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From roti to biryani

When does a roti become a biryani?

When a British chain sells a vegan wrap and calls it a biryani! Understanding the mislabelling of Indian food abroad

Vir Sanghvi

We have been talking about biryani again and again, and while we have had the usual squabbles (Indian or Central Asian origin? Vegetarian or meat-based? Dry or wet) we seem to have come to a measure of agreement.

Biryani, we have concluded, is a collective noun. It includes many dishes from all over India. There is no one recipe. A biryani from Calicut will taste totally different to one from Lucknow. The spices can be different. The rice can be different. (There is not much call for basmati in South India.) Even cooking methods can vary. So it is not a good idea to define biryani too closely, though some general rules may be useful: it should be wetter than a pulao, the spicing should be more elaborate than the stuff that goes into a pulao, the meat and rice should be cooked separately.

What we did not know was that while we were trying to pin down the elusive biryani here in India, dramatic new biryani-related developments were taking place in the UK.

Ever since Marks & Spencer arrived in India over a decade ago, we have become familiar with the company’s clothing ranges. But what we may not realise is that while the clothes side of the business has frequently been the cause of some turbulence in the UK company’s balance sheets, Marks & Spencer is generally respected around the world for its food division. Unfortunately, Marks & Spencer either does not want to or is not allowed to sell food in India, so it’s only the clothes we know here.

In the UK, however, the food is respected for its consistent quality. It is imaginative and good and the ideas come from all over the world.

Any Indian who goes to a large British supermarket will be astonished by the packets of ready-to-eat chicken tikka masala on display. The product will not look recognisably Indian, often it will take on a lurid sheen and once you taste it, you will recognise that anyone serving it at a restaurant in India would either lose his job or get sent back to the pantry to wash the dishes.

As far as I am concerned, that’s fine. It is not an Indian dish. It is British. And they can do what they want with it. (As long as I don’t have to eat it.) I imagine that Chinese people might feel the same way if they were served chicken Manchurian in India. It’s not their dish. It is ours.

And I do believe that most foods gain from cross-cultural influences. Let’s take the Scotch egg. As I wrote some months ago, the dish dates back to Raj adaptations of the Nargisi kofta. Of course, a good Nargisi kofta has nothing in common with the terrible, plastic-wrapped Scotch eggs they sell outside petrol pumps in the UK. But even that is fine. Dishes change as they travel the world; the Brits don’t call it a Nargisi kofta so why should we grudge them for what they have done with our original dish? If they like it, if it is tasty (which it can be sometimes) and if it does not pretend to be anything else, then how can anyone object?

On the whole, therefore, though I am sometimes astonished by what Brits have done with Indian dishes – kedgeree, anyone? – I recognise that this is a natural process, which must be allowed to flourish. And Indian food has fared better in Britain than American (remember the Wimpy burger?) or Italian (spaghetti on toast). Anglo-Indian cuisine is a legitimate food category.

But there comes a point when this culinary interchange becomes plain old stupidity.

That point was reached last month when Marks & Spencer began selling “Sweet Potato Biriyani” for £2.80 a serving. This was not a biryani that any Indian would recognise. It was a wrap stuffed with buckwheat, red peppers, sweet potatoes, a small amount of rice and curry powder. All this was wrapped in bread.

I have no idea which genius decided that a glorified sandwich/wrap could be sold as a biriyani. Certainly, Marks & Spencer, which has a reputation for spending money on research and pays good salaries to its food experts, should have known better.

My friend, the chef and food writer Maunika Gowardhan, a Maharashtrian from Mumbai who has lived and worked in London for years, was among the first to notice it. Maunika uses @cookinacurry as a Twitter handle and she tweeted something mildly reproachful to the effect that she preferred her biryanis when they were made with rice.

And that should have been that. Somebody at Marks & Spencer should have recognised that it was a mistake to have called the dish a ‘biriyani’ and either changed the name or taken it off the shelves entirely.

Instead, all hell broke loose. Nearly every paper  did a story. The stories began reasonably enough, some quoting Maunika. Asma Khan also weighed in, saying much the same sort of thing as Maunika had: it is not a biryani, so why call it one?

After that, with social media amplifying each point of view, the debate swung wildly out of control. The Marks & Spencer response was management-speak (i.e. gibberish) and this encouraged others to go beyond the simple issue that Maunika had raised. Could a biryani ever be vegan? Did it have to contain meat or fish? Wasn’t this an act of cultural appropriation?

There was even a response from an Indian chef based in London which, though largely incoherent, made the curious point that M&S in borrowing an idea “no matter how badly executed or weird – triple carb – rice and potatoes in bread? may actually be paying India a great compliment.”

Wow! Really? Thanks so much. We had no idea that we were being honoured on the shelves of Marks & Spencer.

I found this approach slightly bizarre but I found another kind of reaction worrying too. I have always had problems with the currently trendy concept of cultural appropriation. It is a one-sided concept. Nobody will accuse me of cultural appropriation because I am writing this in English.

Cultural appropriation apparently occurs when people in rich countries adopt things from poor countries. So, Coldplay was accused of cultural appropriation when it shot a video in India. And now Marks & Spencer is being accused of cultural appropriation for serving this biryani wrap.

Frankly I don’t get it. Was it cultural appropriation when George Harrison began playing the sitar and the Beatles brought Indian music to wider audiences?

If the term had been around, I guess that it would have been called that. George would have been accused of appropriating our culture. Was the spread of the chicken tikka sandwich cultural appropriation? I could go on.

Personally I am mystified by the idea of cultural appropriation – at least in food. It is just as stupid as someone telling me that a biryani wrap is a great compliment to India.

One of the problems with controversies is that as they run on, people need to find new things to write to keep the furore going so this kind of nonsense gets thrown at the issue.

The problem was simple. Marks & Spencer made a vegan wrap. They didn’t think it sounded exciting enough so they added ‘biriyani ’ to the name.

Perhaps it was a way of indicating that the wrap contained curry powder.

It was foolishness. They were not paying us a compliment and they were not appropriating our culture.

But what the whole biryani controversy tells us is this: the world of food is big enough for anyone to innovate or borrow anything. Just don’t be so silly; try and respect the dishes you are borrowing from.

If you cook a roast chicken, don’t call it a korma. If you cook gobi Manchurian, don’t call it Peking Cauliflower.

Names matter. Identities matter. Dishes matter.

There’s more to food than sexy names and marketing.

(HT Media)

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