What is cultural appropriation
Setting the record straight, a bit about me and what this is all about
What is cultural appropriation?
No respectable newsletter about food culture could start without setting the record straight on cultural appropriation. There is so much misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the term among the great and the good of the food world, it’s no wonder the rest of us have no clue what we’ve been served and why it’s hard to stomach.
There are several untruths in circulation. Firstly, cultural appropriation has been mistakenly positioned as woke weaponry designed to crush your culinary creativity with ingredients and recipes that are not from your own culture. Secondly, it is presented as the preoccupation of mean-spirited members of minoritised cultures who are getting precious about their cuisines and more. And thirdly, it is confused with an unhealthy fixation with authenticity.
It is, in fact, none of the above. I should know, I’ve trained over 800 food industry bods on how to work with the food of other cultures sensitively in a “culture and mindset” session I created. This includes recipe writers, restaurant critics, product developers, brand owners, publishers, journalists, retailers and more. It’s an emotive subject and a lot of errors arise out of a lack of understanding, not an intention to offend.
Cultural appropriation is about commercialising a culture that is not your own and then mistreating and mishandling it without duly acknowledging, platforming or monetising the culture you’re extracting from (food writer Zoe Adjonyoh quite rightly added monetising to my list). It almost always implies a dominant culture stealing, snatching, taking something by force from those that have been subjected to colonialisation, extraction, economic subjugation, and, in the case of African cultures, enslavement.
The charge is being led most vocally by food writers like me who have had enough of crimes being committed against the food, ingredients, and recipes we hold dear. A giant post-colonial hangover often casts a shadow over attitudes to the food and feelings of our cultures. Events of recent times have given us a stronger voice to protest against it. But it would be counterproductive and frankly, imbecilic, for me to not want any non Indians to cook Indian food. To be very clear, I want everyone to cook the food of India, buy my cookbooks and spices so I can retire early to the Algarve / Goa. I can confidently vouch for similar sentiments among my peers.
As for authentic, I don’t use the word. What does it mean anyway? More on this in the next newsletter.
The issue here is not what you do, it’s how you do it. If you borrow something, you must treat it right. Ignorance is no longer excusable, and education must underpin cultural inspiration and creativity in the food industry. The discussion about cultural appropriation may appear to have gone mainstream from nowhere. But unless you’ve been living under a rock, it is part of the zeitgeist.
We live in a world increasingly demanding more accountability and awareness of social injustices. People from marginalised and minoritised cultures are no longer going to sit on the sidelines and grumble while you turn biryani into vegan, triple carb pitta bread wraps and jerk your rice.
It’s an emotionally-charged topic and understandably so. To understand what we find difficult, you need sensitivity, empathy, lived experience. David Baddiel’s excellent book Jews Don’t Count talks about the need for this when you explore the right to express an opinion about what does and doesn’t constitute racism: “It is the prerogative of those on the receiving end of any specific racism to define that racism. They get to say what is and isn’t racist.” I would argue the same applies to cultural appropriation.
And yet, mainstream media routinely features voices that reinforce inaccuracies. Critic and commentator Jonathan Meades, launched “a robust defence of cultural appropriation” in The Times in April this year, “arguing that chefs and writers alike should be free to experiment outside of their direct experience.” The piece starts with this: “In the kitchen, as in literature, one should pursue excellence rather than authenticity.”
“Without cultural appropriation there is only stagnation,” said Meades, warning that customs will pass down unchanged from “one blinkered generation to the next” unless they are refreshed by “external influence…”. And in a final blow, “Meades described the debate about cultural appropriation as “essentially frivolous”.
Later in June, cultural appropriation was described by William Sitwell in the Telegraph as a “vogueish new buzz-phrase”. Described as a “hot topic in the food industry”, he says it is “enabling diners with a strong social justice radar to regulate the food choices of others, tsk-tsk-ing a chef for taking elements from culinary traditions other than their own.” Let’s be honest William diners are mostly interested in… dining. And with savagery like this, it’s no wonder chefs and product developers hate all things cultural appropriation.
More recently, a food trade publication featured a strategy director who wrote a piece about cultural appropriation starting with: “We’re not experts on cultural appropriation, but as a branding, design and copywriting agency…”. Unsurprisingly, it went on to an incorrect definition: “In the context of food and drink, cultural appropriation happens when a recipe, product or dish rooted in the culinary heritage of one culture, is borrowed and used by another.” Why would you comment on something you know nothing about? I have nothing further to add here.
For people from cultures like mine, with the experiences I talk about earlier in modern or recent history, it is a hundred times more significant to have artefacts of our culture repeatedly mistreated. None of the (posh?, white) men I have quoted can feel a similar emotional connection. And ignorance breeds more ignorance and divisions. It’s no surprise, therefore, that even Baddiel misses the subtlety describing cultural appropriation as “the usage of recipes and ideas originating from minority cultures by, predominantly, white western chefs and restaurateurs”.
Importantly, cultural appropriation is quite different from appreciation, inspiration etc where there is proper research/learning, platforming, monetising, putting something back, education, support. Indians love a bit of cultural inspiration – Anglo-Indian food, Indo-Chinese cuisine, “Continental” dishes are all cases in point, as are the ingredients and techniques we adopted over centuries. The bottom line is this: If you commercialise the flavours, tastes and techniques of other cultures, you need to get it right. And starting with a clear understanding of the meaning of cultural appropriation is a very good starting point.
But, who the hell am I?
Quick hello if we haven’t met already. I’m a food writer and food culture commentator, with a special interest in diversity and strategic communications. I was born and brought up in a liberal, metropolitan, and political family in Kolkata (West Bengal, India), where I hated food and eating until my late teens.
A first-generation British immigrant, I moved to England to do an undergraduate degree in business studies and then a master’s degree in journalism. My first job was as a newsdesk trainee on the Asian Age newspaper in Delhi, where I quickly discovered a love for food writing (restaurant reviews mostly and yes, I had no idea what I was doing).
I didn’t know how to boil an egg when I arrived in England, although my mother had furnished me with the recipe for one chicken curry and one dal. I went into corporate PR and communications soon after graduating, and some six years into it, I started a food blog documenting my adventures learning about Indian cooking while being a newly married, busy professional in London.
This quickly led a book deal, and I published Miss Masala: Real Indian Cooking for Busy Living (Harper Collins). Children followed in quick succession too. For years I wrote my food blog while adulting and mothering. Lovely opportunities came my way like writing recipes and comment for the Evening Standard, featuring on Jamie Oliver’s FoodTube and with Madhur Jaffrey in her TV show, alongside advising the likes of Coca-Cola, Danone, EY etc.
In the five years before the pandemic, I’d balanced a flexible Partner role in a Soho consultancy, with writing book no 2 Masala: Indian Cooking for Modern Living and co-founding a spice company called SIZL Spices. And then the pandemic happened. I lost my stable corporate gig and, as my marriage fell apart somewhere along the way, I became an unemployed single mum. Things couldn’t get any worse, so I focused on making it better.
I took my 21 years in strategic communications and my 15 years of food love and started my own “business of food” consultancy. Since then, I’ve been navigating the role of food and drink in society, culture, our high streets/town centres and the economy. I’ve had some incredible recipe and comment writing, speaking and advisory gigs since.
This newsletter is my way of sharing my thoughts and knowledge directly with you. They won’t be this long in the future, promise.
THANK YOU and Bengali food
SO thank you for signing up! I will try not to disappoint you. If you enjoy it, please do tell your friends. My views on food culture, London’s restaurants and diverse food offer will feature in my free newsletters. Although be warned I am the least academic person I know, definitely not a restaurant critic, eternally positive and a big fan of enterprise in all its shapes and forms. I’ll be sharing my knowledge on Indian food and recipes in my paid newsletter. It’s taken 16 years for me to learn what I know and I am still hard at it. I hope you’ll agree it is worth paying for my effort, commitment and the grey hair I have to show for it.
First up is a whistle stop tour of Bengali food, and my recipe for the sublime Kosha Mangsho, meat sauteed slowly in mustard oil until it falls apart, and with a masala that clings to it but no curry. I haven’t shared my recipe for this yet, so I hope you enjoy it!