Is There Such Thing as Food Imperialism?

PHOTO: By Lisovskaya Natalia/Shutterstock

How the Western world appropriates food culture.

What we eat, how we eat it, when, why, and where—the fundamental questions while writing any explorative or journalistic food piece—deeply inform our ways of life, varying widely across the globe. Yet in a world where the lens belongs to the white Western commentator, food too is experienced with an Orientalist bias. “I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that a lot of food writers pretend to know a lot more than they actually do when it comes to…let’s call it ‘ethnic’ food,” wrote the author and chef Edward Lee in a piece for Medium’s Heated. For a long time, I had thought I was imagining it, so Lee’s words came as a relief. But it wasn’t the seeking out of culinary adventures, it was the erasing of their histories that bothered me. As a South Asian, from a region whose culinary treats have been accepted and adapted across the globe, that erasure rankles, whether it’s the “discovery” of a centuries-old superfood on social media or misrepresenting a longstanding regional staple.

Assimilation vs. Appropriation

At what point does cultural exchange or assimilation tip over into appropriation, and how does this relate to food? Michael Twitty, the food historian and chef acknowledged as a leader in the culinary justice movement, explained the distinction in a talk at the University of Michigan on their Sustainable Food System program: one being “a natural process when people of multiple different cultures live close together in some environment and can’t help but rub off on one another” and the other being “about exploitation, abuse, theft…. It’s like obscenity. You know it when you see it.” But most of us don’t know it when we see it, because the prevailing ideas of what is “authentic” and “exotic” are shaped overwhelmingly by Western perceptions of what that means.

Indian food culture has seen plenty of acceptance as well as appropriation worldwide. Sometimes entire dishes have been fabricated out of thin air, or rather, out of the imperative to suit the more delicate palates of the erstwhile colonial rulers. British-Indian cultural assimilation has left Indians with a number of prizes—the Goan vindaloo (a spicy potato preparation) and the Bengali pish-pash (a versatile one-dish meal with rice cooked in chicken or vegetable stock, with whole spices) to name a couple. Today, with the colonizers having long since departed, it’s not always easy to discern the assimilation from the appropriation.

There is nothing inherently wrong in learning, adapting, or adopting from another culture, of course. It’s only when the Western world claims to have “discovered” them—just like Columbus “discovered” America—and dresses them up in glitter that it becomes a problem.

It could come in the form of a sudden furor on social media about the extraordinary healing properties of turmeric (our grandmothers and their grandmothers before that used turmeric-infused milk to cure colds and boost immune systems); or the mushrooming of the mysterious concoction called chai-tea in café menus (“chai” is a translation of the English word “tea” in many Indian languages and dialects; tacking it on to tea makes it redundant); or as songs of praise about the “discovery” of a kind of clarified butter as a lactose-free alternative to regular butter (ghee has been used in South Asia and the Middle East for millennia, as fuel, in religious rituals, to treat burn injuries, as cooking oil, and more); or the miraculous “moon milk” prepared with the ashwagandha herb that is a cure-all solution for various lifestyle ailments (no, ashwagandha was not discovered on Pinterest).

There is nothing inherently wrong in learning, adapting, or adopting from another culture, of course. It’s only when the Western world claims to have “discovered” them—just like Columbus “discovered” America—and dresses them up in glitter that it becomes a problem. Because beyond their temporary (sometimes even superficial) lifespan as fads, these foods tend to have had long, interesting, but unlauded histories in their places of origin. As Dakota Kim, a Korean-American writer specializing in immigrant food cultures wrote: “It’s not that you can’t cook another culture’s food. It’s the lack of examination of the complex power structure that surrounds that appropriation that’s unsettling.”

Defining the ‘Authentic’

It’s a safe bet that you’ll stumble upon an “authentic” Indian restaurant wherever you drop a pin on a map. Yet any understanding or examination of the cultural context of Indian food, including the power structures that surround the nation’s history and culinary practices are just as uniformly lacking. (This is true of other native cuisines that have caught the eye of the Western world as well.) Even if you are a foodie who doesn’t care about food hegemony or colonialism, and would rather just go straight to the butter naan and dal makhani, here’s a little secret, straight from an authentic Indian: There is no such thing as “Indian food”.

Indian cuisine is not a monolith. The food culture changes every few hundred kilometers in any direction, and that includes ingredients, methods of preparation, how to eat, when to eat, what to call a certain dish, and more. The tandoori breads, kormas, and makhanis that populate menus of a vast majority of Indian restaurants overseas are all representative of one small but strident part of the country—Punjab. (Punjabi culture as a whole is often mistaken as a paradigm of all things Indian—this is incorrect, and a hegemony of a different sort.)

The myth of authentic cuisine is easily dispelled when you think about it logically—that authenticity is the altar at which “exotic” cuisines are sacrificed for the paying-through-their-noses customer. Take the curry, for instance, one of the (perceived) mainstays of Indian food. In India, you’d be met with blank stares if you asked for one, even though we eat curries for practically every meal. That’s because there is no particular dish called curry—that is a British invention. Curry, when it’s at home, is a synonym for gravy, and there are as many gravies as there are…well, let’s just say that the butter chicken gravy of Punjab in the north has very little in common with the more watery Bengali macher jhol (fish curry) in the east; or the sweet-spicy gravies from the western states, like Rajasthan, with the sambhars (lentil-and-vegetable curries of different sorts) and ishtus (a bastardization of the word “stew”) of the southern ones. Cross over to the Northeast, and that will give you tastes of entirely different sorts.

Eating ‘Clean’

Don’t assume that when you sit down for an Indian meal in a restaurant on the opposite side of the globe that you’re having an authentic experience. The china crockery and the carefully arranged cutlery is a superficial veneer to make it acceptable to Western table etiquette and aesthetics. (Just like the “clean” food served by a Chinese establishment in New York’s West Village.) In most Indian homes—not all; remember, there are no absolutes in India—you won’t find either. Instead, food will be served in stainless-steel dishes and you will be expected to eat with your fingers. (No, that’s not unhygienic–you can wash your hands, but you have no way of knowing where that cutlery might have been.)

Food culture, including acceptable levels of what is authentic or exotic, is heavily informed by the existing white supremacist, capitalist, heteropatriarchal framework of today’s world, in some cases perfected over centuries. And this isn’t limited to Indian cuisine—many other post-colonial, marginalized or minority cuisines have been “interpreted” to appeal to the white aesthetic—sushi, dumplings, poke, the Kooks Burrito, hummus, coffee, to name a few—sometimes to the extent of forgetting where they came from.