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
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.
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’ 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!?)