What Does ‘Authentic Food’ Even Mean?

What Does ‘Authentic Food’ Even Mean_

Have you ever seen a restaurant advertising its penchant for serving authentic food? If so, have you ever stopped to consider what that actually means? Unfortunately, ‘authentic food’ has become just another marketing phrase used to convince restaurant patrons that what they are about to eat tastes just like what mom used to make.

Driving home this point was an excellent Washington Post article from food writer John Paul Brammer. His May 20 (2019) piece hits the nail on the head as far as authenticity in cooking is concerned. His writing is brilliant in its conveyance of the idea that authentic is whatever you make it.

Memories of Childhood Food

Brammer began his article by explaining that he comes from a Mexican family that does not cook. It’s not that they don’t like to cook; it’s that they cannot cook. Brammer describes it as “culinary incompetence.” But that incompetence is normal for him. As an adult, he has fond memories of what was served at home. To him, authentic Mexican food is what his mother put on the table every night.

Let’s say you visited a family living in Mexico City. The family has lived there for generations, cooking whatever recipes have been passed down. Let’s also say that the tortillas they serve look nothing like what you experience in an authentic Mexican restaurant here in the states. Would you assume that the families cooking is not authentic? Of course you wouldn’t. They are Mexicans cooking food in whatever way the family has always cooked it.

If anyone is authentic, it is that family. Your favorite Mexican restaurant here in the states may or may not be authentic. It depends on where the recipes come from. If the recipes were created by culinary school chefs and learned by the restaurant owner in culinary school, you could make the case they are not authentic. But if that same restaurant owner cooks what he/she learned to cook at home as a kid, now you have authenticity.

Traditional is a Better Term

In light of Brammer’s article and the compelling case he makes therein, it could be that ‘authentic’ isn’t really a good term for the restaurant industry. Perhaps ‘traditional’ is a better term. That’s the term they use at Taqueria27, a family-owned and operated Mexican restaurant in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Taqueria27 presents itself as serving a blend of traditional Mexican foods and their modern interpretations of Latin American favorites. Referring to some of the recipes as ‘traditional’ simply indicates that they follow recipes passed down by previous generations. It doesn’t suggest authenticity in any way.

Saying a recipe is traditional reflects only its origins. Saying it is authentic implies it is ‘real’ as opposed to a similar recipe from a competing restaurant that isn’t real. In other words, yours is genuinely Mexican while the competition’s recipe comes from somewhere other than Mexico.

As Long As It’s Good

In the end, Brammer decides that authenticity is for tourists who want an experience rather than a meal. But what it really boils down to is the food itself. If it’s good, does it really matter whether it’s described as being authentic or traditional? No.

If authenticity is important to you as a diner, step back and ask yourself what it even means. Perhaps Brammer is right. Perhaps what you’re looking for is an experience that makes you feel as though you are dining somewhere other than the place you currently are. There’s nothing wrong with that, by the way. Just know that authenticity is not the same thing as good food.


Paul Watson

The author Paul Watson