Cultural appropriation

I’ve been reading and thinking about cultural appropriation over the last couple of weeks. This was first prompted by my being given the – wholly erroneous, in my opinion – title of “the King of Curries”; and then by the coincidence of my writing a blog post about making a cheating version of rice and peas using a jerk spice mix, and (perhaps two or three days later) of Jamie Oliver getting grief on social media for selling a product called ‘jerk rice’.

“Reading about” cultural appropriation has not resulted in a meticulously-researched blog post complete with references; rather, I have dipped into a range of internet source materials, variously understood, half-understood or misunderstood them, and will proceed to riff on them with flagrant disregard for accuracy and authenticity and attribution. This is because I am a deeply postmodern blogger seeking to ironically embody ‘cultural appropriation’ through highly arch and meta writing, and not at all because I am lazy and can’t be bothered to go back and retrace my googlesteps. (More seriously, there are better blogs and articles out there than I can write; go and seek them if you are interested. You will find lots to agree with and lots to disagree with. You will hopefully find perspectives and ideas that would never have occurred to you. You will read many times over about how chillies originate in the Americas, not Asia. You will encounter the unironic use of the words “snowflake”, “Social Justice Warrior” and “butthurt” more than is necessary.)

Depending on which corner (or wing might be a better word…) of the internet you are reading, cultural appropriation is either a disrespectful or downright thieving adoption of elements of one culture by a more dominant culture, a continuation of colonialism; or a self-righteous, invertedly-racist misrepresentation of the natural cross-pollination of cultures that has happened since time immemorial when one group of early homo sapiens decided to copy the way another group of early homo sapiens wore their mammoth fur loincloths on a jaunty angle. I’m being simplistic here – most arguments on both sides are somewhat more subtle and nuanced than this. Though not all of them.

Much as I would love to be able to offer final arbitration on the subject – and the view from up here in my ivory tower does give me such wonderful perspective – it’s arguably not my place and definitely not my area of expertise. Rather, this blog post offers a few thoughts and fewer conclusions on the subject of culinary influence, appropriation and authenticity.

 

RICE AND PEAS

but is it rice and peas

Rice, and beans (aka peas)… it’s got rice and it’s got peas, but is it ‘rice and peas’?

The collective objections to Jamie Oliver’s jerk rice were threefold: ‘jerk’ is a marinade for meat, and as such there is no such thing as ‘jerk rice’; the central ingredients of a jerk mix are scotch bonnet peppers and allspice, and neither were used in the rice; and jerk is a part of African Caribbean culture and Jamie Oliver has no right to appropriate it for his own commercial ends.

Dawn Butler MP asked in a tweet whether Jamie Oliver actually knows what jerk is, and argued that it is not just a word you put before stuff to sell products; perhaps, she suggested, Levi Roots should give him a masterclass. I found a Levi Roots lesson on making jerk chicken and rice and peas. In his song at the end he suggests putting his Reggae Reggae sauce on, amongst other things, rice and peas. Reggae Reggae sauce is based on jerk spices (though it doesn’t use “jerk” in its name, in contrast to Jamie Oliver’s rice). So while ‘jerk rice’ may not be a thing, rice and peas and jerk spices are clearly an acceptable match, at least to Levi Roots when addressing an audience on behalf of a student housing company.

Reading about jerk rice, I found that Jamie Oliver had previously got grief for his recipe for joloff rice (a West African dish); and If I remember correctly, he has also been berated for putting chorizo in paella. Jamie, mate, step away from the rice!

On the whole, there doesn’t seem to be too much suggestion that culinary traditions are the sole preserve of the communities that spawned them, nor a lack of recognition that culinary traditions are near-always influenced by the ingredients and ideas of others. The objection is much more to ill-informed versions of things that seem to be claiming to be ‘the real thing’. As long as I don’t try to claim that my rice and peas dish is ‘authentic’, there shouldn’t be a queue of detractors lined up to berate me for it. I was under no illusion that the ‘jerk spice’ mix I used would pass muster with anyone steeped in the traditions of Jamaican cooking – it was a convenient way to add a bit of flavour to a dish cooked away from home with limited resources.

 

NOT THE KING OF CURRIES, NOR EVEN THE MINOR ROYAL OF CURRIES

A few days ago I sous cheffed for my second time at a Messy Cook supper club, and on the menu card that went out with one of the courses at this cheese-based edition of the supper club, Cath dubbed me ‘the King of Curries’. On the one hand, this is not an entirely serious bestowal of the title by Cath, but on the other it would be fair to say that to a great many of my friends I am heavily associated with cooking curry, and cooking it well.

curry at supper club

The curry course: malai koftas, saag paneer, and a salad of tomatoes, cucumber, onions and herbs. Photos by John Kane and Sofyanah Ramzan.

‘Curry’ is a term that is frequently used as a shorthand for food of the Indian subcontinent, and doesn’t begin to describe the rich complexity of the regional styles and traditions of this vast area. Again – there are better places to read about this than my blog; I make no claim to in-depth knowledge of these cuisines and their interconnectedness with wider cultures and histories, nor to any sort of ‘authenticity’.

In a previous post I’ve written about learning to cook and getting my love of spices from my dad (there is a longer version of this waiting to be written, about the spice cupboard at my parents’ house, and my favourite shop in Hull, Indian and Continental Stores, but that’s for another time). I am just a guy who loves to make tasty food, and who is told by the people he cooks for that what I make is delicious. I am inspired by food others have cooked and I have eaten, by food others have cooked and I have read about or seen on the telly, but most of all by twenty-some years of using spices, exploring the heady world of aromas and flavours.

It could be argued that I am a very British cook: British not in the cliched sense of over-boiled cabbage, but in the sense of being part of a long tradition of taking influences, magpie-like, from all over the place. Historically this is intertwined with colonialism, and the economics of modern global trade are still rooted in massive inequality and exploitation. As my curries have featured at a supper club (indeed, at two) where there were paying guests, does that count as cultural appropriation? Does my position in global socio-economic inequality remove my right to be part of the to-and-fro exchange of ideas and influences and ingredients that is inherent to just about every cuisine on the planet – be that highly-formalised ideas of the ‘right’ way to do things, or the home cook making something for dinner with whatever needs using in the fridge and the veg basket?

 

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE, AND YOUR LIMITATIONS

In another previous post, I reference cooking an epic curry feast which included a goat curry. My friend and colleague Aaron, who cooked this feast with me, is mixed race, and grew up eating curry goat made by his Jamaican grandmother. He asked if we were going to make curry goat, and I said that as I have very little knowledge of Jamaican cuisine I wouldn’t dare attempt it as there was no way I could make it like his grandmother. That I don’t really know how anybody’s grandmother would make a goat curry in India, Pakistan nor Bangladesh was not a concern, as neither would any of my guests come with expectations. But it felt that making a poor version of a dish someone at the table would know, would have a strong sense of familial, and perhaps cultural, connection to seemed like a bad idea.

Of course, it would be ridiculous to suggest that all grandmas in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh would cook goat curry the same way. Quite possibly the same is true of curry goat.

 

AUTHENTICITY

‘Authenticity’ is a word that has come up several times in this blog post, and also came up quite a lot in the things I was reading about cultural appropriation. One point that was made several times is that there is arguably a fetishisation of ‘authenticity’ around [amongst other things] food. Think: the caricature of the [white, British] hipster expounding with claimed authority on the authenticity of whatever the latest food trend is to catch their eye; the stereotypical [white, British] gap year student who spent a few months backpacking and now denounces any mee krob that doesn’t conform to their pseudo-enlightened global-tribalist cherry-picked understanding. (For the record, ‘mee krob’ popped into my head from who knows where – I had to look it up to find out that it is a Thai noodle dish.) The key objection is that the knowledge of what is ‘authentic’ tends to be held in isolation. There is no understanding of – no interest in – the wider cultural resonances of the dishes; there is a voyeuristic quality to the restlessly-acquisitive seeking of the latest ‘new’ find. ‘Authentic’ experiences are tokenistically collected like ‘my Asian friend’.

 

IN CONCLUSION. OR NOT.

I’ve written far too many words in this blog post, and have failed to offer anything that might be a coherent position on cultural appropriation. Nor have I offered a defence of, or alternatively an apology for, my own cooking. I don’t especially feel that anybody is asking me for these, though (possibly because there are only about two of you out there reading my blog!?)

 

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Peperoni alla suocera

I love to eat mezze-style, lots of interesting tasty dishes to mix and match and dip into (with a spoon or bread, that is). An array of the raw and the cooked, with lots of herbs, spices, lemon… food that neither knows nor cares if it is European-Mediterranean, North African, Persian, or, as is generally the case, a bastardised mish-mash of all three. Last week, cooking for friends on holiday, Cath and I included sweet potato patatas bravas [patatas dulces bravas or boniatos bravas would seem to be contenders for the title of this dish, using the internet].

A dish I return to frequently when cooking this sort of food is peperoni alla suocera. The proper Italian name would be peperoni agrodolce – bittersweet peppers – with the name I use being in honour of my ex-mother-in-law who first cooked me peppers this way. I remembered that I had a couple of photos on my phone from nearly a year ago when I was given a colleague’s excess of peppers from her veg box, and thought I’d put the recipe here.

This is not a time to skimp on the ingredients: cheap, thin-walled peppers lack the sweetness and heft to turn into a wonderfully rich, jammy dish. Better to find good peppers going cheap because they are reaching the end of their shelf life; or of course a friendly colleague whose partner doesn’t eat peppers.

peperoni alla suocera

Before and after: cooking makes the peppers soft, sweet, and slightly-out-of-focus…

I use around 9 or 10 standard sized peppers – a mix of red, orange and yellow. Cut these into large chunks. Care not a jot about the chunks being even-sized nor regular-shaped. Put them in a big non-stick skillet (mine is a foot across by two inches deep) with a lid. Add a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of oil and mix. You could sneak in a little chilli if you wanted.

Cook, covered, over a medium heat, stirring every five minutes or so. You need to tweak the heat so that when you take the lid off each time there is a little bit of liquid from the peppers collected, but not enough to completely cover the bottom of the pan. Ultimately it is a good thing if bits of them fry and go brown, but you don’t want to rush them. After about 45 minutes – or maybe more, depending on how high your medium heat is – you should have soft peppers, sticky with their own natural sugars. There definitely should be none with anything resembling bite. If quite a few pepper pieces have shed their skins, this is a good sign. You could try to pick the skins out, but I’d suggest this isn’t that sort of fancy cooking.

Cook for about five minutes more with a tablespoon or two of wine vinegar (or cider vinegar, or balsamic, or even pomegranate molasses). Stir the vinegar in and cook without the lid, steaming off any excess liquid so the peppers are sticky and glazed rather than wet. Serve hot, lukewarm, or at room temperature.

Cooking, not on gas

I’ve just returned from a holiday. We took a road trip to Wales and Bristol (and lots of points on the way to, from, nearby…). Much of the time was spent visiting people, but we also had a couple of days to ourselves, in a yurt in a secluded field just outside Llangenith. Cooking facilities were basic, but lent themselves well enough to a bit of pre-planned al fresco kitchen wizardry…

 

CAMPFIRE RICE AND PEAS WITH BAKED PLANTAINS

A few times recently I have made semi-cheating rice and peas. The cheating is the use of precooked, microwave rice and tinned beans. There are coconut varieties of the rice which work really well in this.

campfire rice and pea

Note the “pretending not to feel like a proud caveman” expression after cooking on open fire.

The plantains were peeled, and wrapped in foil with some oil and lime juice. I moved them around and turned them every so often to get them to cook evenly (half of one  of them stubbornly refused to do so for some reason, and was discarded – while not poisonous when raw as I have been led to believe, they are apparently not particularly nice). The blackened layer – which was not only edible but also delicious – came from a late-in-cooking stint on a smaller wire grill much closer to the fire to finish them off.

I fried up a couple of red onions until they were sweet and browned. I added some jerk spices – a mild dry spice mix rather than a fiery jerk marinade – and some chipotle paste. This smoked chilli paste was fortuitously given to me by my friend Liz when we visited her on an earlier leg of the road trip. A tin each of red kidney beans and black beans, with their liquid, were added and left to simmer and reduce.

The pan of water in the photos was heated and used to start the rice warming (at home it would have had a truncated stint in the microwave to get it most of the way hot). To say this was effective would be pushing it, in truth. The rice was mixed with the beans and the whole lot left to gently steam with a lid on on the edge of the fire. Two packs of rice and two tins of beans was far more than we needed, and a fair bit more than we ate, but there you go.

Rice and peas, baked plantains, and red wine from a self-consciously retro enamel mug. Hardly the caveman archetype of meat and fire, but hearty and tasty. I’d like to say it was so good that it brought a tear to my eye, but that was actually a shift in wind direction which blew campfire smoke at me.

 

HUEVOS CORNERSHOPOS

Breakfast the next morning (happy birthday Cath!) was a take on huevos rancheros. We’d had the real deal with Liz (she of the chipotle paste) a couple of breakfasts before.

huevos cornershopos

Baked beans, chipotle paste, eggs. Toast done over an open fire, somewhat miraculously not set alight nor turned to charcoal. Breakfast of champions.

 

Don’t have a cow, man!

Coinciding with the recent rise in the number of people choosing veganism, reports abound of a new generation of meat substitutes or fake meat (choose whichever term you prefer – there are comments sections full of arguments about how to describe these products). The promise is of plant-based foodstuffs that are indistinguishable from meat, with perhaps the ultimate incarnation [excuse the sort-of-pun] being a steak that bleeds when you cut it. Debate is sauced with the usual rancour that accompanies the exchange of opinions on the rights and wrongs of eating meat – accusations of self-righteousness, claims and counter-claims regarding the environmental impact of rearing animals and growing soy, the unnaturalness of whatever additives bind the soy versus the unnaturalness of vast quantities of routinely-dosed antibiotics…

While this blog post isn’t intended to add to these debates, it is worth me giving a mention to sosmix. This dry mix has been around for many years, with different owners of the brand (it currently seems to be offered by at least one manufacturer plus as an own-brand by at least two health food stores). It’s made of assorted flours, soy protein, palm fat, and some beetroot red colouring. I’ve never met anyone – vegan, vegetarian, omnivore – who claims that it is indistinguishable from meat. Mixed according to the instructions (add water, with optional oil or egg) and you end up with something that isn’t actively bad to eat, but somewhat uninspiring in both flavour and texture. But of course, there is no reason why it should only be mixed according to the instructions. All sorts of things can be added: finely chopped mushrooms improve the texture enormously – making your sausages or burgers moister, less homogenously mealy – and, if they are tasty mushrooms, increasing the umami; cheese adds richness and flavour – umami again; and dried tarragon is, for me, a must. These additions don’t get you any closer to something that could be mistaken for meat, but do mean you are eating something that tastes good. But I have stopped buying sosmix since I decided to try and avoid palm fat, which is generally held to not be an ethically sound ingredient [sustainable palm fat does feature as an ingredient on some products – though I haven’t checked sosmix for a few years – but the internet, true to form, has doubts about the veracity of claims made for its low impact on trees and orangutans and people].

Yesterday I tried Iceland’s No Bull burgers. They come in frozen packs of two, so I ate one myself and fed one to Cath aka The Messy Cook, who is a meat-eater, so this was clearly Proper Science.

Sunday brunch 2 pics

Sunday brunch: meat-free burgers, hash browns, cheesy potato and tarragon croquettes to use up stuff from the fridge, baked beans. This blog post could just as easily have been about the funky new pan I bought that the croquettes were cooked in; the relative merits of different brands of beans; or even the fact that I was inordinately pleased that this particular brand of hash brown is an equilateral triangle (or a sector of a circle, given that one edge is somewhat curved) rather than a right-angled triangle. These things amuse me.

Our verdicts? Having not eaten meat for thirty years, I have no idea how akin to meat these burgers are. But Cath says they are not even close.

She noted that they looked very much like spam burgers while cooking in the pan. Certainly they have a pinkness (good ol’ beetroot red again) that is reminiscent of spam. Once cooked, the outside browns but the inside remains resolutely pink, unlike a well-cooked burger. [The internet is also full of people debating the rights and wrongs of medium-rare burgers…]

She found them quite dry, and the flavour lacking in the deep, meaty quality that she would expect from a burger. Again, it’s all about the umami. I too would have liked a bigger hit of umami; and there was a faint sweetness that wasn’t needed. Texturally, I didn’t feel that they were dry, and they had a feel of being made of small pieces (like mince) rather than a uniform mass of reconstituted powder.

plant based meat free meat substitute

The ingredients are mostly things that I have heard of – though I don’t know what processes soy goes through to produce soy protein – with methylcellulose, derived from plant cellulose, as [I assume] a binder. And no palm fat.

While neither a convincing meat substitute nor the greatest food in their own right, these burgers are not bad. Being served in a bun with all the trimmings would probably do them a favour too.

This review is based on one try of these burgers, and includes the caveat that I cooked them longer than the time specified on the box which may explain Cath’s sensing of the burger being dry (though I have also read an online review that suggested this longer cooking time was needed).

My second supper club adventure…

WordPress helpfully informs me that pretty much nobody is reading my blog, but, just in case: I will be sous cheffing at another of the Messy Cook supper clubs on Saturday 1st September. This time it’s a cheese takeover! We are developing a menu with cheese in every course. Follow the link below for more information…

Tickets on Sale for my Next Supper Club – Cheese Takeover 1st Sept!

This edition of the supper club will be all vegetarian. I’ve blogged before about the fact that I eat cheese made with animal rennet, but everything we use on the night will be suitable for proper vegetarians. For anyone who has been caught in a conversation with me about cheese: this means no Mario The Cheese Man’s cheese, as he uses animal rennet.

Bye for now! Hope to see some of you there for the supper club (Cath, that means you! 😉)