On food writing, culture and the problem with white-washing.
This piece first appeared on The Feed and is republished with permission
“Why don’t you sell a butter chicken paste?” is a question I get every time I tell someone about my business, Dolly Mumma.
Two years ago, I used to answer with a passionate but disjointed spiel about radioactive orange butter chicken, how it tastes nothing like the real murgh makhani, and how I wanted nothing more than to live in a New Zealand where people ate something else!
These days, I reply by saying that an Italian wouldn’t serve you zucchini noodles and nor would any self-respecting ice cream parlour stock banana “nice cream”. In the same vein, I don’t do butter chicken.
It’s always been easier to give people what they want than to try to educate them.
Especially if you’re an immigrant trying to support your family in a new country. Which perhaps explains why Indian restaurants in the 20th century served butter chicken and tikka masala. Their livelihood depended on serving something that was relatable.
But in 2023, it’s time to be bolder.
If we want to change the narrative, we need more than just businesses like mine or the handful of newer restaurants in Auckland like VT Station, Shivani and Cha Wala Bhai that serve dishes like prawn koliwada, dhokla and bread bhajiya. We need more Indian recipes and stories in the mainstream media. Not the stereotypical ones. But rather, Sunday inspiration to cook ravaiya, aloo tuk or a simple dahi kadhi.
These are the dishes that millions of Indians eat every day both in India and within the diaspora. And yet we rarely, if ever, see them in the media.
It could be that no one is pitching these stories. Or, like author Nayantara Dutta says, it could be because in the west people view Indian food through the lens of takeout. Since the media often echoes what the public want (or thinks they want), the stuff that gets published has to be “the right level of ethnic. It can’t be too brown or too white”.
Whose story we tell and what we cook tonight can all change depending on what the mainstream media chooses to focus on.
How many sourdough loaves and cups of dalgona coffee did you make during the pandemic? Foodies across the globe seemed to develop a love for them almost overnight. I see the same thing happening now as vegetarian and vegan food rises in popularity. A range of what-looks-like-Indian curries and snacks are surfacing online. But disappointingly, they are almost always removed from their cultural context. I don’t see ravioli being described as “square stuffed pasta” but I almost always see chole being called “chickpea curry” and dosa being incorrectly described as a “fermented crepe”. When we reduce a dish to its literal description, we’re not just taking away its history but also the emotion it evokes for the people who have eaten it for centuries. I won’t take you through the internal turmoil I feel every time someone calls haldi doodh “golden milk”. Almost every Indian immigrant I know whose food was made fun of has a complicated relationship with turmeric.
The same goes for every dahl recipe online that’s simplified to “lentil curry”, “soup” or “stew”. Tarka dahl is not the same as dahl makhani. And Parsi dhandar tastes nothing like Keralan parippu, a fact I tried explaining to the white lady in my office who was warming up a can of brown lentils in the microwave thinking she was eating dahl for lunch.
Yes, you can make a curry by blitzing some spinach and adding in garam masala for flavour. But that’s not a saagwala. And you’re definitely not cooking a dal makhani if you use brown lentils instead of the mixture of black urad dal and red kidney beans that’s traditionally used. Within the confines of your home, you can combine whichever spice you like with the protein of your choice. I’m often encouraging my customers to try crazy combinations like a korma kheema shepherd’s pie. And, in my everyday cooking, I add ghee to my pasta and put garam masala on top of my nachos. It’s “your version” of the original thing.
But to claim that as the “original” dish is the bit that frustrates the communities the dish belongs to.
It’s not just about who is covered, it’s also about who is writing the story.
In 2015, when I was living in India and writing mostly about Parsi food, an image surfaced in our Parsi foodie group – Nigella Lawson’s dhansak. Wow! Nigella liked dhansak? But wait, this had tamarind. And pomegranate seeds. It wasn’t even brown. She also recommended we enjoy the dhansak with naan. Do you remember seeing those moments when Bruce Banner turns into an angry Hulk? As my eyes scrolled through her recipe, that was me.
Here was a celebrated chef, a TV star, someone that could afford an entire team of researchers if she wanted, misrepresenting a dish that is the pride and joy of every Parsi. We were so angry that we submitted a group complaint to Nigella’s website, only to receive a condescending reply that “the proper research had been done” and also that this was “her version” of dhansak. The recipe has since been taken down and/or renamed. But some version of this incident will keep repeating until we collectively decide that we will give a voice not just to those who are popular and established in the industry but also to those who have the lived experience.
There’s space for everyone. Had it been an Indian writing about dalgona they would have told you that yes, dalgona tastes amazing, but it’s also a drink people living in Chennai grew up drinking. Before the TikTok trend we knew it as “fitti hui kaapi”. Yet currently, that added context gets reduced to “fluff” above the recipe.