Written by Aditi Jehangir: @AditiJehangir
There is a new outrage every day on the internet. This is true for almost any field of interest but it holds very true for food and authenticity. Particularly for an Asian (Indian/Parsi/Chinese/and a very small bit Vietnamese) person who loves reading about food, finding new recipes and restaurant reviews, there is much to gawk at and be outraged at. From literally any word that Giles Coren has ever written, to Jamie Oliver’s many faux pas against global cuisines, the world is out to misrepresent, appropriate and bastardise our food. As a 1.5 generation immigrant (what I call myself because I moved to England when I was 6), food is my strongest tie to my cultural heritage
Food, especially to diaspora communities, is everything. It is home, fuel, and memory. It is happiness, sadness, and nostalgia. Is this why we feel so enraged when our memories are not being honoured properly?
Is the outrage justified? The scale of outrage on the internet is rapid and overwhelming. Late in 2021, a Washington Post writer in a ‘humorous’ column called Indian food “the only ethnic cuisine in the world insanely based entirely on one spice”. Obviously this is absolutely ludicrous and worthy of rebuttal, but at some point we can only be outraged so much. Instead of outrage, should we ignore it? We have the choice to focus on continuing our own traditions, for ourselves and not for others. Do we need to respond to ignorant comments by ignorant critics who will never understand the breadth of Indian cuisine even within one state, let alone the whole subcontinent. Should we all turn into versions of Uncle Roger, a persona created by comedian Nigel Ng, who despairs about the bastardisation of Asian food by celebrity chefs in parody Youtube videos? Or cynically maybe they’re designed to do just that? As journalism slides into being more about SEO and click rates than what’s written, maybe as with playground taunts, we ignore them and take the high road.
Biryani has been my favourite meal since I was a little girl - it is the king of rice dishes. I very rarely make it myself because almost everyone I know is vegetarian and my father’s recipe for it - much like all his other recipes - starts with 1kg of beef, 1 kg of pork and 2 kg of rice so it always seems unfeasible. For me, biryani means Christmas, weddings, and birthdays. So called quick biryanis or mid-week biryanis pop up everywhere - in meal subscription kits, in Instagram recipes, on blogs run by people with no emotional connection to the food they write about. In these recipes you can substitute garam masala for curry powder, yoghurt for water, chicken legs for breasts, and substitute the soul right out of food. Marks & Spencers tried to put biryani in a wrap and was met with Internet outrage again.
What’s in a name? If recipes and concoctions called themselves ‘Asian inspired’ or ‘vaguely related to biryani’ would we be placated? Distinctions are important, and every ‘chai tea’ or ‘naan bread’ rankles and is another reminder that our culture is something to be taken and colonised. Languages are tied up inextricably with food and culture. What we call food matters, particularly in English where we often translate or transliterate food names in significant ways. Dosas are ‘lentil pancakes’, gulab jamun ‘milk dessert’ and biryani ‘mixed meat rice dish’. Names can change how we view food itself.
"You can honour other people’s food - but honouring traditions means learning."
By erasing our culture, you flatten and homogenise us. The many different Asian and Arab countries that eat biryani have almost infinite varieties of the dish. Additions of raisins, nuts, saffron, potatoes, beef, lamb, pork, chicken, and cauliflower have all been mixed into the dish at one point through the many cultures. However, one thread remained in common, the care and time taken for the dish. When you take our food out of context, you lose more than just the history, you lose the memories. No one can ever own biryani but people can get recipes wrong. Innovation at the sake of expediency over taste will always lose out. I don’t mean to say that only brown people can make biryani, everyone can and should make biryani.
You can honour other people’s food - but honouring traditions means learning. When South Asian people have real threats to our safety from the government and racism, is the outrage around our food helpful or justified? It can be easier to view the internet as solely a place of outrage, but it's more productive to focus on the ways we can use it for a better purpose. There has never been an easier time in history to find out about other cultures and traditions online. I found out more about Korean food through Maangchi’s YouTube videos and Michelle Zauner’s book Crying in H Mart. I found out more about Japanese food from TikToks of sushi chefs and Instagram photos of beautiful bento boxes. We can use the internet as a tool of education and not just outrage.
Aditi Jehangir (she/her) recently refund her love for writing after being put off by an English degree. She likes writing about food, politics and activism- and the intersection in-between. She's passionate about cultural appropriation, gentrification and how food links to our histories. She loves fried tofu, murukku and always chill oil on everything.
This piece was originally published in Issue 6: Authenticity. Pick up a copy of the magazine here: