The sheer hypocrisy of the food culture wars

2 July 2020

6:17 PM

2 July 2020

6:17 PM

Alison Roman, a celebrity chef and Instagrammer, has come under attack from woke warriors because of her dish ‘#thestew’. Her crime? The recipe uses spiced chickpeas, coconut, and turmeric – and Roman does not call it a curry.

Once again, we are witnessing the sorry sight of people, organisations and institutions crumbling in the face of those determined to bring ‘white’ culture to its knees. Food publishing companies are reviewing their recipes to check for cultural sensitivities. Last week, Bon Appétit magazine admitted that it was guilty of ‘decontextualizing recipes from non-white cultures’, while the editor-in-chief of ‘BBC Good Food’ and Olive magazine, told the Times that she is making linguistic changes to some of the 13,000 recipes in their archive.

This row has been simmering for some time. The piranhas had already smelt the blood of British chefs like Jamie Oliver, Rick Stein and Gordon Ramsay. Their crime has been to go around the world, picking up ideas about food and translating them into dishes for customers back home.

Their journeys of discovery were often captured by television cameras. These entertaining and informative travel documentaries have played a significant role in educating the British palate, and created the market for the explosion of restaurants offering cuisines from around the world in this country. But others see things differently: here are white cooks profiting from cuisines they barely understand.

Sejal Sukhadwala, an Indian food writer, attacked Gordon Ramsay in 2018, and said that with his recent documentary:

‘Once again, we have a white chef wading into the culinary waters of a country he has little understanding of and telling them how to cook their food better’.

After hearing this accusation, the writer Satnam Sanghera said ‘I’d like Gordon Ramsay to try this shit with any of my Indian aunties. He would be eaten alive.’ Err, I think that was the point, Satnam. I watched the series and Ramsay was eaten alive – it made for great TV. Oh, and by the way, my aunties would be delighted to encounter and ‘take on’ Gordon Ramsay: generosity of spirit is their defining characteristic.

MiMi Aye, author of a Burmese cookery book, took exception to the numerous TV cookery programmes featuring Rick Stein, saying he is ‘apparently expert on every country in the world’. But the purpose of the amiable Rick Stein’s series is to learn about different cuisines and communicate their appeal – which he does rather brilliantly, in my view.

In 2018 Dawn Butler, the Labour MP, attacked Jamie Oliver for describing one of his dishes as ‘punchy jerk rice’. Butler tweeted ‘Your jerk rice is not OK. This appropriation from Jamaica needs to stop.’ To his immense credit, Oliver did not just roll over. He said ‘I’ve worked with flavours and spices from all over the world my whole career, learning and drawing inspiration from different countries and cultures to give a fresh twist to the food we eat every day. When I named the rice, my intention was only to show where my inspiration came from’. But what’s in a name? Indians use the word ‘biryani’ to describe their famous mixed rice dish but it’s derived from a Persian word describing that style of cooking. And then there is, of course, the even more famous (or infamous) vindaloo, its European origin signalled by that first syllable ‘vin’.

Of all the recent debates in these culture wars, this one takes the biscuit. Not just for its ahistoricism but the sheer hypocrisy of its proposition.

Ahistoricism first. Cultural interaction and the exchange of ideas – art, beliefs, customs, social practices, and foods – is the story of humankind. For millennia every culture has shipped everything and anything edible across the globe. This trade is found in Biblical narratives and there are Tamil texts of Greeks buying large sacks of black pepper. The point? Ingredients and recipes are not owned by a culture. Today people around the world have ‘taken’ from each other’s cuisine: hamburgers, pasta, pad thai, bagels, frankfurters, pizza, and chicken tikka masala. And the same is true, historically. Chillies lie at the heart of Indian cookery. But here is a bummer fact for the woke brigade: it was introduced to Indians by the Portuguese towards the end of the 15th century from South America. And let’s not even talk about that quintessential British dish, fish and chips. As evry skoolboy kno, the potato comes from Peru and was brought to Europe by the Spanish following their conquest of the Inca Empire.

If not ingredients, is it the bastardising of recipes? By adding things to an original recipe, you somehow lower its quality or value and – this is key – you are being disrespectful to the original. This notion – that a dish from a particular culture is fundamentally unalterable without destroying its essence – has very unpalatable origins. Plato thought it up first and the philosophy is known as essentialism. It’s the idea that everything has a set of attributes, qualities, and characteristics that define its identity: an ‘essence’ that is immutable and unchanging. It’s been used by imperialists to see non-Western societies as historically unchanging (and, for example, incapable of ever being able to govern themselves). Most damningly, it was used by eugenicists to argue that races were inherently inferior or superior. Essentialism is now a defunct philosophy, confined to the dustbin of history. Its re-emergence as the intellectual underpinning of this debate should be an embarrassment to its proponents.

We now know the truth expressed by one of Plato’s mentors: Heraclitus. He said ‘nothing endures but change’. Nowhere is this truer than food – its ingredients and the way it is prepared belongs to all cultures. Of course, at any given moment in time, one associates particular foods with specific cultures. But it’s been constantly evolving and changing through time – from the days of the spice routes to now when celebrity chefs go on journeys of discovery on television travel programmes.

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