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VOL. 43 | NO. 11 | Friday, March 15, 2019

Is it really authentic Indian? Just relax, enjoy the meal

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I recently heard a couple of food fanatic friends arguing about the relative authenticity of two Indian restaurants. Neither of the two was from India nor had any Indian family, but both were fairly well-acquainted with the cuisines of that part of the world and even some of the regional variations.

Still, I wondered who made them arbiters of authenticity.

This same story plays out with Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Salvadoran, Italian and Ethiopian cuisines, as well, thanks in large part to a plethora of food media, the ability to Google recipes and order ingredients online that once were hard to find, and a generation of serious diners who have grown up with all this access and now wear a coddled sense of culinary entitlement like a bib.

Authenticity, though, is a matter of perspective wrapped in a rose-colored blanket of opinion. Just ask anyone who has the best and most proper pizza or burger. Heck, take a local poll on what constitutes “real” Nashville hot chicken and you’ll find little consensus (except for Prince’s).

This reminded me of an interview I had years ago with Anthony Bourdain. While he decried faux Italian places like the Olive Garden as inauthentic, and spoke to his perceived validity of the new rustic Italian movement by chefs like Mario Batali, Bourdain also admitted he was wrong to denigrate the East Coast food of his youth.

Bourdain said the Italian-Americanized versions of sugo, Sunday gravy and other New Jersey takes on foods of the old country were just as valid as the authentic versions he had long promoted. Immigrant cooking in foreign lands is a take-what-you-can-get proposition as you struggle to create comfort in facsimiles. It also evolves over time.

It’s also a financial proposition when it comes to restaurants. Global cuisines have long watered down their flavors and whittled their ingredient lists for fear that American palates won’t like true, authentic cuisines.

Make it safe and make some money. Exhibit A: the standard Chinese buffet.

Mexican food in Nashville used to be the domain of large plates smothered in melted cheese and insulated with shredded lettuce. Then came the slow migration of Mexican immigrants, followed by tortilla makers and restaurants like La Hacienda on Nolensville Road where menudo (tripe soup) and pozole popped up as weekend specials.

Then came the taco trucks and markets manned by Mexican butchers who cut meats in shapes that looked like home. You could buy fresh nopal cactus paddles and whole bags of dried hibiscus flowers, and the food in restaurants got a lot more like the food from south of the grand border.

Thai food appeared in the 1970s, thanks to pioneers like Patty Myint and her International Market, complemented by the Global Market on Charlotte. Soon, Siam Cafe and others captured our imaginations with a host of curries thickened with coconut milk and unheard-of spices including galangal and kaffir lime leaves.

A funny thing then happened. More Thai restaurants popped up, and many of the dishes started tasting like they were made with the same canned curry pastes. Over time, Thai food seemed to be going the way of Chinese food in terms of homogeneity for the American palate.

Meanwhile, food television began to flourish and bring us a world of flavor. We educated ourselves and sought the best of category whenever we traveled. We wanted to know what “real” foods tasted like in their native lands and whether it could be replicated in cities like Nashville, Murfreesboro or Memphis.

Then came Smiling Elephant, and we hit another gear.

Opened by Patty Myint’s brother, Sam Kopsombut, we tasted a fresher, brighter Thai cuisine than we had known. It was hailed as, you guessed it, the most authentic.

Next came whispered reports of a cafe in Antioch called King Market that cooked the regional dishes of the Thai-Lao cultural borderlands. They even made their own sausage!

This arc plays out among many of the city’s immigrant communities, where there’s a balancing act of having the critical mass of people to support markets and restaurants that serve familiarity while also catering to neophyte taste buds.

For adventurous food lovers, it’s a welcome dance.

Which brings me back to that pesky authenticity argument.

The concern of one friend is that Chaatable, Maneet Chauhan’s new homage to Indian street food, is more authentic than her first outpost, Chauhan Ale and Masala House.

This also takes us back to Bourdain’s argument.

Like lemurs, cuisines evolve and adapt to their local environments. But there’s also a next, new wave of creative chefs mixing their old and new homes on the plate.

Chauhan is a master of this. Sure, she’s talented enough to cook any dish from any region of her native India, but chooses to look at her new local bounty, local culture and miscegenate the two into hybridized deliciousness.

Is it authentic? Who cares. It’s interesting and good.

I’m not kaiboshing the whole notion of authenticity. It’s a good baseline by which we measure future dishes.

If dumbing down a dish becomes a gateway, then so be it. If combining the Colombian dishes of his mother with the down South foods of his father, as Kahlil Arnold is doing at the eponymous meat-and-three, then let’s see how a carne-y-tres tastes.

Let’s revel in the international boom times of Nashville and quit squabbling over the relative merits of authenticity of places few of us are even beginning to understand, let alone locate on a map.

Jim Myers is a former restaurant critic, features columnist, hog wrangler, abattoir manager, Tennessee Squire and Kentucky Colonel. Reach him at jim@culinarity.com

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