One of my favourite weekend meals to cook at home is a fusion pasta adapted from chef Willin Low’s Singapore Pesto recipe. The Italian elements are spaghetti and olive oil, but the rest of the ingredients are as Asian as they come: candlenuts, basil leaves, bird’s eye chillies, dried shrimps and curry leaves. It’s an easy task blending these Asian ingredients in a food processor until you get a thick, fragrant paste. It’s aromatically delicious with Chinese ginger chicken too. Italian food purists will probably scoff at this rendition, but there’s no doubt that this dish is an umami bomb, and taste is always the end result I seek.
In recent years, culinary authenticity has become an increasingly fervent cause as more chefs eschew the bells and whistles of molecular gastronomy in favour of a return to their own roots, thereby rediscovering and preserving treasured family recipes and the stories around them. While saving culinary heritage is important – and we should continue to support it - stressing authenticity over flavour innovation can restrict the bandwidth of a cuisine.
To certain countries, culinary authenticity requires protection through legal means. In Malaysia, the Ministry of Human Resources has made a bold move, announcing that “ordinary local food” outlets can only hire local cooks, blurring the thin line between national pride and culinary racism. Must a nation’s cuisine be prepared by locals to be deemed authentic? If it is so, David Thompson would not have become one of the standard bearers of Thai food due to his Australian nationality (This is the chef who elevated Nahm to great heights.) Singaporean chef Jason Tan of one Michelin-starred Corner House would not have been able to fly the flag for French cuisine. Rick Bayless, “a white guy from Oklahoma”, would not have become an ambassador of Mexican food.
Food has always been shaped by a confluence of cultures and ideas. Peruvian cuisine is a good example; chifa and ceviche are a result of Chinese and Japanese influences. Delve into our childhood archives and there are definitely recipes that have been adapted from generations before. New versions will arise, which will be regarded by future generations as authentic. Chefs and home cooks will continue to add their spin to ‘original ‘recipes. What’s perhaps more fruitful are our efforts to discover and preserve fast fading indigenous ingredients instead of fixating on who gets to represent a particular cuisine.
Our cover story this month was a collaboration with chef Ivan Yeo of 1925 Microbrewery.