisine? And then what do you think makes a dish authentic? I’m really interested to read about your thoughts on this matter.

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11 thoughts on “Authentic, or not? Sri Lankan, or not?

  1. Personally, I don’t worry about authenticity at all. I simply appreciate each culture and cuisine for the different techniques and ingredients it brings to the table. In the end, the cook is an artist drawing inspiration from different cuisines and applying their own imagination to it.

  2. What a good topic for a post.

    I was blown away on my first visit to New Zealand. An island that has been very much at the apron strings of the mother country for years, seems to have broken through the ties and is branching out, and no more so than anywhere else with their cuisine.

    They have taken “fusion” cooking to heart. I will always remember our last day sat having a beer, and I had moules but with a typical Kiwi twist as they where with a Thai green sauce.. and where the best.

    I think that the base of your style dictates a degree of authenticity, but when you mix things up, you always bring something fresh to the table, and that is such a treat.

  3. I could not answer this, neither would I get bothered, since my style is totally fusion :-) It started with combining the cuisine of my hubby and mine since we belong to different parts of India and now it has gone international. But that is what I enjoy most in the kitchen! every single time it is something new.

  4. It’s a difficult question isn’t it? I mean, when you start to think about it chillies are American so does that make huge chunks of Asian cooking in fact American? Of course not. So I don;t think ingredients give you a pointer. Different fruits and vegetables have been criss-crossing the world as long as people have been walking the planet.

    Apples are probably central asian in origin, as are walnuts, chillies and potatoes are American, chestnuts are Italian (I think). And yet we find them all over the world.

    Techniques and the way certain ingredients are used can give us pointers I guess. Chinese and Scandinavian are distinct from one another. But even there, I would tend to steer clear of country specific labels in favour of regional – Scandinavian, SE Asian, Levantine etc. But I think even that can be a false distinction. Food, like so much else, is in the eye of the beholder…

    Happily, so long as it tastes good, and gives people an opportunity to take some time out from the day to gather and talk, it doesn’t really matter.

  5. Very interesting question! A lot of Lebanese get very proprietary with traditional dishes- men especially- you hear how “it is supposed to be made” and then you hear how ” mom used to make it”; I can’t tell you how many Lebanese men I have met who say ” I have “trained” her (the wife, the maid, the cook) to do the stews the way I like them ie, the way their mom made it!
    I think it is important to preserve tradition, sure, but it is also OK to expand on it! Look at the French, they have their French classic cuisine, then they had “nouvelle” etc..
    To me as long as the result is delicious, then I say go for it!
    One time I had dinner at a four star place and it was “fusion”; the result was so confusing it was a hodge-podge of this that and the other and the taste was mediocre!

  6. Dobro pitanje i da znaš da sam i ja sam o tome često mozgala. Moj zaključak bi bio slijedeći: tradicionalni recept je tradicionalni recept, ergo (uzmimo za primjer našu dalmatinsku kuhinju) zna se što je pašticada i koji su njeni osnovni elementi bez kojih se ne može. Svaka kuća u Dalmaciji ima svoj recept za pašticadu ali te neke osnove su svima jednake i to čini pašticadu prepoznatljivim, tradicionalnim jelom. Mislim da na ovaj način treba pristupati svakoj kuhinji, ako radiš neko poznato staro jelo, a izmijenila si par začina ili neku namirnicu ono je i dalje to tradicionalno jelo.
    Međutim kad stvaraš neko novo jelo ali služiš se tehnikama i namirnicama neke određene kuhinje to jelo ne možemo nazvati tradicionalno (jer ono to nije) ali ga svakako možemo pripisati tom kulturnom miljeu.
    Dobar primjer su mi i kineski restorani u Zagrebu, jela koja oni nude često imaju izvorne kineske nazive ali nemaju puno veze sa svojim tradicionalnim izvornicima. Zašto je tako? Pa naši hrvatski Kinezi su se naprosto morali prilagoditi ukusu podneblja u kojem su se našli i namirnicama koje su im dostupne. Jeli zbog toga ta hrana hrvatska – definitivno NE, a nije ni tradicionalno kineska ali ipak je uspješno imitira. Ja bi je nazvala novom kineskom kuhinjom. Ili jednostavnije kineskom kuhinjom ali ne i tradicionalnom kineskom kuhinjom.
    Uostalom mislim da je naše shvaćanje tradicionalne kuhinje preograničeno, da se opet vratim na pašticadu, ona sigurno nije nastala tako da su se našle dvije babe i dogovorile da skuhaju te i te sastojke koji će se zvati pašticada. Te da sve osim toga nije pašticada već nešto novo. Ne, to se sigurno nije dogodilo, kuhanje i prehrana su žive stvari koje se mijenjaju svakodnevno, a ovisno o puno faktora.
    Kako je svijet sve manji tako svi mi sve više utječemo jedni na druge, naša znanja se isprepliću i stvaramo neke nove tradicije i to je to.
    Zašto onda ne nazvati neko jelo Sri Lankanskim (đizzz koja deklinacija) ako se ono oslanja na tu kulinarsku tradiciju. Ja mislim da je to OK.
    Uostalom stari Grci su cimet, koji je neizostavan dio njihove kuhinje, otkrili tek osvajanjima Aleksandra Makedonskog. Vjerojatno su i tada neki njorgali da to nije tradicija, a danas je cimet u grčkoj kuhinji upravo to – tradicija.
    Ajme majko što sam sad sve nadrobila, nadam se si shvatila što sam htjela reći. :D :D

  7. What a great question! I ponder on that myself quite a lot. I cook Indian, but the ingredients vary, and I divert in techniques many times from what is generally considered ‘authentic’. I think a lot of it is because I learnt cooking through TV shows, reading cookbooks, blogs and so nothing I cook is ‘authentic’ anymore.. having said that, I think it is what a food reminds you, or what regions it was inspired from that counts. What is authentic for one is surely not authentic for another and there sure are levels of authenticity that various people adhere to. It is your expression of Sri Lankan ingredients that you can think of, Sri Lankan techniques and what reminds you of Sri Lankan food is what makes a dish Sri lankan for a reader like me..

  8. Good question! Blog wars have been started over degrees of authenticity. For me anything that came from my grandmom’s or mom’s kitchen is authentic and authenticity gets reinvented in the kitchen every single day.

    I make claims of cooking Italian/Mexican/Chinese all the time though the spices used might be more Indian than the cusines mentioned. Cooking is a creative process where liberties should be taken.

  9. that’s a very interesting question and i am sure different people will have different answers.
    personally, i only label well-known national dishes with the name of that nation (a little bit complicated with Balkan dishes, hehe) so for example, i’ll label sarma, cevapcici, kajmak kulen etc as national.
    otherwise, i say (national cuisine) inspired.
    so kale aloo would be indian inspired whereas sag aloo is an indian dish.
    with chinese cuisine it is easier because they vary their veg widely from meal to meal, tofu and veg soup (my favourite) from the same chef would have whatever veg he happened to have lying around, same with stir frys (chicken stir fry, beef stir fry etc) so those i usually consider to be authentic as long as i use the spices and the process (wok and method of cooking)

    but that’s just how i like to think about it, i agree with you, cooking with Sri Lankan and Indian friends, thay pride themselves on varying the recepies and are much more relaxed about spices, and i suppose when they cook they will be as happy to call their variations authentic as we are in our national cuisine :)

  10. Pingback: Pačja prsa alla Szechuan « Vjestica’s Weblog

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