When a new Arab-owned and operated café opened just up the street from my grad school apartment, I was ecstatic. At worst, I thought, it would be a place where I'd be able to finagle emergency supplies, such as fine-grain bulgur and orange-flower water, when my personal stash ran low. The day I finally ventured over to welcome my new Palestinian neighbours to the corner, I spotted a friend seated at one of the café's outdoor tables, happily eating her lunch. It appeared to be some sort of gyro-like compound meat patty, topped with yoghurt and rolled up in an Armenian-style lavash.
Intrigued, I asked my friend what she was having. "Oh, it's the lamb shawarma platter!" she said, "and it's so good! Taste it!" But the sandwich bore no resemblance to shawarma in the world as I knew it. Annoyed, I marched home to the sanctity of my tiny kitchen, where I most likely tried to erase any memory of the cultural offence with some bad pad thai or dumplings.
Over the weeks that followed, the vexing café was mentioned with relentless regularity. Friends grew enamoured with it and wanted me to chime in with my expert Arab opinion. Unable to offer any actual criticism of the food, the best I could muster were lame remarks about its lack of authenticity. I wasn't blind to the irony in this, though I didn't accept it as hypocrisy until a few years later, when my beloved Nigella Lawson published a book that contained a recipe for avocado and green-pea hummus on crostini. I'd keenly embraced dozens of other recipes that Lawson cheerily admits are her own interpretations, never pausing to neurotically envision them as a distorted affront to Japanese, Scandinavian or Mexican cuisine. Because I adore Lawson, it forced me to come to terms with the degree of my prejudice, which was a blind spot the size and shape of the Middle East. After all, it's where my biases lie, it's what I'm most familiar with, and so I'm most protective of its integrity - but only, of course, as I perceive it. As you can probably imagine, this means that I kissed goodbye to any objectivity long ago. I wanted it back.
Ours is a generation obsessed with authenticity, even when we opt out of it. Accept no substitutes, unless they're even better than the real thing. I'm such a brand loyalist that I won't even buy generic ibuprofen. But we're also a generation that loves to get away with things; witness bootleg music, online downloads, imitation crabmeat, and faux fur.
When it comes to food, there's a lot to consider when you really start challenging people's perceptions of authenticity and concerns over what it means in the restaurant business. When should it matter to consumers, and when should it not? Is the epitome of inauthentic Middle Eastern food served in an Arabian Nights-themed restaurant in Disneyland, where waiters shimmy around the table in belly-dancing outfits, introducing themselves as Princess Jasmine in fake Arabic accents? It's easy to end up eating bad Arabic food in tourist traps throughout the Arab world; does simply being there ensure that it's more authentic than delicious, thoughtfully prepared Arabic food in London or New York? Perhaps we value authenticity for the wrong reasons.
"Authenticity is to food what racism is to the human race," writes the San Francisco food writer and restaurant critic Michael Bauer. "Deeming food authentic or inauthentic becomes a device, much like racism, to keep people in their places. In many cases, there's a little reverse discrimination at play."
There's no such thing as a static culinary lexicon; traditional cuisine is evolving everywhere, and especially here in the UAE. It's a combination of knowledge, instinct, sincerity, understanding and respect that determines authenticity. There's also the caveat that everyone who takes risks to create should be allowed the occasional mistake; an otherwise talented Lebanese chef's spin on stuffed grape leaves springs to mind: sliced and arranged on a long white plate, it looked like a necrotic spicy tuna roll. Before you can revolutionise something, you need to know what it is. Even the most original ideas are shaped by their sources. Is the classic way of doing things always the right way, or is it merely a springboard, a foundation? Is it more authentic?
Today, for breakfast, I ate a bowl of steamed, salmon-coloured tomato couscous fluffed with butter and then covered with hot milk, making a sort of weird pink porridge. There was absolutely nothing authentic about it and I'd never serve it to anyone else, but it was delicious all the same. And in my freezer, next to the authentic Turkish coffee from my Lebanese roaster, is a pint of organic Turkish coffee ice cream made in the Rocky Mountains. I suppose that my revised definition of authenticity is also about remaining true to one's own tastes, character and spirit, despite convention, history, and people telling you what you should and shouldn't be doing with your food.
Some believe that the ultimate in authenticity is when locals will make you dinner; an experience that can't be bought, traded or replaced. But that definition is limiting, too, because it rests on the premise that authentic dishes can't be taught. Anyone who's eaten authentic local fare at the home of an Emirati has probably never been cooked for by one. Some of the worst food I've ever eaten was made by grandmothers. I've had great French food made by well-trained Mexican line cooks. There are plenty of skilled cooks making authentic foods that they didn't grow up eating.
If food doesn't have to be "authentic" to be good, can you grade it poorly for being inauthentic? My answer is: only when it's claiming to be. In the end, how many food patriots are really losing sleep over the origin of crème brûlée (British or French?) and Caesar salad (Mexican or Italian)? I'm not convinced that purity and authenticity have anything to do with one another, and I know for a fact that neither is required to make a good meal.