Someone explained to me recently that until the arrival of movies and complex movement analysis systems such as “Labanotation” (invented by Rudolf Laban in the 1920s) there was no real way of recording dance. When the dancers stopped, their postures and movements remained only in the collective memory of performers and observers. As memory is rarely perfect, each time the dance was performed it would be subtly different, evolved and reinvented. Historical events and experiences can be recorded with varying degrees of veracity but the authenticity of a dance, it seems, is entirely moot.
In the food world we rely on recipes – a widely agreed notation system for recreating dishes and culinary techniques – to bring us the cuisine of other times and cultures. But we haven’t had them for long, and they haven’t always been universal. The first recipes appear as instructions written down by literate, aristocratic householders to be read to probably illiterate cooks. They were often short on both length and detail and, to this day, are open to the widest interpretation.
The anglicisation of Indian-inspired foods has been going on in the UK since the 1700s. Returning members of the British East India Company brought spices, Indian cooks and a taste for hot things. Later, British expatriates in India developed a yen for dishes from home, as made by Indian cooks. The inauthentic Indian food we eat in the UK today has a distinguished, if oddly mongrel, authenticity all of its own.
New restaurants regularly launch offering “authentic” Indian cooking in opposition to this standard anglicised “curry house” output and we justifiably applaud these attempts. Yet the very idea of an “Indian” cuisine is inherently absurd. It’s a vast physical area containing the full range of classes, cultures, religions, histories, influences and indigenous produce. An “authentic Indian” restaurant in London makes as much sense, when you think about it, as a European restaurant serving fondue, egg and chips, paella and smorgasbords made from ingredients available in the local market in Delhi.
“Authentic” Italian food has an even odder story. Pellegrino Artusi was a writer with a political desire to unify the regions of Italy into a single country and thought, quite logically, that food might be a way to do it. In La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well), 1891, he combined all the regional recipes he could find and in doing so artificially assembled what we regard today as “Italian” food.
At a time when we in Britain are trying to reconnect with our own food history (as Polly Russell’s History Cook column in this magazine bears witness), authenticity is a live issue. With the only primary historical evidence available being recipes, a sort of academic subculture has grown up of people cooking in historical style. Food historian Ivan Day, the Food Archaeologists team at Hampton Court Palace, Dr Annie Gray’s “live interpreters” – fully costumed Victorian chefs – at places such as Audley End stately home, all have serious academic underpinnings, using a kind of creative “re-living” process as part of their research. They begin with what historical evidence they can find but in recreating the dish, they understand its limitations and its flavours in a way that no recipe, no system of notation could ever hope to achieve. It may seem odd that the best way to understand, say, Georgian cookery is to dress up and cook it but this kind of research is as useful as it is possible to be in understanding past or distant food cultures.
Personally, I have some sympathy with a different approach: to relax a little, to realise that unlike some other creative forms, authenticity in cooking is not actually that important and instead concentrate, as everyone from the Elizabethans to the Indians will have done, on enjoying what we have. If you’re one of those people who really want to know how the Elizabethans danced, the best way would probably be to look at some pictures, put on some music and have a go. Take a similar approach to food and in the end, the most authentic dish is the one you’ve experienced cooking yourself.
Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer