Is there such a thing as the cultural appropriation of a cuisine?

The other day I was sent a link to this BBC programme and couldn’t believe a lot of what I was hearing. In America, a lot of minority communities are up in arms because they are witnessing people not from their ethnic backgrounds (ie white folk)  making successful businesses selling “their” cuisines. I imagine much of their anger is because these “culturally appropriated” enterprises are successful – if they’d been failures, they would be laughing at them.

Such protectionist outlooks are not in the spirit, in the culture, of cuisine – which is to share. You come to my house and I feed you what we are eating. If you then go on to cook that food yourself, surely I would be flattered, not offended.

Minorities in the US spend a lot of time talking and writing about these things – thankfully not much of that has translated over here. London is full of Asian restaurants created by people who aren’t Asian. Recently we have seen Kricket, Kiln, Som Saa, The Begging Bowl in Peckham – all created by people who travelled around India and the far east, learning the regional cuisines they had become fascinated by to the point that they wished to share their experiences with others.

And what’s wrong if they innovate and adapt? No cuisine should live in a cultural bubble. When I saw ‘samphire pakora’ on the menu at Kricket, I smiled for two reasons. One was that most Indian restaurant chefs wouldn’t know what samphire was, let alone think to make a pakora with it and the second was it was the style of dish we used to do at The Cinnamon Club (where the Kricket chef spent some time) and we would not have been accused of cultural appropriation because it was people with brown faces who had done it.

Tricky? Not really if you don’t feel the repression-driven need to call for “cultural gatekeepers” as they’re doing in the US. If the sons and daughters of Asian migrant settlers here choose the well trodden path of going into professions as opposed to catering, then we should be grateful to the great new restaurants I’ve mentioned for giving us more places to go and enjoy. This is simply the natural ebb and flow of integration and indeed of business – consumers, not complainers, will drive our future.

About Iqbal Wahhab

Founder of Roast Restaurant, Borough Market.
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