Are we overly sentimental about Indian food? –

By on September 5, 2021
Illustration by Suneesh K.

Illustration by Suneesh K.

Indians across the world were left with a bad taste in the mouth after a humour columnist Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post described Indian food as something he dislikes as it is based on just one spice – ‘curry’ spice.

His comment prompted a huge backlash and a correction from the newspaper. “Top Chef” host and author of Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs, Padma Lakshmi was bewildered that such a take would make it to the press in 2021.

“For generations, people have slung racist insults about the ‘stinky’ foods of immigrants: Italians with garlic, Irish with cabbage, Koreans with kimchi and, yes, South Asians with curry. It was never funny,” Padma Lakshmi wrote.

As the criticism grew louder, netizens poured their disdain for Weingarten’s ignorance and also his racist and bland palate.

Indian spices (Photo courtesy Ratul Ghosh) Indian spices (Photo courtesy Ratul Ghosh)

Not the first

This is not a lone tasteless generalization of Indian cuisine. British historian Edward Anderson riled up a lot of Indians when he called idli “boring”. A tweet from international affairs professor Tom Nichols saying “Indian food is terrible and we pretend it isn’t”, sent thousands into heated arguments over cultural intolerance and racism in international cuisine. Nichols was responding to a thread where people were asked to share their most controversial food opinions. Apart from a lot of angry retorts and invitations to Indian dinners, what it did do was spark a wider dialogue about the way food plays into the immigrant experience, cultural intolerance and racism.

“We need to stand up and make it very clear that ignorant, arrogant idiots should not be allowed to air their views on an important public forum. We also need to take The Washington Post editors to task for such drivel, the authors own view is a puerile argument,” said Dr Kurush F. Dalal, archaeologist and culinary anthropologist.

Curse of the Curry

The term “curry” which has become a sub-genre of Indian food actually came from a colonial misunderstanding. British colonisers in India misheard the Tamil word “kari” (meaning pepper) and started calling all desi dishes curry to avoid learning their different names. As a result, Westerners were introduced to this idea that all dishes with gravy from India were “curries”.

Of course, one of the only places in the world that doesn’t have a dish called curry is India. We call the dishes by their individual names like rogan ghost, channa masala, malai kofta, matar paneer, etc. Imagine calling all noodle dishes spaghetti, or walking into a Japanese restaurant and assuming all fish is sushi!

Sol Kadhi Ceviche at The Bombay Canteen. Sol Kadhi Ceviche at The Bombay Canteen. The reason we don’t have a dish called curry in India of course is that we call each gravy dish by its individual, more descriptive name – from Sindhi kadhi to Kashmir nadru yakhni.

No such thing as ‘Indian’ food

The outrage has sadly been over the fact that a white man called Indian food terrible. The fact that he oversimplified the food of 1.3 billion people that includes nuanced, varied regional cuisines with myriad ingredients, spices and dishes seems to have gone unnoticed in the brouhaha.

“Flavours and eating habits change every 150 to 200 km in India. The climate, culture, religious beliefs and customs all play an important role in the various cuisines. This is what makes the Indian culinary landscape so fascinating! Formerly it was only food from Punjab or Chettinad that was popular internationally. But now we have Mangalorean, Bengali, Gujarati, Lucknowi, Kashmiri and Malabar, too. Then there are hyper-regional cuisines like Coorg, Bundelkand, Konganad, Malwan, Malabar Muslim and Rampuri,” said Naren Thimmaiah, Executive Chef, Vivanta Bengaluru, Residency Road.

Dalal said “Indian” food should be called a super-cuisine. “Indian food is an incredibly complex amalgam of multiple cuisines and cannot be defined in a single ‘spice’ let along a single grouping of spices. It is a continuously evolving cuisine,” he said.

Often, home cooks and chefs have their own favourite recipes - with different proportions of each ingredient - for popular spice mixes from garam masala to sambhar masala. (Picture courtesy Dewang Gupta) Often, home cooks and chefs have their own favourite recipes for popular spice mixes from garam masala to sambhar masala. (Picture courtesy Dewang Gupta)

Much ado about nothing?

So why are we rattled by a foreigners view of Indian food? It’s a well known fact that Indian food with its heavy use of spices and herbs has notoriously earned the moniker of “smelly, oily and heavy”.

“Call it a colonial hangover or whatever… But why should we seek validation from people who don’t even understand the cultural diversity of our country, and how it impacts our food. Maybe all that these people are seeking is notoriety on social media and they got it,” said Parul Sen a home chef.

In Nichols’ case, he was posting in a thread that specifically asked for controversial opinions, so it seems rather pointless to get worked up about his tweet.

Slow Cooked Pork Belly Thukpa at The Bombay Canteen. Slow Cooked Pork Belly Thukpa at The Bombay Canteen.

Terming Indian food haters racist seems excessive. So what triggers such accusation?

“What’s on your plate is your history, your heritage, culture and religion. That explains a lot of outrage against these unpopular takes. It’s difficult to accept diverse opinions on the food you associate with so closely,” explained Shubhra Chatterji, an Indian culinary researcher.

It could largely be ignorance that comes off as racist, which it isn’t, said Hussain Shahzad, Executive Chef, Hunger Inc Hospitality. “Chefs today are not chasing authenticity of dishes or cuisine but are leveraging techniques and flavour profiles that existed in the Indian cuisine repertoire to recreate classics or dishes that have been inspired by the chef’s experiences/ upbringing. So Indian food today is not just slow cooking a dish or making dum biryani. It’s about digging deeper into the culinary history, debunking myths of authenticity and playing with flavours as opposed to recipes,” Shahzad said.

Feedback on food is all about perception. “Chef prepares a dish based on his specialization on that cuisine and one critiques the food based on his knowledge of the dish. May be we should give Gene a little more time to understand this vast cuisine, and he might need few more years to do this,” suggested Thimmaiah.

While social media was boiling over with culinary wars, actor and producer Tom Cruise quietly visited Asha Bhosle’s Indian restaurant – Asha’s in Birmingham – and not only relished the chicken tikka, he even asked for a second serving with some extra spices! That’s some culinary redemption!

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Are we overly sentimental about Indian food? –
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