Appropriation and dissociation of food from its roots

Photo featuring South Indian dishes sambar, rasam, rice, and appalam. Sambar, rasam, rice, and appalam | Roshni Karthikeyan

Once I moved away from home and my mom’s food to college, was when I first started cooking at all. I was never taught to cook as a child and being the ignorant teen feminist rebel I was, I wanted to break all shackles on how women “should” know to cook. After some unlearning and epiphanic understanding I realized it’s a survival skill that everyone, irrespective of gender, should possess (if interested, of course). For me, what started off as a simple dosai and thakkali thokku to support my student life, soon turned into experimental cooking, baking, and a meditative happy place. This post has been locked away in my draft for so long and Gene Weingarten’s opinion in The Post really ignited me to get this out in the world.

When I moved to the US, little did I know about cultural appropriation let alone how it steeped into food. You see, Indian food to me is a whole range of cuisines, cultures, spices, smells, and tastes from across India. Each state, if not home, has a unique food culture replete with the grains, fruits and vegetables, and spices specific to that region. However, here in the US, Indian food is reduced to mean “naan bread”, “butter chicken”, “chai tea”, and the like with a spice level of 1-5 to choose from. Trust me, I have nothing against naan or butter chicken (maybe except that I’m a vegetarian) and definitely not against a good cup of masala tea, except that it doesn’t even begin to represent the diversity of Indian food. If this is the only definition of Indian food, where does my moru moru dosai and thakkali thokku belong? Of course it’s a brand unto itself — “South Indian food”. And you can repeat what I said about representation here once again.

While I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this misrepresentation for almost four years now, there are also Indian restaurants, cafes, drinks, recipes, and more prepared and marketed by, and to be palatable for the (mostly white) American population. From “turmeric lattes”, “spiced chai tea lattes”, to “turmeric chickpeas”, “lentil soup”, “goat yoga” and whatever not, almost every aspect of my culture has been and continues to be appropriated. Spices and foods specific to the entirety of Indian culture are cooked, served, and marketed by and for the larger American population that also profits out of my culture.

And, somehow, in 2021, this is still the representation that the West sees of India — a naan and butter chicken eating Hindi-speaking cab-driver immigrant with a kid who’s to soon become a doctor or software engineer — because why the hell not! Mispronouncing and mocking our names to the point of having separate coffee shop names, mispronouncing and appropriating our food, culture, well, it is just plain lazy.

How can you be and do better though? What’s the line between enjoying a culture and appropriating/profiting from it? Do your research, give credits where it’s due, and put some effort into learning that naan already means bread, and chai is something that’s made with milk and tea. This is barely scratching the surface of it all. If you can help it, DON’T make money from appropriating another culture. And if you can’t, make sure you do due diligence to the work you do and be earnest. Here are some examples to get you started — it’s not okay for you to say wrong Sanskrit yoga chants and look at your Indian peer for validation, it’s not okay to expect praise from us for you doing the bare minimum of getting our names right, and certainly not okay to start blaring Bollywood music just because we’re around. And, maybe just don’t explain our culture to us.

Also, bonus point, not every Indian dish is a curry. It is, on a racist scale of 1-5, a 500.