The misguided search for authenticity

I made Chicken Everest last night, out of Charmaine Solomon’s Complete Guide to Asian Cooking. I’ve had the book for years, but – perhaps snobbily – had never tried this particular recipe listed in the Indian and Pakistan section, because it was one her husband had invented, and not a “traditional” recipe. (“Mr Charmaine”, in his concoction, uses various Indian spices, roasted rice powder – and then a Chinese ingredient: soy sauce.)

It was delicious. And it tasted..Indian. Which made me think about what counts as traditional or authentic. 

Why do we value the “real” thing over adaptations, when there are so many great spin-offs available? I guess people value authenticity because it recalls something increasingly rare in our globalized world.

True confession: I’ve always felt inadequate for not knowing how to cook “proper” Indian food. I learned some from my Chinese mother, who learned it from her Indian sisters-in-law. She can do a mean fish curry, likewise a chicken version, and dhal. It’s all great, and it ends there. Any variations and accompaniments – usually of a vegetable nature – I learned out of books, friends, and from eating out. In Australia, I’d occasionally strike the attitude of acquaintances (usually those who had never met another Malaysian person) who saw me as some kind of standard-bearer for “Malaysian culture”. Sometimes I’d be quizzed about the various supposedly highly traditional preparations I was dishing up. I felt like a fraud.

And, hmm, perhaps it doesn’t matter – Chicken Everest being today’s litmus test that it doesn’t, at least in the taste stakes.

True, traditional recipes recall a way of life in which some losses are truly regretted. Example: Aunty Kuppu’s pickle recipe – hugely impractical in the time commitment required, but gorgeous in its presumption of a houseful of female who would willingly spend hours drying and grinding spices, and cutting up vegetables. Other kinds of losses, though, aren’t necessarily regrettable. In that way, the search for authenticity may sometimes be misguided.

Anyway, this reminds me.  After getting married, I occasionally cooked for my husband’s parents, who tried hard to appreciate everything. We’d sit down, and the conversation would go something like this:

Father (peering at dish): Naaoow..what’s this, then?

Me: Chicken.

Father: Yes, but what do you call it?

Me: I don’t know…it’s just curry. Chicken curry.

Father: Yes, but what’s the recipe called?

Me: I didn’t use a recipe. It’s just how we cook it.

Father: Is it a Malaysian curry then? Is it traditional?

Me: Erm.. it’s Indian. I think.

Father: Does it have a name?

Me: Not really, I don’t think…

Father (finally giving up the fruitless quest): Well, it’s something different, innit?


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