Without explanation, without exposition, the phrase “authentic” is just about critically meaningless. Authentic compared to what? To whom? To what time period? To what style of cooking? To what standard? I’ve seen it used, I’ve seen it abused. But more than anything else, in a land where whole cooking styles are a product of a master of one style taking on elements of another, and in a land that is proud of being a melting pot, saying, “XXX isn’t authentic” is pretty much wasting reader’s time if you don’t explain.
What most people care about is great food, and mastery of food. And if someone is making good, but not great food, it’s worthwhile, as a reviewer, to explain why. If someone else is taking on the style of another, such as the Korean pho house La Pho, then in a review, it’s useful to explain why La pho’s pho isn’t the same as the Vietnamese pho houses. Chloe Morris did this in her review, but to note, she said why the pho wasn’t authentic (missing spices), and what the consequences were (missing flavor).
I’ve used the phrase ‘authentic’ to describe the range of foods offered in a Japanese restaurant. That’s an important criterion in terms of being exposed to the whole range of Japanese cuisine. Talking about ‘authentic’ in terms of Japanese food in any other context is tricky, because the Japanese are adept at taking Western and Chinese foods, making them their own, and bringing them back to the world. Therefore, a dish such as tempura is simply an adaption of good old fashioned deep fat frying. This is a Western import. Japanese ramen is derived from Chinese lo mein, and yakisoba, despite the name, is also a Chinese import. As a consequence, the phrase “authentic ramen” is almost an oxymoron.
In the border cuisines of the United States, things get tricky as well. As Robb Walsh, a food writer and James Beard winner, has explained, no one knew the difference between Mexican cooking, and the foods served as Mexican food in San Antonio or Houston or Dallas until the publication, in 1972, of Diane Kennedy’s landmark cookbook The Cuisines of Mexico.
The Cuisines of Mexico was a breakthrough cookbook, one that could have been written only by a non-Mexican. It unified Mexican cooking by transcending the nation’s class divisions and treating the food of the poor with the same respect as the food of the upper classes.
Thanks in large part to the influence of Kennedy’s friends at The New York Times, particularly the late food editor Craig Claiborne, The Cuisines of Mexico became the definitive book on Mexican cooking. Its sermons on the inferiority of this country’s Mexican food were accepted as gospel by food-savvy Americans who soon started using the derogatory term Tex-Mex to describe it.
The problem is in Atlanta, is that our local food reviewers are doing the same to places that serve border food, even though almost all high end Mexican restaurants in Atlanta are nothing but border food. It’s easy to tell Mexican food aimed at our newest wave of immigrants: they come from hole in the walls named Taquerias and Carnicerias or branches of Supermercados. Places that brand themselves “Mexican Restaurants” and use English in the title almost invariably serve border, or Tejano food.
Fish tacos have an origin that’s very disputed ( see, for example, here and here), but the versions we have in the States: are they authentic Mexican food, or border food? Should California’s influence be discounted? Should we point at a vendor that uses Gulf fish (as opposed to a species native to Baja California) and say, “Those aren’t authentic fish tacos.” Is that any kind of reasonable criticism?
I live in a city where most “French” bakeries are staffed by Koreans, and I live in a land where the best known French brasserie, Les Halles, has a head chef that is Hispanic. There is a saying whose origin I can’t trace, but it applies here: “It’s not the wand, it’s the wizard.” It’s not the adherence to a particular style that counts. It’s how good the food ends up on the plate. Claiming otherwise is pure snobbery.