Name-Place-Animal-Thing: What Food Tells Us About Nationalism and Globalisation

This week’s column deals with food – is it a matter of national pride or the best example of globalisation?

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Michael Twitty cooking in a re-enactment costume. Credit: Facebook

Michael Twitty cooking in a re-enactment costume. Credit: Facebook

“Fusion is confusion”

Here’s a fun fact to start you off – the most exclusive culinary group in the world is Club Des Chefs Des Chefs (CCC) and the only way you can be a member is if you are the personal chef for a head of state. The group recently held a press conference in New Delhi, the venue for their annual meeting this year, where founder Gilles Bragard stressed the importance of “culinary diplomacy” – how a good meal can ease tense political negotiations and also how the chefs who make that food act as ambassadors for their countries.

As anyone who’s ever had a good meal knows, making and eating food can be an incredibly emotional experience. So yes, I agree with Bragard about the power of a good meal to set a positive tone, for say, nuclear disarmament talks (ridiculous as that sounds). And he’s right, food and national pride seem to go hand in hand too. In a way, each chef does act as an ambassador for his country by being responsible for representing something as integral and important as a nation’s food to the world at large. It may be stereotypical but we do tend to associate countries with specific dishes – Italy and pizza or pasta, France and croissants or baguettes. The press secretary of the President of India, who was also present at the event, even added that India’s cuisine is a part of its soft power. And the same holds true for each country.

Following this line of thought, Bragard decisively added, “Fusion is confusion.” If the food we eat is so uniquely bound to our national identity, then yes, mixing different kinds of cuisines is bound to cause some kind of an identity crisis.

But how do we know where ‘fusion’ starts? This may sound like a weird question, but I’m asking because we live in an increasingly globalised world and ingredients move across national borders much more easily than we humans do. And the internet makes it easy to find recipes from other places. So the barriers that made it impossible to cook other cuisines are being broken down. For instance, there are Indian grocery stores and Asian supermarkets all across the US, and closer home, Amul is making its own gouda cheese. So if fusion is off limits, is all this culinary expansion also off the table?

And that’s just the latest cycle of globalisation. During the British Raj and the colonial era in general, goods and people moved across borders with even greater ease than they do today. For example, Indian spices are not new to the world, it all happened a long time ago – tea came to India, ‘curry’ went to Britain. And in the case of the African continent, slaves took their recipes, some crops and ingredients to the US with them.

Chef and historian, Michael Twitty deals with the history of food and culture on his blog, Afroculinaria – his work focuses on African American history through food. But the global nature of colonialism means that reading about the history of African food and its migration to the US can also be stretched to understand Indian history and the movement of South Asian food across the world.  In a post from earlier this month, he listed all the vegetables, cereals and animals that originated somewhere else but are now commonplace in the US. For instance, okra (ladies finger) which is common in the American south originated on the African continent. So did the domestic cat. So did coffee (but we all know this one).

Tea is now so inherently Indian, we forget that it wasn’t native to begin with. Bragard probably didn’t mean it this way, but yes, fusion does cause confusion – because it is hard to pinpoint what exactly is getting fused if we can’t decisively agree on what is ours and what belongs to another country. And yet, food has an undeniable nationalistic appeal.


Jamie Oliver cooking in 2008. Credit: Reuters /Eric Thayer

Jamie Oliver cooking in 2008. Credit: Reuters /Eric Thayer

A blasphemous ‘twist’

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver learnt just that when he tweeted a “twist” on classic Spanish paella – a rice dish involving seafood or other meats. Oliver suggested making the dish with chorizo – a spicy sausage – instead. And suddenly all of Spain, which has been deeply politically divided, united against a common enemy.

Guardian article reported in an appropriately faux serious tone, “Some were perplexed (“WTF, Jamie Oliver?”); some satirically offered their own interpretations of fish and chips using aubergines, duck, beef and ravioli, and some were sinister: “Remove the chorizo. We don’t negotiate with terrorists. First warning”; “Let’s hope the knife slips when he’s chopping coriander”, and “Why don’t you make some chicken nuggets out of your own fingers?”

Maybe Oliver’s critics wouldn’t have been as mad had he called his recipe “paella-inspired” or just put in in the distinct category of ‘rice and stuff’ as the article suggested. Oliver’s chorizo rice dish was taken as an assault not only on Spanish culture but also a personal attack. It’s the feeling you might get when you eat sambar somewhere in north India or butter chicken somewhere in the south – if it doesn’t taste anything like how it is supposed to, not only is that disappointing on a personal level but also worrying because how many people out there think this is what your food actually tastes like?!

This is not Oliver’s first offence either, a couple of years ago he got into similar trouble for putting out his version of jollof rice – a favourite in many west African countries. One woman responded by tweeting, “Our plates will not be colonised!” That’s the other, sharper problem with coming up with “twists” on food from other cultures. Oliver’s attempt to make jollof rice more palatable to his predominantly western audience may have resulted in making the dish less west African. There’s a skewed sense of power here – when Oliver picks up bits and pieces of African culture, it’s considered “exotic” and broadminded,  but if a west African chef made similar tweaks to say fish and chips, it’s unlikely that his “twist” would be treated with a similarly positive attitude.

Oliver is not entirely at fault here. We all tweak dishes all the time, we love eating “fusion” food or at least trying it out. As a chef it’s his job to come up with new recipes and there’s a growing demand for food from other parts of the world. But the system he’s a part of has always placed a premium on western food. Take the list of Michelin star restaurants for example – absolutely dominated by European and American restaurants. If we go by the gold standard of fine dining then apparently most of the rest of the world doesn’t have good restaurants or good cuisine. And come on, we’re Indian, we know that’s not true.

This isn’t limited to an East versus West debate either. Closer home, within India, north Indian food somehow ranks culturally higher than south Indian food. In fact, go abroad and ‘Indian food’ is taken to mean basically Punjabi food. Chinese cuisine faces the same problem.

But then, what’s the solution? We live in an increasingly globalised world and our culinary borders have become especially porous. For instance, Trump doesn’t like Mexicans but is happy to eat a taco bowl (yet another “twist” on a dish). He wants to keep some of the results of America having a large immigrant population (like a wide variety of food) but not the people who make this food and introduced it to America in the first place.  It’s easy to agree that it’s wrong to pick and choose which parts of someone else’s culture are acceptable to us but figuring out where to draw the line between appreciating another culture and butchering it is significantly harder.


The Kasturi, a British 'curry house'. Credit: Joh Keogh/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

The Kasturi, a British ‘curry house’. Credit: Joh Keogh/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Save the curry houses

With elections coming up, food culture isn’t necessarily on top of the list of priorities for many Americans but across the good ol’ Atlantic, Brits are starting to worry about the widespread impact of Brexit. An article on the impact of migration on Britain’s “booming food culture” asks “what will Britain look like if we put up insurmountable barriers to people from other countries and cultures who want to live and work here?”

The British presumably discovered their love for north-Indian style curry when they colonised India and now Britain’s “national dish” chicken tikka masala ( a completely British invention) is a common feature on Indian restaurants’ menus, even in the US. But with Brexit clamping down on borders, one of the most impacted groups are low wage immigrant workers, including ones who work in curry houses. British Prime Minister Theresa May has even acknowledged that there have been “dozens of reports” of curry houses shutting down due to a shortage of staff.

The article profiled five immigrants who have contributed to British food culture in significant and unique ways and the focus on their individual narratives not only brought out the aspirational quality of migration but also the personal connections we all hold to food. As Marianna Leivaditaki, head chef at Moro in London put it,  “I have a lot of dishes from Greece or Crete – they all have stories and it seems everyone loves the stories. I think it’s really sad what’s happening at the moment.” If people like her and those who work for her leave Britain, the country’s food culture is bound to suffer from the lack of personal depth present in their food.

When Leivaditaki serves food that she makes, whether tweaked or traditional, she’s sharing a story, not just about herself but also about her country of origin and its culture. That’s exactly what Oliver is unable to do when he claims to put a twist on a recipe from a country that he doesn’t actually belong to or may not even have visited.

Who makes your food, his or her relationship with that food and where you eat it all matters and adds up to a complete experience that doesn’t just stop at your stomach. It’s the fundamental difference between eating chaat at a street side stall or parathas at a dhaba and eating in a fancy restaurant. It’s just not the same.

Unsurprisingly, food is about a lot more than ingredients and recipes – it reflects complex historical, political and socio-economic processes, that we often tend to overlook. Work like Twitty’s opens up an entirely new way of thinking about the things we eat in our daily lives, all the food we dream of trying someday and most importantly demonstrates just how globalised food consumption is.

Want to suggest a piece that should be included in this column? Write to me at [email protected]
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