In the last two months I seem to be stumbling upon posts, magazine articles and discussion that make me think consider what authentic food is. In my case the question is mainly concerned with Italian cooking bit probably the same applies to other cuisines which have a strong classic tradition. This thought is always at the back of my mind, as it is inevitable, me living abroad in a country (Germany) which seems to love Italian food but where real Italian food is a very rare find. Still I really started to think about the "problem" after I read Maki's very well written post on Fusion, on which I strongly agree. Recently two other posts on bruschetta, from Clotilde and Renee (great comment BTW Renee, I intended to reply but it sort of became this post), got me going at it again.
Very often I happen to come across supposedly Italian recipes which have little or no connection to what people in Italy eat: There are various reason for this I believe, the first one is probably the desire of chefs nowadays to show off how inventive they are.
I don't necessarily despise "imaginative" cooking: new recipes have to develop and they wouldn't without new combinations being tried out. So creativity in itself is not what, to use a cooking expression, spoils the soup. After all Italian cuisine would not be what it is today without it: it is not a coincidence that one of the first places in Europe where tomato became a cooking ingredient was Southern Italy.
What I believe is fundamental to cooking, and being creative about it, in a certain "ethnic" (here in the widest meaning possible) cuisine is to have absorbed the cooking bases of that culture (something everyone can learn) and the "philosophy" behind this cooking, something much harder to achieve. I can cook (and I like doing it) Indian, Chinese or Mexican dishes but I know my knowledge is limited to the recipes I use and the story behind them, as far as I can get through books, web pages and so on. But I don't claim to make Indian, et-cetera cuisine as some chefs do. I might modify those recipes to fit my taste but I'm well aware I'm mucking about. To get a real understanding of a certain cuisine one would ideally have to live years in the country/region in question and then mingle with the locals, getting to know people who are good cooks. One can also learn from a good teacher or from studying multiple sources, but also in that cases I think a first hand experience is needed. The point is one's not only learning to cook some dishes but rather absorbing a culture that isn't yours. This is IMO hard but far from impossible: after all some of the best Italian cookbooks are in English, they do contain the occasional mistake but they're still more in-depth than most Italian ones.
Sometimes authentic and traditional have two different meanings: Italian cooking by immigrants in the USA or South America is not authentic but is certainly traditional. It isn't authentic because their cooking represents on one hand a sort of time capsule (what Italians used to eat as those families moved abroad) which does not reflect Italian cooking today, this on the other hand makes their cooking traditional. Also, their cooking had to be changed to match the ingredients available (bringing me to the next topic).
Another important factor in authentic cooking is the ingredients, and how easy it is to find them. Sometimes the lack of some of them makes cooking certain dishes impossible. I haven't cooked any of the recipes I love containing ricotta since I moved from Italy since I just can't find fresh sheep ricotta here. Other times the ingredients are there but they taste so different that they change one dish inevitably. For example, one of my favourite comfort foods is pasta e zucchine, pasta with pan fried zucchini (in olive oil and onion) with their cooking fat and plenty of parmesan. I can find zucchini here all right but they just lack that sweet-bitter taste they have when grown near Naples. Wine lovers talk about terrior for grapes (and wines clearly) but I believe the same applies to vegetables, fruit and indirectly cheeses. On the other hand other dishes are perfectly replicable anywhere since the basic ingredients are widespread. Take Bolognese fro example, or as it s called in Italian Ragu' di carne alla Bolognese (meat ragout Bolognese style). Funny that the name itself contains a foreign element, the French "ragout" bastardised to the Italian "ragu'". This is one of the most loved and at the same time more often murderously butchered Italian dishes. I intended to write a post about it, since a few days ago I made some of this sauce to go with some fresh fettuccine I had made (pasta machines are a great temptation!). Then I remembered that Pieman had posted an absolutely authentic recipe on the very nice group blog "The Daily Bread". The only difference in my recipe is that it cooks 2 to three hours. Such a dish can be made almost anywhere ( OK, you might have problems finding beef in India or pork in the Muslim countries) and will always taste good. This kind of recipes are the ones one should take up if one intends to cook (at home or even in a restaurant) authentic Italian food. After having "understood" them one can try to imrove them according to one's taste: no one family in Italy has the same recipe for dishes like Bolognese, as for every "classic" dish everywhere in the world. You should try to ask for a paella recipe in Spain (do and then run away fast) :-))).
Wow, I notice the topic has turned more complicated than I even thought. Just one closing word. For from me from stopping anyone playing with food: inventing new pasta dishes, weird pizza toppings and so on. Playing is part of the fun, although there is a limit to good taste (no caviar topped pizza please, that's just kitsch!). Just don't call it traditional Italian cooking!