“It is real authentic,” he says.
“Authentic Tuscan cooking,” she says.
“It is as authentic as you get in Florence,” they say.
Authenticity—that is what we strive for. It is about being genuine; it is about being true; and it is about being original. Don’t we all wish that we were. Authenticity has a value, which a copy can never have. It is a stamp of approval; it is mark of quality: hence, jealously and fiercely protected are the DOP (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta) and the IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta).
In fact, human history is nothing but a quest for authenticity. We talk about pedigrees and heritage and bloodlines: the proof of which has made kingdoms, and the lack has broken dynasties and—well, marriages.
Applied to cooking, authenticity is the highest praise—for any chef, but especially for a chef in a foreign country. Cooking as your grandmother did in your own culture and community is certainly not without its own hardships, what with the trends and fashions as fickle as La Donna E Mobile. However, whatever anyone does in their own country is a priori “authentic”: for heritage itself has nothing to do with taste or talent (for examples, look no further than many heirs who disgracefully grace the glossy magazines).
In fact, authenticity is a two-prong test: first it must be real; and it then must be right. It has to be “real” in that the ingredients must be really from the region and contain only the real stuff—parmigiano reggiano vs. powdered parmesan (which may or may not contain wood chips). Hence, the menu now reads like an broken poem—with exotic and esoteric words embedded to cast a spell—tuna from Ooma and Grains of Paradise from Gulf of Guinea—too often to camouflage the shortcomings of the culinary skill.
Yet sourcing authentic ingredients is only half the game. The time is 2018: we have refrigerators and we have freezers and, we even have them on the airplanes. Getting fresh and good ingredients are not that difficult any more, provided that one is willing to pay for them. But one thing even the modern marvel cannot manage is to pack cooking into a can. Freeze, vacuum or what have you—canned ravioli even made in Italy still tastes like Chef Boyardee. Cooking simply must be done manually and à la minute. No short cut there.
Sourcing—give it a break, will you? Nothing has been cooked yet; the chefs have not even arrived. Authentic ingredients need to be cooked in the “right” way in order to produce the authentic flavor. Therefore, when a papa turns a big pizza pie in Napoli—that’s amore; but if a pimply pupil does the same in Pennsylvania—that’s Papa John’s. Even if—even if the pizza napolitana turns out to be the worst pizza available in the history of Naples (which is completely possible) because the failure itself is nevertheless “authentic.”
Having said that, enchanting mediocre ingredients into buon gusto—that is what true cooking is all about—and the only thing that trumps the authenticity question is the flavor. But what makes a flavor—and an authentically good flavor, that is? Is the secret hidden in the seasoning—fresh or dried oregano; removing or leaving the garlic germ—or in the recipes—from the now unpopular Mario Batali or from your permanently drunk babbo?
Or does cooking actually start with a memory—a whiff and a sniff from time immemorial?
In a way, it is—authenticity is a puff of smoke. It cannot be captured in recipes or encapsulated in an earthenware jar. The comforting rhythm of chopping—far but constant; the irresistible aroma emanating from the singing pot—traveling down the corridor; and, the glorious moment when the lid was lifted. Time simply stood still then—only we could not hurry enough to wolf it all down. Cucina autentica—it is love, and it requires amore and nothing less.
Furthermore, authenticity does not exist by itself; it needs contrast, counterpart or a counterfeit to mark its distinction. It is sublime and absolute, yet it needs accoutrements—like God Almighty and the Fallen Angel. For those precious DOC and IGP, their value is delineated by what others are not. Some may point out that these provenances do have values even domestically, but that is to distinguish the local from the foreign invaders, who franchise and factory the fake version for a bit of financial gain—assuming, albeit correctly, that the mass would not be able to tell the difference. Even the French have a hard time defending the AOC camembert against Président.
Many look at Japan, starry-eyed: with so many Michelin restaurants, authenticity seems rather “easy” there. But easy, it is not. Just importing Alba truffles and Modena balsamic vinegar do not make a restaurant anymore Italian than wearing Dolce & Gabbana.
First of all, Japan is far from Italy. Geographically, Japan is 9,723km from Italy across continent and oceans, which means that Japanese people are not going to get into the car and drive to Italy; neither do they annually take their vacation in the Riviera for two months. Culturally, Japan is even farther away: they did not grow up listening to La Traviata or watch Federico Fellini on scratchy TV; and Leonardo Da Vinci may as well be French since Mona Lisa hangs in the Louvre. Religiously—well, the Japanese are forever damned in the inferno—but without Virgil, whom they would not recognize anyway for not having read Dante; which also linguistically and literally separates the Italian from the Japanese, although they do call the Japanese alphabetical phonetics the Roman letters.
Second of all, historically, there have never been any mass emigration of Italians to Japan—the only persons who bothered stopping was Marco Polo and a few Catholic priests. Compared that to New York City, which is 7,073km away from Napoli, but come they did, leaving many Tony’s and Roberto’s and their juniors—who order General Tso’s Chicken from Chinatown across the street.
In Japan, there is no mamma making the macaroni, and no mustached signore to take your order: “arigato gozaimasu” instead of “grazie” and “sumimasen” instead of “scusi.” A Japanese chef cooking Italian food to a bunch of Japanese, with Pavarotti singing his gut out in the background—what a comedy: Don Giovanni at the Met with the subtitles on cannot even begin to compete.
“If I serve chicken with bones, will you eat it?” asked the chef of ‘A vvcchella, “you know, Japanese won’t.” They won’t? “No,” the chef gives his shaved head a few strong shakes, “they won’t dirty their hands.” Stew needs bones. “You are telling me?”
Howe about ribolita then? “Ribolita?” The chef looked stricken. Yes—you can get cavolo nero in Japan now. “Sure, sure. But who wants ribolita? I made it last year, and I sold exactly one—to an Italian teacher from Rome,” lamented the chef in heavy Osaka dialect—the semi-official language of Japanese comedy. “They don’t get it. They won’t pay for vegetable soup with stale bread. Besides, ribollita is just too filling.” But, it is supposed to be filling—la cucina povera. The chef winced, “You say that and you can say that again. Cucina povera—that’s the real heart and soul of Italian cooking.” Poor man’s food. “Too right, but who wants poor food?” Peasant food then—farro (spelt) or ceci (chickpeas) or lampredotto (stewed offal)… The chef stared close and hard, “Don’t you think I tried? The things I want to make and eat, nobody else does. And, nobody will pay for them.”
No, the Japanese will not bite. Certainly not into the picchiante—the lungs of beef or veal, stewed piccante—even though they love their beef and some even the organs. Being noodle-eaters themselves, the Japanese had taken to Italian right away—in the form of supagetti naporitan, which had nothing to do with Italiano or Napolitano, but a lot to do with the War and the U.S.A. The Mutual Security Act stipulated that Japan had to purchase the U.S. surplus wheat and barley, and thus began the sorry story of Japanese spongy bread, made of the surplus soft wheat. Soon enough, a company called Ma Ma started making macaroni and then spaghetti, which was soft noodles in masquerade. In place of tomato sauce, it was ketchup—then sliced onions, green peppers and pink winner (wiener) sausages—that’s the Japanese soul food: supagetti naporitan.
Authentic supagetti naporitanalla giapponese there is, but what about Italian cuisine as it is from Italy? From Italy, but Italy is long and old: which part of Italy and from which era? As a matter of fact, do the Italians themselves know what authentic Italian flavor tastes like?
“Ossobuco—the real Milanese style is bianco, no tomatoes, but with gremolata.” Plenty of ricette use tomatoes. “What can I say? They don’t know. Like in this ossobuco alla reggiana from Leggio-Emiliga, they use Marsala from Sicily, not the reds they got in the region. God knows why.” And, this rice is not risotto. “No, it is not. You can sure do a risotto to go with it. But being me, I always want to do it different—so I do a simple boiled rice, as they would do it over there.” The chef tossed his big head, as if “over there” was in the backyard. The boiled rice, scented with sweet onion and much lighter than risotto, proved a nicer accompaniment to the heavy-duty shank. “Did I tell you how difficult it is to get shanks cut with the bone-in?” Yes, chef.
Authenticity is a faith; it demands absolute loyalty and commands total absorption. However, preaching authenticity in a land of the heathens, oh boy—martyrdom (or bloody murder) is what awaits these brave souls. Talk about a mission impossible. Foreign chefs who take on the insurmountable task of cooking authentic cuisine of another country is either shaking with a burning desire of the true righteous or suffering from an acute form of schizophrenia.
How can a foreign cuisine ever be authentic in another country? To be thoroughly foreign in your native country—it is an act of defiance. Especially in a uniform society like Japan where the few immigrants try so hard to assimilate by haunching their shoulders and keeping their heads down. Yet these crazy missionaries want to be alien—and authentically alien at that. Stranger than a Stranger in a Strange Land.
A long time ago, Japanese monk-scholars dared faring the sea and traveled to China in quest of knowledge and the divine truth. These brave monks then returned to Japan with the holy scriptures and tofu and azuki beans. Arguably back then, the noble purpose was to seek and beseech the ultimate learning—but is that so much holier than food: food—the forbidden fruit that should not have been eaten? For having taken a bite of the authentic apple, going back was no longer a possibility.
“I traveled down to Sicily one time with a potential patron from the U.S. and he got me into some of the best kitchens there.” The result was the exquisite gamberi alla Trapanese (shrimps in almond sauce)—with a hint of cinnamon to evoke the Arabic roots, with a level of authenticity dared to be found in present-day Sicily.
These authentic artisan-artists go all the way—they dredge the ancient recipes and knock down antique cabinets, incanting abracadabra on the other side of the globe, hungry for a knowledge they may never know. They do not know what drives them—except for a burning urgency—anymore than we know why we are driven to foreign flavors in a foreign land. Yet united we are in remembrance of a past we had not shared, in respect of persons we did not know—and in search of authenticity we have long lost.
As everything precious, authenticity is fragile and it is verging on extinction—like an endangered animal. 200 species die every day—or just 5, if you want to be positive—of the 8.7 million in the world. Furthermore, one language goes extinct every 14 days—of the 7,000 still spoken today. We are merging and morphing into one big family: soon we will all look alike and speak broken English. Oh, we already do that, don’t we?
The bowl of ribollita had no bread. Looking into the ribollita, thus impoverished, was looking into a crystal ball for the future—a future, poorer for being without bread and without authenticity. Then, Italy came—came with a heavy and heady dose of olive oil—grassy and green like the summer rain. “I didn’t put in any pane, but I did pour in the olive oil, plenty of that. I get the best there is—to hell with the cost. Peasant or poor, the olive oil has got to be the best,” the chef winked. Dig in—authentic or not, Italy is here.
Castle Cheese, Inc. scandal in 2016.
Moonstruck, 1987; or Dean Martin, 1953.
Robert A. Heinlein.
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