Food Opinion

Breaking down the myth of food authenticity

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One may be surprised to discover the true origins of some popular foreign cuisines. Meanwhile, Megan Jane de Paulo shares a delicious butter chicken recipe that evolved from dishes far and wide.

AUTHENTICITY IN FOOD cannot exist. To claim a restaurant in your local area is “authentic” is impossible even if the chef was born in the location of the origin of the cuisine, because to one person that will be authentic, but to the next it is not. A recipe of one grandmother will be different to the recipe of the grandmother next door.

Authentic cuisine is a myth. As travel and colonisation increased, countries have borrowed and been influenced by food and produce across broad distances, in many cases adopting and adapting elements to their own regular cooking.

For example, the well-known Japanese dish tempura was brought to Japan by Portuguese Catholic missionaries in the 16th Century. Tomatoes only began to be eaten in Italy during the 15th Century and did not become ubiquitously culinary until the 19th. Yet some would claim that tempura and marinara sauce are authentic to their respective countries.

True authenticity can only be achieved by travelling back in time to the moment of a particular locale and munching on a handful of raw foraged vegetables and nuts, or an unlucky local creature who wandered too close and is roasting over a fire with particular trees at that stage of evolution. Nothing can be replicated authentically again.

A bowl of udon is no less “authentically” Japanese if the chef who made it is a second-generation immigrant from China; a barbecue rib no less smoky and tender if made by a woman; and dumplings no less authentic in a restaurant decorated in a modern cafe style.

Authenticity is a reinforcement of stereotypes and has nothing to do with the most vital aspect of food — flavour. Authenticity only exists in the tastebuds of the eater, to each individual with memories of flavours experienced at a particular moment in time at a particular place.

Many of my recipes of so-called authentic dishes are far removed from the commonly believed originals because I work towards recreating my food memories from travelling and eating around the world. I also add in flavours I feel complement others even when not traditionally added.

I never make a claim to any authenticity. This butter chicken recipe has evolved from elements of butter chickens consumed on Oxford Street in Sydney in the early '90s, via a small downstairs Indian restaurant in Harajuku and tinged by the influence of a neighbour in Cairns (who also introduced me to fresh curry leaves from her tree). This recipe is authentic to me and my experience only.

It’s also pretty damn delicious.

Butter Chicken and Spinach

You can use fresh baby spinach or frozen spinach. Red capsicum adds more veggies that match the flavours — you can pre-roast/char and skin it, too.

Don’t skip on marinating properly — it pays off. Yes, I’m heavy-handed with spices. I like flavour.

I’ve said 500 grams of chicken thighs, but there will be enough marinade for even 800 grams.

Stage One: Marinade


  • Chicken thighs: 500-800 grams
  • Plain yogurt: 200 grams
  • Garam masala: 10 grams, ground
  • Turmeric: 5 grams, ground
  • Cumin: 5 grams, ground
  • Ancho chilli: 5 grams (more for spicier)
  • Garlic: 10 grams, powder
  • Onion: 10 grams, powder
  • Ginger: 10 grams, powder
  • Salt: 3 grams
  • Pepper: a few twists of the grinder


  • Non-reactive bowl (Non-reactive: ceramic, glass, stainless steel; Reactive: aluminium, copper; Plastic: non-reactive but might be stained by the spices)
  • Spoon
  • Knife
  • Cutting board
  • Digital scale
  • Measuring beaker


  • Dice chicken into cubes of roughly 3 cm.
  • In a non-reactive bowl, such as glass or ceramic, place the chicken and dollop the yogurt on top.
  • Then add the spices and seasonings on top, and mix through thoroughly.
  • Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 12 hours, a minimum of two.


If you can’t source ancho chilli powder which has a smoky flavour aspect, blend together some smoked paprika and cayenne pepper powders. Tandoor cooking involves clay pots and charcoal, and all these spices in the marinade and curry can lean into the smokiness.

The lactic acid in yogurt works its magic in tenderising and keeping the meat juicy. Also, it holds the seasonings and spices in place, especially if you use thick creamy Greek-style yogurt.

It also works slowly — that’s why marinating for several hours is best.

Stage Two: Cooking


  • Chicken thighs: 500-800 grams, marinated
  • Onion: 1, peeled, sliced
  • Peanut oil: 50 ml
  • Garam masala: 5 grams, ground
  • Turmeric: 5 grams, ground
  • Coriander: 5 grams, ground
  • Cumin: 5 grams, ground
  • Ancho chilli: 10 grams, ground
  • Garlic: 15 grams, fresh, minced
  • Ginger - 15 grams, fresh, minced
  • Salt: 3 grams
  • Tomato paste: 50 grams
  • Passata: 200 ml
  • Cream: 100 ml
  • Spinach: 100 grams
  • Red capsicum: 1, sliced (roasted and peeled optional)
  • Ghee: 20 grams
  • Coriander: handful, fresh

Secret ingredient

Wondering how I got that amazing colour in the photograph without adding 40 million chillies?

I used Tandoor food colouring. You can find either liquid or powder colour at your local Asian grocery.


  • Large frypan with lid
  • Tongs
  • Spoon
  • Knife
  • Cutting board
  • Digital scale
  • Measuring beaker


Heat oil in pan over medium heat. Add onion slices, move them around with a spoon so they don’t burn for a bit, until they soften.

Grab chicken out of marinade and add to pan. Fry for a while directly (they won’t cook through — that’s fine, they’ll be simmered in sauce later) then put the chicken and onion in a heat-proof bowl.

Add another splash of oil to the pan and add all the dry spices plus the ginger and garlic and fry them to help release their fragrance, then add in the tomato paste and passata and mix.

Add in the cream and stir.

Add the chicken and onion back in. You can also add in some water if the sauce is too thick. If the red capsicum hasn’t been roasted, add in now. Simmer for 15-20 minutes.

Add in spinach, stir through to wilt (this is pretty quick).

Stir through ghee before serving on fluffy rice, scatter fresh coriander on top.

Megan Jane de Paulo is a Melbourne-based, inner-city latte sipper and social media provocateur. You can follow Megan on Twitter @gomichild.

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