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Food has no border

When it comes to cuisine, there is no cultural appropriation. We are eating so much better when we eat out because chefs have welcomed influences from all over the world

Vir Sanghvi

Are you familiar with the concept of cultural appropriation? It’s not an idea that is very big in India. But it does come up from time to time and I do rave and rant about it every now and then. You may have heard the term being used when Coldplay came to shoot a video in India, filmed it in Indian dress and were then promptly accused of appropriating our culture. To be fair, the controversy was a bigger deal in the West than in India.

Indians have always had a more welcoming attitude to our music and culture. When George Harrison started playing the sitar and introduced Indian influences to the music of the Beatles, we did not jump up and down in fury. Actually, we were delighted.

When George began wearing kurtas and bundis, we cheered his embrace of Indian culture. When Brian Jones added a sitar part to The Rolling Stones’ Paint it Black, we were intrigued. When 60’s rock stars wore ‘Nehru’ jackets, we took pride in the triumph of Indian style.

Not only were these people appreciating our music, they were also introducing Indian influences into the Western mainstream. Let’s not forget that many of us had worn Western clothes for generations. It was nice to see the West return the compliment.

And who can deny that Indian musicians benefitted from Western interest? The late Ravi Shankar, who helped George Harrison learn how to play the sitar, became the most famous Indian alive, playing at Woodstock, The Concert For Bangladesh (which he initiated), and on George Harrison’s US tours.

The guitarist, John McLaughlin, created a band called Shakti, added the prefix Mahavishnu to his name and gave breaks to such great Indian musicians as Zakir Hussain.

So, in the field of music at least, the whole cultural appropriation thing has struck me as being bizarre. Why is it okay for Punjabis to rap but wrong for Brits and Americans to dabble in our culture?

I guess it was only a matter of time before the cultural appropriation issue hits food. Ramsay was slammed by earnest food bloggers for trying to appropriate Asian cuisine and the Lucky Cat chef’s wife has been described as a ‘token Asian’.

Judging by his TV persona, Gordon Ramsay is not an easy person to like. And yes, there is an arrogant swagger to his public pronouncements. I thought his India series was ill-advised and understood why it got such terrible reviews. Nor did I think it was a good idea for him to then publish an Indian cookbook. (Yes, he did. Really; I am not making this up.)

But at no stage did I think he was appropriating our culture or our cuisine. Similarly, I doubt if Americans minded that he put hamburgers on the menu of his American-themed Boxwood Café. And if the French were to object to so-called cultural appropriation, then they could point to nearly all of Ramsay’s menus.

The truth is that I don’t believe that there is anything like cultural appropriation when it comes to food. If there was, then no Indian chef would ever be able to make a pizza without having fingers pointed at him. And almost every Chinese restaurant in India would be found guilty of some sort of appropriation.

Essentially, the whole cultural appropriation thing is based on reverse racism. If a white person makes anything that comes from Asia/Africa/South America or any other part of the Third World, then he or she is appropriating somebody else’s culture. If brown or black people cook international food, well then, that’s absolutely fine. And intriguingly, more people who live in the West seem to worry about Asian culture being appropriated than do Asians who actually live in Asia.

If these prejudices had been in place in the 1990s, then Australia would never have developed Pacific Rim cuisine, which merged Asian flavours with Western techniques. David Thompson would never have been able to open Darley Street Thai in Sydney and then, Nahm in London. Nobu would have had to sack half his chefs and Zuma would never have opened. And all white people would have been barred from cooking anything with flavour.

In fact, the Pacific Rim explosion drew global attention to Asian food and David Thompson’s cooking helped Asian cuisines get the kind of respect they never commanded before.

So it is with Indian chefs. Gaggan Anand’s roots are solidly Indian, but his food shows traces of his time with the Adria brothers in Spain, his residence in Thailand and his love affair with Japan. Is he appropriating the cuisine of those countries?

Or take Srijith Gopinath, the two Michelin-star chef at San Francisco’s Taj Campton Place. One of his greatest dishes is an appam with caviar. Is he appropriating some Western caviar tradition? Srijith calls his food Cal-Indian because California is a huge influence in his cooking.  But nobody in America suggests that he has appropriated California’s culture.

Once you start being parochial about food and using terms like cultural appropriation, you destroy the very point of cuisine. One reason why we all eat so much better today than we did in the past is because chefs have dispensed with narrow national divides and borrowed from all over the world. Do we reject the jalebi and the samosa because they have Middle-Eastern roots? Did the Mughals encourage their cooks to appropriate the cuisine of Persia?

Of course not. The point of all food is that it travels. And as it travels, it transforms and often gets much better.

Besides, where does all this cultural appropriation stuff stop? There is not that much in common between the cuisines of, say, Himachal Pradesh and West Bengal. Does that mean that any Himachali who cooks a Bengali dish is guilty of appropriating Bengali cuisine? Should no Punjabi ever be allowed to make a dosa?

I am not a great believer in the whole idea of cultural appropriation anyway. The world is far too international for that kind of narrow-mindedness. And when it comes to cuisine in particular, the main reason why so many of us are eating so much better when we eat out is because chefs have thrown open the doors of their kitchens and allowed in influences from all over the world.

So no, I probably won’t be booking a table at Gordon Ramsay’s Asian restaurant. But to say that he has appropriated my culture or the cuisine of any other Asian country is just plain silly.

(HT Media)

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