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A stray comment on Indian food comprising only “one spice” by an international columnist has snowballed into a verbattle, with netizens debating and discussing the nuances of local cuisine

Published: 28th August 2021 06:46 AM  |   Last Updated: 28th August 2021 06:46 AM   |  A+A-

Top chef Padma Lakshmi also faced backlash after generalising Indian cuisine | Padmalakshmi: Instagram

Express News Service

BENGALURU: Indians take their food very seriously. And this war of words on social media going on right now only reinforces the fact. Last week, when columnist Gene Weingarten wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post about his picky-eating habits in an article titled ‘You can’t make me eat these foods’, he mentioned his dislike for Indian food, justifying it as “something that could knock a vulture off a meat wagon” and something that is “based entirely on spice spice.”

These comments in the “humour column” haven’t gone down well with Indians, with many terming it “rude and racist”. Ruth Dsouza Prabhu, independent journalist and food writer, says, “Racism, bigotry and plain ignorance often wear the garb of humour. Weingarten’s column has broad-brushed India’s numerous cuisines and culinary heritage as being based on a “single spice”. It may have been passed off as humour, but the joke is now on Gene, considering the worldwide backlash on such an uninformed, ignorant opinion. It’s good to see the public call him out openly,” she says.

Rightly pointed out, several netizens, including TV host and top chef Padma Lakshmi, wrote back schooling Weingarten about the vastness of Indian cuisine. However, Lakshmi’s rebuttal faced another backlash as she generalised the cuisine. “Bengali food is heavy on seafood, mustard seeds and coconut; southerners serve mountains of rice topped with sambar,” she wrote on social media. Food critic Priya Bala, who works closely with indigenous ingredients, feels that Lakshmi should have used the platform to highlight certain aspects, rather than misguide readers.

“When we mention Bengali cuisine, we’re mostly talking about food from Kolkata. There are so many other varieties of dishes, including the way it’s used, types of fish cuts and the use of seeds, among others, that can be spoken about,” says Bala. As someone who works closely with Mangalurean cuisine, Naren Thimmaiah, executive chef of Vivanta Bengaluru Residency Road, points out that there’s a larger understanding of regional cuisine because of social media. “With in each state, the cuisine and style of cooking changes almost every 100 km. We have become possessive about the food that we are openly talking about it now,” says Thimmaiah, adding that the general conception of “Indian food being spicy” also remains untrue. Because spice doesn’t equal chillies.

“There are different types of chillies, some of which are not spicy. These are used depending on the region the food is made in,” he adds. Some like food writer and author Nandita Iyer, who aren’t fond of spicy food, feel that foreigners are free to dislike our food, but that doesn’t absolve the columnist from not knowing his basics about the culture and cuisine.

Like Prabhu points out though, there are things that remain unfamiliar and will continue to be labelled “exotic”. “Many internationally-renowned chefs I’ve spoken to say that while Indian food has gone global, it is largely in cosmopolitan cities like New York where you find an understanding that goes beyond “curry” and “chilli hot”. Outside of it, the understanding of its nuances remains minimal,” she says.


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