A couple of weeks ago, we visited Asheville. It was a gorgeous Thanksgiving weekend. The trees were nearly bare, and the sunlight shone through brilliantly. We had a plan to visit Black Balsam Knob but it didn’t materialize. Well, it did but not the way we intended. Instead of getting to the summit of Black Balsam Knob, we meandered up a hiking trail that, I am sure, was a nearly dried-up stream. We walked through water and ice and snow for a while, then decided to turn right back. Sigh. I think we need to visit Asheville again. And make a plan to go to the summit of Black Balsam Knob.
All that walking got our appetites fired up, and we decided to go to the much-loved and much-talked about Chai Pani, Asheville. Once there, we ordered the Vegetarian Thali. As the menu states, the Thali comprises of dal, sambar, Konkani slaw, rice, paraantha, raita, dessert, paapad and entree of the day (happened to be Saag Paneer that day). Since both of us wanted to avoid dairy, we asked for an entree substitute. The server offered Chhole instead. Our platters arrived after a brief wait.
Hmmm, I wasn’t impressed.
For one, I couldn’t understand why a Thali would contain both sambar and dal. Now, a dal may be made with toor, moong, masoor, chana and/or many other legumes. However, this particular one, I believe, was made of toor dal (pigeon peas). Sambar is made from toor dal too. A combination of both sambar and dal ends up being way too heavy! In addition, both preparations were sweetish to taste. Oddly enough, the Chhole was rather sweet too. The Thali came with a pile of basmati rice (which also adds to the “heaviness” of the meal) and one homely paraantha. I helped myself to the house lime pickle that helped cut through the heavy, sweet nature of the various items. The red cabbage slaw was tangy, so that was helpful too. The Paapad was beautifully roasted. We skipped the raita and the sweet rice pudding.
I tweeted about my experience. A day after, the owner Meherwan Irani responded, asking me to explain. I described my experience over a few tweets. I also had an email exchange with Daniel Peach, the chef at Chai Pani, Atlanta (read an email interview I did with Daniel).
All this led me to think deeper about authenticity and how we define it.
Indian cooking dates back centuries, if not several millennia. Over the years, many new ingredients (e.g. potatoes, tomatoes) have made their way into traditional Indian cuisine. Any recipe may be altered, really. As someone who tries to avoid excessive sourness in her food, I substitute kokum for tamarind a LOT. Many Punjabi preparations use onions and garlic. I sometimes skip on those ingredients. Red chillies are often used for the spice factor. Sometimes, I rely on ginger and whole peppercorns instead. P is vegan, so we use dairy substitutes too in cooking, baking, etc.
Suffices to say that I cannot exactly talk about authenticity.
But I like to think that what makes a recipe somewhat authentic is the usage of that one ingredient which defines the preparation. For instance, sambar relies on tamarind for sourness. You can susbtitute kokum, but then what you end up with really isn’t sambar. It is, at best, a delicious tangy dal preparation. Hummus needs chickpeas, period. We use sprouted moong and all manner of legumes in place of chickpeas sometimes. The end result is always delicious, healthier even. But authentic? Probably not.
Some folks claim that a true biryani must be made with mutton. Ahh, I am a fan of the vegetable biryani!
There are many, many examples. So, the case rests, I think?