'No Cuisine In The World Can Be Called Authentic.' Here's Why.

Food Network champion Maneet Chauhan will make you think twice next time you criticize a culture's cuisine.
"Authentic is what is authentic to me — what I have grown up with, been influenced by, or want to create."
Illustration:Jianan Liu/HuffPost; Photo:Amelia J. Moore;Getty Images
"Authentic is what is authentic to me — what I have grown up with, been influenced by, or want to create."

Maneet Chauhan is an Indian American celebrity chef, restaurant owner and cookbook author. She launched the first ever Indian dining concept at a Disney park in Orlando, eet by Maneet Chuahan, and became the first two-time champion of Food Network’s highest-rated culinary competition series, ”Tournament of Champions.” In this edition of Voices in Food, Chauhan explains how she takes issue with people who question “authenticity” in her cooking. She advises chefs and diners to loosen the criticism of authenticity, and have more fun through personal expression.

I grew up in a small town in Ranchi, India. The community that I grew up in had people from all over the country. Each region of India — Punjab, Andhra, Bengal, Rajasthan — has a distinct cuisine of its own. I was that obnoxious kid who would eat dinner at home and then go to my neighbor’s home and tell them that my parents did not feed me so I could try their regional food, too.

As I got older, our family friends started asking me to come to the dinner parties earlier, to help cook with them. It was fascinating, because I got to learn about different ingredients and techniques from these aunties, which was “authentic to them” home cooking. I myself started playing around with combinations and textures that I enjoyed. I would take my own cooked food to my older sister in college and became the most popular kid on campus. I realized I could have a conversation with anyone over food.

Instead of following the common professional aspirations of becoming a doctor or engineer, I wanted to be a chef. My parents encouraged me. I went to the best hotel management school in Manipal, India. Then, I had my eyes on the best culinary school in the world – Culinary Institute of America (CIA). When I got there in 1998, I was the only Indian student at the CIA for a long time. The awareness of Indian food in the U.S. was the dismal all-you-can-eat, $10-or-less lunch buffets. It was shocking because I had grown up with seasonal ingredients and many evolved flavors.

“When diners or the media attack me that my food is not authentic, I tell them that authenticity is an opinion and it is OK to have a conversation around your experiences.”

- Maneet Chauhan

But instead of feeling pigeonholed, I was excited to learn new techniques. At CIA, when we had to make focaccia with our own signature topping for our bread-making class, I [used] bhindi bhaji (Indian-style okra) and chana daal (chickpea curry) toppings. Everyone loved the flavors and the chef-instructor encouraged me to express myself in my cooking.

After graduating, I couldn’t get anyone to sponsor my work visa, so I worked for my uncle and aunt’s restaurant outside Philadelphia. We were serving what people thought of as authentic Indian food, and it gave me insight into what Indian food could be if it was treated with respect. I introduced the diners to dishes they had never even heard of before, or would write off as “unauthentic.”

For example, most people associate chaat with northern India and expect certain ingredients in it. I traveled around India to research for my cookbook and found there were so many versions of chaat – including idli chaat from southern India. Even today, my chicken tikka poutine is controversial, but my most popular dish.

When people come to my restaurants and remark that my food is not authentic Indian, I ask them: What is authentic? India, as a country it is today, is an aggregation of cultures. Chicken tikka masala is not authentic Indian; it is a British invention. Goan Vindaloo has vinegar from Portuguese influence. Indo Chinese comes from the Chinese migration of Tangra cuisine. Most people associate naan with Indian food, but that came from when Persian kingdoms settled in India. Even key ingredients used in everyday Indian cooking, like tomatoes and chilies, originally came from Mexico. If you go further back in history, Indian food was Dravidian or Satvik (ayurvedic), and back in time, we were all hunters and gatherers cooking on fire. In fact, no cuisine in the world can be called authentic. If so, we would say there was no authentic French cuisine prior to Auguste Escoffier documenting mother sauces.

Authentic is a weak word. It is open to personal interpretation. Authentic is what is authentic to me — what I have grown up with, been influenced by, or want to create. There are thousands of ways saag paneer is made across India. Even my maternal and paternal grandmothers from the same region made it differently. So, am I confused about my authenticity? I am not an historian, I am an artist. Cooking is open to my interpretation of flavors. And there are different kinds of artists — some are great at copying exactly, others interpret something from real life. At the end of the day, chefs are artists, some put their own flavor and design, others do it as they see it. My food is authentic Maneet.

And when chefs claim that their recipes have been passed down through generations or “this is how my grandmother made it,” I can promise you that the recipes within the family evolved as they immigrated, as farming techniques changed, as cooking techniques modernized, and ingredients became available. Your nonna was probably using a mortar and pestle instead of a grinder, and cooking on an open fire instead of a temperature-controlled commercial oven.

There is charm in knowing where we came from, but also excitement in where we have come. Change is a part of our evolution. Chefs may start with the romanticized idea of cooking what their grandmother made, but every generation adds its own signature on the dish. Instead of hanging on rigidly to the word “authentic,” you can be open to translation. Authenticity is a vague word that comes down to personal perception. Each restaurant concept is authentic to the chef who created it.

Chefs should stop calling their food “authentic” and should stand behind their own celebration of flavors they have been inspired by, and how they want to transfer their own emotion and passion across to diners through their creations.

When diners or the media attack me that my food is not authentic, I tell them that authenticity is an opinion and it is OK to have a conversation around your experiences. You don’t need to be right or wrong. It is often people who have limited knowledge who dig their heels in to assume and criticize.

Food is a powerful connector — it emotes love, and provides nourishment. I became a chef to make people happy. Naysayers will always be there. But if as a chef you are true to yourself, that’s all that matters.

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