The authenticity of food: establishing and challenging tradition

Everyone is talking about infrastructure these days, in particular how the UK can boost its economy through large-scale investment with the same kind of vision that the Victorians had. Railway this, big airport that, new bridge there, and so on and so forth etc.

Often, this Victorian vision is summed up by the sentiment that if things had to be done in the name of progress – levelling a hill, uprooting forests, bulldozing neighbourhoods, ploughing through peoples’ back gardens, altering/challenging established ways of life – then by Jove, it had to be done. I doubt that Isambard Kingdom Brunel had little trouble or concern in dealing with NIMBYs or lobby groups when constructing the very first tunnel under the Thames or the Great Western Railway, grand projects that would transform the British landscape and the way of life.

My boy Brunel took crap from no one. NO ONE

My boy Brunel took crap from no one. NO ONE

I therefore find it curious the way that we respect this intrepid Victorian sense of adventure and innovation, and yet we ourselves look to crystallise and set in stone various things that have only come into being within recent history – things that we want to call tradition.

I only mention this because my brother and I recently hosted several friends to a Christmas feast – our very first at our new place, and hopefully the first of many more to come. My brother was in charge of the cooking and, to mark this momentous occasion, he decided to do a traditional Christmas ham. However, he approached it with a sense of adventure and innovation that I’m sure Brunel would approve of: he decided to depart from the norm and, with advice from Nigella, slow-cook the ham in Coca-Cola.

Absolutely ham-tastic

Absolutely ham-tastic

It resulted in a damn tasty, tender and caramelised ham, but it did – and still does – elicit looks of shock and disbelief as people try to comprehend the fact that yes, you can actually legitimately use soft drinks in cooking.

I sincerely hope that this is a recipe that my brother retains, and that the Coca-Cola ham will echo down the ages in future Christmas dinners. In time, it may very well become a classic family recipe, and a real part of our culinary history. It could, even, become an ‘authentic’ tradition.

It reminds me of a discussion I marginally took part in with @meemalee, regarding EAT’s travesty of a Burmese curry soup, namely the way in which innovations can change or even corrupt a national cuisine. This is of particular relevance to us, considering the nature of Filipino cuisine, which has a habit of incorporating and adapting numerous foreign elements to create something new. After all, Filipino has been described as the original East-West fusion cuisine, mixing together as it does Chinese, Malay and Hispanic elements.

The names and nature of our dishes bear out this mix: adobo (from the Spanish word for marinade, which was applied to a native stew), empanadas (more commonly known here in the UK as an Argentinian snack), kare-kare (the name of which is derived from the Tamil word kari, which also gives rise to curry), pancit, siopao and lumpia (all from Hokkien), longganisa (Spanish longaniza is quite different) etc. These are all identifiably Filipino in taste and nature, but they have come about through the injection of foreign influences into the country, foreign influences that have been changed from what they were into something different. And arguably, the injection continues today, as with Spamsilog, hot dog spaghetti, Jollibee chicken with gravy…

We all consider pancit to be an essential and authentic part of Filipino food, making a guest appearance at birthdays and fiestas across the country and indeed the world, even though it was introduced by Chinese traders. So can we say the same about hot dog spaghetti? It is missed by many nostalgic and home-sick OFWs and is a favourite staple of Jollibee, but it was only introduced to the country by the Americans within the last century.

Spaghetti - more fun in the Philippines!

Spaghetti – more fun in the Philippines!

Change like this has happened throughout the world for centuries, be it the Japanese adapting Portuguese dishes in the 16th century to create tonkatsu and tempura, the introduction of croissants into France by a Viennese baker in the 19th century, or even the selling of fried fish by Jewish immigrants in Britain from the 1700s onwards.

And even at a lower level, people alter recipes all the time, adding a bit here and there and maybe taking that thing they dislike out of it. Look at my pork adobo recipe – I hate peppercorns, I don’t use bay leaves and I make it really stewy with loads of punchy vinegar and dark soy sauce. It differs from my brother’s adobo (even though we both learnt how to cook it from our mum), and both of ours differ from our friends’ adobos. But who’s to say which adobo is the truer version? We all learnt and adapted our recipes from somewhere.

At least my client team down in Poole knew whose chicken adobo was better (mine! BOOM SON)

At least my client team down in Poole knew whose chicken adobo was better (mine! BOOM SON)

So as a cuisine evolves, at what point do we say that it has become authentic? And is there ever a time where we can stop any further evolution and say that the end result is the be-all and end-all of that cuisine? Or can a country’s cuisine change so much that it stops being of that country?

I think these particular concerns are very relevant for the Philippines. People still have a habit of identifying different elements of Filipino society and food with where they came from – yes, we can say for sure that pancit, siopao, hakaw and lumpia were introduced by the Chinese, yes, chicken barbecue draws upon the same traditions as Malaysian and Indonesian satay, and yes pandesal, ensaimada and sansrival have Spanish origins, but they are eaten in the Philippines by Filipinos, and the possible combination of all into one day or even one (very big) meal is not done anywhere else.

And so, perhaps, we should be a bit proud of the flexibility and adaptability of Filipinos. Our varied and ever-changing cuisine is a veritable melting pot that is tasty and delicious, and can stand on its own without needing to be either positively or negatively contrasted with other cuisines.

Indeed, I find it pointless and very insulting to say things like “oh, xx food is so much better than yy”, as if it is even remotely possible to objectively judge and compare all aspects of one cuisine with those of another. Even worse are those who say “zz country has NO authentic or real cuisine” (I’m sure Americans get this directed at them a lot). The authenticity lies not necessarily in the dishes, which are always subject to evolution, but in what people treasure and eat on a regular basis, and in the way that people shape traditions around what they eat.

And so, in my hope for my brother’s Coca-Cola ham to become a standard and ‘authentic’ family classic, I’m not just thinking in terms of how he makes it. I’m thinking of it in the wider context of a Christmas feast with friends and family.

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