This afternoon, I listened to a podcast about the relationship between food and culture. As I nodded my head in agreement with the American-Korean who expressed his frustrations around white people “playing” with his culture’s traditional foods I noted the irony of my situation. Here I was rolling my eyes at Chef Rick Bayless’ failure to acknowledge his white privilege whilst I poured liberal amounts of curry powder, which ended up in my kitchen as a result of colonialism, and handfuls of berries, whose origins were unknown, into my melting-pot of a lunch.
The cultural appropriation of food is a subject which interests me very much. Until last year, I hadn’t given the idea much consideration. I was well-aware of other, perhaps more obvious, forms of appropriation (i.e. anything Gwen Stefani ever did or appallingly racist college-theme parties) but I did not understand how the concept applied to food.
In my privileged white mind, food was fair game. After all, I had to eat. Have you ever asked a Canadian person to define Canadian culture or cuisine? Generally, the most appropriate answer is: “We have no culture or cuisine because Canadian people are from all over the world.” The worst answer is: “Hockey and poutine.” I wasn’t about to trade-in my diet of rice wraps and falafel for maple syrup and butter tarts.
But let’s back up. What exactly is the cultural appropriation of food? Everyday Feminism has an excellent definition, pulled from one of their articles, which sums it up pretty clearly: “Food is appropriated when people from the dominant culture start to fetishize or commercialize it, and when they hoard access to that particular food.”
“Food is appropriated when people from the dominant culture start to fetishize or commercialize it, and when they hoard access to that particular food.”
Our food is an ongoing conversation. Food is us understanding ourselves. Food is a thousand stories passed down through generations. This is why it is absolutely not okay to call someone’s food “weird” or to tell an Indian person the way they cook curry isn’t “authentic” or explain to Koreans how to improve bi bim bap with the aid of a Bundt pan. But is it okay to make curried lentils with lemon and goji berries and publish the recipe on the internet?
This is a question I am still exploring. According to Professor Krishnendu Ray, chair of NYU’s Food Studies Department and author of The Ethnic Restaurateur, cooking within another culture’s cuisine is an act of translation, which is good and interesting. If you are a skilled translator people may stand to gain something from your interpretation of the food. “However, you will always lose some of the vernacular which cannot be translated. All translations are a loss.”
“However, you will always lose some of the vernacular which cannot be translated. All translations are a loss.”
I am not a skilled translator. That is to say, I am not a professional chef who has made a study of a particular kind of cuisine. I have never been to India and I only discovered moments ago that goji berries have their origins in China. I am trying to learn about where my food comes from and what it means to eat, cook, share and understand it. This recipe, like every other recipe I post, is my contribution to the ongoing conversation that is food. Each meal is an opportunity to learn and draw a connection between my kitchen and the rest of the world. I welcome your comments and criticisms. You can also alter the recipe yourself and cook with the ingredients you have on hand. I hope, most of all, you come to know the story of your food.
Curried Lentils with Lemon and Goji Berries
- 2 cups cooked lentils
- 1 cup chopped green onion
- 1/3 cup finely diced green pepper
- handful of goji berries
- juice and zest of 1/2 a lemon
- 1 tbsp. olive oil
- 1 tbsp. rapadura sugar (or sugar of your choice)
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 tbsp. curry powder
- 1 tbsp. turmeric
- salt and pepper to taste
- Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat.
- Sauté onion, green pepper, lemon and garlic until the peppers and onion begin to soften.
- Add lentils, curry powder, turmeric and sugar with a 1/2 cup of water. Stir through and allow water to evaporate. This should create a thick, saucy texture. If the mixture becomes too dry add more water a 1/4 cup at a time.
- Add goji berries and stir through.
- Remove from heat. Add salt and pepper to taste.