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Ethnic food, a serious business

Ashis Nandy | Updated on February 10, 2021

Fact of the matter: Ethnic cuisine and dining have become more sophisticated, with the food symbolising the culture that it represents   -  WIKIPEDIA

Having made deep inroads into the global metropolitan culture, ethnic cuisine has become a marker of the width of one’s cosmopolitan experience as well as a measure of one’s tolerance of cultural diversity

* There were ethnic cuisines, but no one called them so. The cuisines of others were always a part of one’s life

* For a long time, Chinese food in the United States was meant for university students with meagre budgets

* Exogenous cuisines are now acquiring the status of African safaris

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We can take the easy way out and answer Arjun Appadurai’s question — why a pan-Indian cuisine did not emerge — by pointing out that even 50 years ago, to a non-urban Indian, no cuisines other than his own region’s looked decisively Indian or, if you so prefer, ethnic. Most descriptions of inedible food that I have heard from Indians involve ‘strange’ Indian cuisines, not foreign ones. But that does not mean that there was no concept of other kinds of food, but to qualify as such they had to be the cuisine of one’s significant others.

There were ethnic cuisines, but no one called them so. The cuisines of others were always a part of one’s life — as markers of cultivation and class; as indicators of social status; or as esoteric rituals, meant for adventurers, travellers, and beginning in the nineteenth century, anthropologists. French cuisine did traditionally perform an important function for the European elite. For a long time, it had a particular cultural role to play, for instance, in English public life, despite widespread stereotypes of English insularity. English cuisine, in turn, had a place in colonized societies like India where, to spite the detractors of English food, many Indians accepted it as a marker of cultivation and others developed its more labour-intensive, spicier, tropical versions.

However, in the civilized world, ethnic styles of cooking were mostly organized within a stable, hierarchical frame. Even in bland Scandinavia and in the gloomy, self-sure ambience of Victorian and Edwardian London, the cognoscenti, the learned and the beautiful people served French food or some domesticated version of it on formal occasions. It is true that some members of the gentry seemed committed to good old healthy English food, but that was often a self-conscious gesture rather than a matter of preference. British Islanders in general, and not merely the English, have, for centuries, lived with feelings of inferiority as far as food and wines are concerned; even their love for their own food is tinged with a certain ambivalence. This is best reflected in Somerset Maugham’s well-known saying that one could eat very well in Britain if one decides to have breakfast morning, afternoon, and night.

In the United States too, despite occasional paeans to the beauties of home-grown, wholesome American food, there has been a similar bent towards French and, to a lesser extent, Italian and Viennese cuisines for a long time. On formal occasions, presidents, members of the cabinet, generals, and university professors have tended to serve French food or some fusion of French and domestic fare. Sometimes, as an elegant variation, it has been Italian food. Everyone sings the glories of the American mom and her exploits in the kitchen, but formal, public banquet is another matter. There you stick to cuisines that are recognized as appropriate for such occasions.

Breakfast with Evil and Other Risky Ventures: The Non-essential Ashis Nandy / Ashis Nandy/ Oxford University Press / Non- fiction / ₹895

 

Many societies have similar ideas of occasion when it comes to food. In my native Calcutta, Bengalis have always sung the glories of Bengali food, but when it comes to eating outside the home in a restaurant, they tend to choose some version of Mughal, North Indian, or, less frequently, European food (by which they usually mean Indianized British food, given fancy French or Italian names). The famous clubs of Calcutta, true to their colonial heritage, also serve English food that, some might say unfortunately, often tastes like English food. The city’s first recognized Bengali restaurant was founded in the 1960s and it was a particularly modest affair, run by a women’s cooperative. The city’s first up-market Bengali restaurant opened in the 1990s. Kasturi in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is arguably the best Bengali restaurant in the world... There persists the belief that you do not eat Bengali food in a restaurant; you eat it at home or on formal occasions like marriages and anniversaries, as long you do not organize them as events in restaurants. Bengali food is only now becoming restaurant food.

Sometimes, it could be a mix of the occasion and the life cycle of the host. For a long time, Chinese food in the United States was meant for university students with meagre budgets, eating out on the weekends or playing host to their friends and teachers. It was different and it was cheap. For decades, Indian food has played a roughly similar role in London and other large cities in Britain…

Things have been changing gradually but radically during the last three decades or so. Ethnic food is now serious business. It has made deep inroads into the global metropolitan culture. It has become a marker of the width of one’s cosmopolitan experience. You can now talk with erudition and sensitivity on ethnic food for hours, and listeners are unlikely to be bored. Ethnic food as a public concern now occupies the same place that health food did three decades ago. The ability to discriminate amongst the different shades of a specific ethnic cuisine and the ability to have an informed chat with waiters before ordering food in a restaurant that serves lesser known fare like Ethiopian, Moroccan, or West Asian food have become signs of learning, elegance, and sophistication. These abilities are now analogous to the older status game that became popular in Edwardian England — the ability to address waiters by name in well-known restaurants.

Exogenous cuisines are now acquiring the status of African safaris, and are becoming the arena of a different kind of power play. No cuisine, however limited or flat, is considered inferior, except probably a few European ones, and certainly they cannot be called so in polite company...

Ethnic food has become the measure of one’s tolerance of cultural diversity. Only philistines are supposed to grumble about any ethnic food served to them. You make a social and political statement if you dislike any cuisine, not if you like it.

At the same time, some of the old cast of suspects have acquired new stature and cultural meaning; they are basking in re-invented glory. Eating Chinese food in Chinatown is no longer a lowbrow or downmarket venture, nor is eating Indian curry in an Indian restaurant in a university town like Oxford in the United Kingdom. However, you may convey something about the level of your cultivation and cosmopolitanism if, when your business partner or research collaborator asks what kind of food preferences you have, you blandly proclaim your love for Chinese or Indian food. You are expected to specify what version of Chinese or Indian food you like. Your host will have much more respect for you if you suggest a Hunanese or Szechwanese restaurant or if you specifically demand that he takes you to a Malayali joint for appam or even to a Gujarati fast-food stall for bhelpuri or khandvi...

Because everyone is looking for newer, stranger, and rarer kinds of ethnic eating places, the variety of ethnic cuisines available in the global metropolitan culture has proliferated enormously in the last 20 years…

One suspects that the culture of ethnic cuisine and ethnic dining has become more and more sophisticated and complex because it has become a major symbolic substitute for the cultures it is supposed to represent. This culture of food is paradoxically becoming more autonomous of the cultures from which the cuisines come and the civilizations or lifestyles they represent. And that is way things should go, most people seem to believe. Ethnic cuisine is expected to survive the demands of culture, and as the contemporary world pushes more and more cultures into extinction, talking incessantly of multiculturalism and democratic tolerance, ethnic cuisine becomes more and more like a museum or a stage on which a culture writes its name or signs an attendance register for the sake of appeasing our moral conscience and declaring its survival.

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust displays some artefacts of Jewish culture thoughtfully collected by the Nazis for a projected museum on an extinct race after the Final Solution. Those were not the days of ethnic cuisine. Otherwise the Nazis would have surely added a wing to their museum where one could go to a well-appointed restaurant serving traditional Jewish fare from all over Europe.

Excepted with permission from Breakfast with Evil and Other Risky Ventures: The Non-essential Ashis Nandy published by Oxford University Press

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Published on February 10, 2021
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