Food between cultures

By Razib Khan 46 Comments


Recently I read a piece on Indian cuisine from a “woke” perspective, Reclaiming Indian Food from the White Gaze: The same food I was teased for as a kid has become trendy and divorced from its cultural origins. Now, I’m using my cookbook to change the narrative. Obviously I disagree with the ideology interlaced throughout the piece, but the author is a pretty good writer, and a lot of the illustrations and experiences “ring true” to me. You could strip out a lot of the jargon like cultural appropriation and gaze, and the piece would be a fine read.

For example, the point that white women cooking “exotic” food is “trendy” and marketable in a way it isn’t when immigrants or nonwhite people do seems likely, and something I’d rather like explored more.

That being said, the implicit idea that people “own” culture and that the boundaries are sharp and strict seems to me wrong-headed ultimately. Synthesis is as old as human-kind…my family’s cuisine includes red chilis, potatoes, and tomatoes.  Just to give one example.

I’d be curious what Indian readers think, as the piece is obviously inflected by an Indian American lens.

Addendum: I’m from the far east of Bengal, but shrimp is my favorite food.

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46 Replies to “Food between cultures”

  1. A lot of this has to do with economics and cultural attitudes. I think an Indian cook would not have any problem if “authentic” Indian cooks are considered high status and earn more than whites imitating Indian food. But it isn’t the case. Whitening of Indian food is given more business. For some reason, this isn’t the case with Chinese, Vietnamese, Mediterranean, or Ethiopian food. Indian and Mexican foods are “appropriated” more.

    I think this is also tied to availability of Indian cultural literature in English and cultural familiarity with India for longer time. When a white can read and experiment with dishes in English, there is a false sense of accomplishment even when the resulting dish is nowhere close to the original. Food is highly habit driven and any truly new food will face obvious resistance. Chinese are very smart about it, they have a public menu and a “real” menu. Probably Indians should do the same. Start looking down on whitened food, always prop up “authentic” food, and not play this stupid victim card of appropriation.

    1. Chittadhara:

      When a white can read and experiment with dishes in English, there is a false sense of accomplishment even when the resulting dish is nowhere close to the original.

      What a strange argument. Sometimes fusion foods can and often do better than the original take. Furthermore, since tastes are different, what is “better” is ultimately a subjective experience. Trying to police food is laughable.

      Where I’d be more sympathetic is if some non-Indian started to We Wuzzing on food, and claiming that this is the “real” Indian cuisine, but that isn’t happening.

  2. [Sorry for the long comment; I realize my view may look conspiracy-theoretic to you but it actually looks sober to me, and seems to me to be important for the overall perspective on the matter even if it might look digressive.]

    My immediate reaction was “How stupid, obviously the author is stupid and Razib is right”. Then it occurred to me that I probably have that view because I don’t see cuisine as very integral to culture (my subjective view). My reaction might have been different – not aligned with the author but less in opposition and more nuanced – had the article been about yoga.

    A few weeks ago, Siddhartha Mukherjee tried to counter someone’s “Islamophobic” covid comment by saying that Muslims contributed much to understanding the exponential function, which is so fundamental to epidemiology. Hindu twitter-sphere exploded in protest; to cut a long story short, Hindus were unhappy for two reasons: (i) Usually cultures don’t get praised for such things, so from the Hindu perspective Mukherjee was reinforcing academic cultural norms of “praise Muslims whenever possible” to signal-boost his membership (ii) Possibly misleading impression that Muslims invented it, while Hindus knew it before. Because (i) was too nuanced for people to amplify, I guess many resorted to (ii).

    The point of the above example is that the left seeks to use cultural capital nontrivially for political as well as geo-strategic purposes; for more than a decade the left has been trying to emphasize “Islamic” contribution to sciences in ways they don’t do to other cultures, while *actively suppressing* Christian contributions, bull-shitting about Galileo etc. Because in a Robin-Hansonian way, credit for cultural achievements are not about cultural achievements, but the political and geo-strategic mileage one can derive out of them. Similar is the difference between the nature of Razib’s interest in Aryan invasion and mine own.

    To an ardent Hindutva-vadi like me, there are an astonishing number of groups of liberals carry out “lone wolf attacks” Hindu culture. One group of Bengalis say “Durga puja is Bengali and has nothing to do with religion”, while another, who doesn’t believe Rama or Krishna is real, comes up with a fictitious story that Asur tribals are descendants of Mahishasura so celebrating Durga puja is an act of cultural aggression (this gets published every year, this year it made it to the Caravan magazine). So cultural wars are all about “dispossessing” others of their cultural capital, in this case divesting Hindus of their cultural heritage.

    So I will compare my disagreement on cultural appropriation to the disagreement between a realist and an extreme pacifist on whether India should have an army. In an ideal world, no country would need an army, so people could use those funds and human resources for more productive purposes. Similarly in an ideal world, cultural debates would involve sober and sufficiently generous credit-assignments irrespective of whether you politically sympathize with the cause of a particular group of people, obviating the necessity to worry about cultural appropriation.

    But in the real world, where culture wars are being waged by people seeking amass as much cultural credit as possible on one’s side and destroy those of the other side, and use all these to political ends, those who have a side but would otherwise like to keep out of culture wars find themselves forced to participate in them. And wars are bloody, innocents get harmed, but cannot be avoided…

    Sorry to say, while both liberals and conservatives participate in it (people can’t avoid participating), it is the liberals who determine the direction and hte intensity of this nasty and ugly arms race.

  3. I strongly feel that the nuance of the Indic tradition of appreciating qualities of real losers in battles or Demons/Villians of Myth is conveniently extrapolated by the liberal cabal to suit their own political ends. Purpose is purely mainly division and Anti-Hindutva politics (my implication Hindu) in my POV

    Traditional Ravan worship rarely involves being abusive towards the predominant Ramayana narrative but more in line of appreciating the losers/villians.

    My belief is Mahisura cult also might be similar to that in nature.

    PS: i consider myself a liberal and am moderately opposed to traditional Hindutva

    1. My belief is Mahisura cult also might be similar to that in nature.

      I don’t think there “traditional” Mahishasura cult, what JNU does is a modern concoction:

      https://trueindology.wordpress.com/2016/02/27/jnu-and-the-saga-of-calumny/

      These are tribes that have been studied by westerners over a long period; if none of their references mention Mahishasura, it probably isn’t there at all. This is precisely my problem – there is so much in Hinduism to criticize already, but so consumed are they by their hatred that they feel the need to fabricate.

      I myself dream of an India where people feel free to strongly criticize Hinduism, but where all such criticism comes from honesty and compassion (for people, not necessarily for Hinduism) rather than interest in political subversion. When the latter kind of criticism is there, the former becomes difficult due to fear of abuse. Those who tell you free speech should be used judiciously are not being self-contradictory; they are making a valid point. Classical liberalism needs social cohesion, and not mere logical consistency, to function.

      1. Very possible that Mahishasura cult completely a JNU creation. I don’t disagree with that .

        But even if it has some history pre 20th century it’s unlikey it will fit with the narrative being drummed from the JNU -Caravan Types.

  4. I think all of the below are True:

    a) Indian food eating habits are as stratified as the people – even within the same cultural region people can eat vastly different food and remain unaware of what others eat (this is less true of E/NE India).
    b) Indian food is terribly over rated, and reliant on spices for taste.
    c) C Asian Muslims enriched N Indian cuisine.
    d) European cuisine is superior to Indian stuff and Europeans have generally better taste.

    1. Agree, British Cuisine is the best! Else why would so many sub-continentals rush to the West in search of food ingredients?

      1. Come to British Cuisine, haha. Full British Breakfast with some haggis and black pudding will set you up for the day

        1. haha….I do try to have the “Full English” whenever possible. That is the king of European breakfasts. From then on, it is pretty much downhill.
          Watch this video….this is causing Asian Twitter to outrage over the last week…a Brit woman makes white rice…….yes just white rice…..
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6pPb9mPzoXs

    2. it seems incoherent to say ‘european cuisine’ or ‘indian cuisine.’ i mean there are broad family similarities perhaps, but russian vs. spanish food is night and day

      1. what does ‘delicacy’ mean?

        i know that in places like france spices went out of fashion in the 17th century in favor of subtle sauces that ‘bring out flavor’

          1. i don’t think this defines ‘european’ food at all. the issue is that in high cuisine the sauces are supposed to bring out the food’s flavors, while the stereotype is that eastern cooking is more about flavors from spices masking that. the rich strong flavor of fats and salts and sours are all there.

            the idea that some indians have that western food is ‘flavorless’ is that they are unfamiliar flavors. also if you are vegetarian i assume indians wouldn’t want to eat stuff based on beef broth as stock etc

    3. Slight disagreement , i dont think Indian food is overrated, apart from the usual desi folks and some white folks hyping it up, which i presume happens in all culture. I would say overall from whatever little experience i have had in US eating different cuisine, i would rate Indian food in the top half of the pile

      1. As far as vegetarian stuff goes Indian cuisine is top tier.

        I recall there was a controversy where this white influencer for basically calling a dal recepie “Hearty lentil stew” and then accusing other influencers of copying her “lentil stew” idea. And some ABCD Indian woman then accused the white influencer of cultural appropriation. Lol.

  5. I’ve often heard the claim (though not sure if it’s backed up by evidence or any academic sources) that among diaspora or minority ethnic communities that are slowly absorbed or assimilated into a dominant culture, cuisine or recipes are often the last thing to hold out, as opposed to other elements like language, dress etc.

    If this is true, that would explain why some diasporas act fiercely protective of their cuisines if they’ve already lost other culturally distinctive things.

    Then again I’m not entirely sure the idea that cuisine is the last bastion of cultural distinctiveness is based on more than modern examples (in particular the food appropriation debates strike me as strongly modern, 21st century, and post-material), because in pre-modern times before massive global trade, many food resources would be pretty localized, so diasporas living in different geographical or climactic regions might find it hard to retain “traditional” cuisines.

  6. Another question — is a so-called “dominant” culture appropriating a minority’s cuisine, and treating it as high class when the dominant culture consumes it but low class when the minority does, really a new phenomenon or common through history?

    I’m wondering how analogous something like English or European colonists in the Americas once looking down upon indigenous crops like potatoes, corn (maize) etc. in favor of European foods like wheat bread etc. until they became a part of the Euro-American identity, with the indigenous roots forgotten (i.e. corn on the cob, mashed potatoes became stereotypically American fare).

    Not food-related but you have other cases, like Flamenco music in Spain claimed to be appropriated from the Romani etc. which strike me as analogous with the complaints about African American music (e.g. jazz, hip hop) only being recognized when Euro-Americans pick it up and popularize it.

    Is the main difference with the modern that now, the people whose cuisine/culture is picked up by the dominant culture do a lot more vocalizing/writing/speaking out about their perspective than before?

    Or is the perspective different because today’s cultural appropriation debates take place in post-material settings while previous minority groups focused more about survival/more material concerns (nonetheless identity still obviously played roles even in pre-modern times, otherwise religious or ethnic identity food taboos in places where the taboos deny people good sources of nutrition wouldn’t exist).

  7. The title of the book is pig headed. In fact Britain has become addicted to ‘kurrie’ thanks to Indian restaurants, mostly owned by Bangladeshis.

    If the author wants the food to be authentic Indian food , that is another matter.
    I found the south Indian food prepared in run of the mill Indian restaurants is awful . Once I used to goto Woodlands which are a chain ; they used to server good SI food. they also have lot of moghlai stuff; I told them why don’t you confine yourself to SI food, when you claim to be S.I. vegetarian , stop moghlai in the menu. They said we have to cater to everybody – catering to everybody is where they falter instead of developing an identity.

  8. I realise European cuisine has serious variety. That said I used the term a little casually.

    E European food is the laggard, except the odd cake / dessert recipe.

    1. When it comes to European food, Italian is like their Mughlai.

      I remember some 15-20 years ago ‘continental’ food started to become a trend in India. Every wedding buffet would have a counter for it.

      It was almost always just pasta or lasagna in white sauce and coleslaw salad.

    2. It is all dumplings, potatoes and bland meat. I think food is only used as a means of drinking more beer.

  9. Btw that image of Anna Kournikova wearing a sari and promoting Sahara’s Amby Valley is peak early 2000s ‘India Shining’ era.

  10. When it comes to European food, Italian is like their Mughlai.

    huge difference btwn northern and southern italian. so what ‘italian’ food are you talking about?

    haute french cuisine is actually an extension and evolution of tuscan food brought by catherine d’medici and her chefs. before that northern french food was more like english food

  11. Chicken karhai actually tastes pretty great when eaten with croissants, a food combo I would use as a student. My promotional efforts have been winning over a few converts to this culinary fusion between East and West.

    1. lucknowi kulcha has a bit of a pastry flakiness too it, i could see croissant and nihari working

    2. I eat spaghetti, with chicken/beef curry*.

      I throw dash of curry sauce* into Spaghetti, meatballs/sausage with tomatoes and pepper.

      *Curry has to have coconut milk

      Sri Lankans would be shocked to think eating good bread with chicken/beef/lentil curry as fusion food. SL has good bread even in villages. Delivered twice a day.

      Very very standard breakfast or dinner.

      Bread delivery in SL, tuk tuks. In the 70’s bicycle and pingo.

      https://www.sbs.com.au/food/article/2017/02/07/choon-paan-men-sri-lankas-bread-tuk-tuks

    3. Forgot to add

      SL has something called short eats.
      Pastry and croissants stuffed with curry.

      savoury ‘short eats’, or snacks, many of them egg-washed, yeasty white rolls that look innocent enough to the uninitiated, but are stuffed full of fiery fillings. Breakfast on the go might be a seeni sambol bun, filled with a spicy caramelised onion sambol, or malu paan, bread with a dry fish curry inside.

  12. Indian is great, especially for vegetarians like me. You have to modify it to make it healthier. But at least there are lots of options. I like Mexican, Thai, Chinese, and Italian food a lot too, well the stuff I can eat at least.

    1. Yeah, we meat eaters sometimes under estimate, how much variety Indian food offers to vegetarians. Perhaps u can shed light on how India’s vegetarian stuff rates against other cuisines.

      1. That is one of the constraints of Hindu?buddhist/Jain philosophy of non violence towards all living beings.
        It helped create variety of Vegetarian Food Variety be it IDLI,Samosa(veg),Chhole Bhatura, Dal etc.
        Also I have many food videos on Pakistani Cuisine. It seems very heavy Non – vegetarian dishes and dishes like dal-gosht, karela-gosht etc.
        Similar to Islamic constraints of non Imagery (although you can find some) propelled the increase in Arabic Calligraphy on Islamic style Monuments and also Fantastic patterns and geometric Structures.
        Persian and Central Asian Monuments are great in this regard.

      2. Indian (particularly Gujarati) is the only cuisine which makes vegetarian food actually enjoyable. Other cuisines make it as joyful as eating paste.

        1. That experience is then projected on to others. If one says they eat vegetarian food they think he /she is eating salads everyday. And then they question how can one not be bored eating just vegetarian food!

          Anyway tofu is the worst food. One has to eat tofu at barbecue as replacement for meat. And it is neither here or there!

        2. @Ali

          Kashmiri vegetarian food is pretty good too. Just plain hākh is quite tasty. And there’s tsāman (lyödör / vozöj), dam olū, tsok vāngun, nadur monjya, rāzmā gogjyi, nadur chorma, bam tsūnth, ala hatchyi etc In desserts/cakes: shuphta, modur polāv, roth, modur pūör, mödir lutchyi.. I could go on.

          In my opinion (and I admit some bias), Kashmiri veg food is the best in N India (incl Gujarat).

          1. never had kashmiri food. Need to try. My bias of course is home made Gujarati food. I hate restaurant Gujarati food.

            I like Mexican food best next.

      3. As a former meat eater one thing Indian veg cuisine lacks is a good meat substitute.

        Paneer is not a good substitute in terms of nutirtion or taste.

        Tofu is better. Tempeh is the best of the traditional food items in terms of nutrition.

        Some east-asian mock meats, and new fangled american mock meat like impossible burger are really good in terms of taste. Not sure how they are nutritionally.

        There is this restaurant that sells a mock fried chicken sandwich close to where I live that tastes very close to the real thing. Its also easy to find Thai and Chinese restaurants that sell buddhist style food with decently good mock meat.

        I would be willing to pay a large premium for some equivalent quality Indian style curries made with American style mock meat.

        1. “As a former meat eater one thing Indian veg cuisine lacks is a good meat substitute.”

          You should try soya-chaap the next time you are in Delhi. It’s the closest I have come to a true chicken surrogate.

          I remember eating at this shop somewhere in West Delhi that served ‘Veg KFC’. It was actually quite high fidelity.

          The Jackfruit (Katahal) is also used as a poor man’s meat surrogate in the north but I am not a fan.

        2. I agree. Macro ratio is subpar as heck for most Indian vegetarian food. There are major inroads to be made, especially with people becoming more health conscious.

  13. I’d venture to go further, and say that a lot of “Indian” cooking is really the result of western ingredients and tastes taking hold in the subcontinent in the 18th century.

    We have this idea of heavily “masala’d” and spiced curries, but I’ve looked at old recipes, and Indian foods used to be very different. You can see certain recipes that call for ginger, turmeric and salt as the only seasoning, or black pepper and mustard seeds as the only flavourings.

    Śraddha and temple foods show a very different palate to what we find today, and I am convinced that a lot of “Indian” tastes are relatively recent, and many dishes are actually of western origin.

  14. Diaspora indians ought to be careful in asserting themselves as gatekeepers of subcontinental gastronomy. Most have a shallow understanding of it beyond their own narrow ethnic repertoire, and even thats deracinated to some extent. An adventurous expat who’s lived in india for a year or two could probably command more credibility on the subject, and genuine desis aren’t afraid to acknowledge that.

  15. The food wars reminds me of the saree wars. Some celeb wore a saree a few years ago and a bunch of woke ABCDs started to freak the fuck out, ranting about cultural appropriation.

    I remember reading very liberal places like /r/India (who hate Modi and a substantial share of them live in India) and they were all preplexed. This seems to be a mostly diaspora neuroticism.

    If you live in the West, you face constant assimilationist pressures, so you latch onto even very trivial matters to mark a distinction. I doubt anyone in India would give a flying fuck and if anything they might even be somewhat pleased at the increasing cultural influence of India.

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