What is “authentic” ethnic food?
It’s a question that sounds easy enough to answer. Who hasn’t argued over the authenticity of a Chinese restaurant, a taco-stand taco or a bright orange chunk of tandoori chicken? Authentic ethnic cuisine is food that simply hews closely to the cooking style and ingredients of the country of its origin.
Well, not exactly.
While I was putting together a story on Basque food for the July 20 issue of Boise Weekly, Gloria Totoricaguena warned me that defining a cuisine’s authenticity isn’t easy at all. She has studied the cultures and cuisines of Basque immigrants all over the world and said that, in fact, trying to define the “realness” of a culture’s food is pretty much a fool's errand.
Food is nothing like a static work of art, Totoricaguena explained. You can’t slide it under a microscope, check a few brush strokes, verify a signature and stamp it with a seal of authenticity.
Food is fluid, it evolves, it changes—whether in the mother country or in the lands where its expatriates settle. Totoricaguena said that Basque food in the Basque Country has evolved into something very different from the barbecued lamb, chorizos and bean soups we call Basque food in the American West. That’s why she put together a program in June called Basque Culinary Arts Week with the goal of bringing “new Basque Cuisine to the diaspora.”
For me, working on this article for Boise Weekly and learning about the evolution of Basque food was a lesson in the cultural evolution of food in general. It reminded me to think twice before getting sucked into an argument over ethnic food “authenticity” again.