Food is Identity.
Years ago when I was in school, a new girl had just joined the class, she was from the North East of India. On her first day she brought two small tiffin boxes, the first had rice and the second had a vegetable curry which looked very different to the normal Indian curries we were used to, immediately the other students started to talk about how her food looked vague and disgusting, remarks were made about how her food was “yucky”. The girl ignored the comments and went on eating her food but ensured that the next day and every day after that, she only brought sandwiches or rotis- food which looked normal to everyone else.
I was once in a conference where students from across India were present, it also happened to be during the Harvest Festival of Pongal, during this festival, a traditional rice pudding is made with sugar and coconut, a few of the Tamil delegates were kind enough to give everyone a small bowl of Pongal. As I was eating it, a person sitting next to me loudly said “This tastes like crap! I don’t want to eat this!” Do these people even know how to make pudding!?”
I was once very excited to try out a new cafe in the city which focused on African food, I was telling my friend about it when he replied “African food!? That’s so gross, I’ve heard they eat wild animals there!”
Yet another time, a Punjabi boy in my class brought his mother’s home made Sarso ka saag– a leafy curry, the moment he opened his lunch box, half the class decided to walk out of the room because they could not bear to “look at it at”.
I was once out with a group of friends and one of my friends was a Bengali, he was the nicest person you would ever meet. As we sat to order, another boy in the group proclaimed loudly “Hey! We have a Bengali with us! He only eats fish and mustard!”. The group laughed but I could see the boy’s visible embarrassment.
Another time a friend from South East Asia was visiting us and another person remarked that no restaurants in the city served insects, implying that people from that region survived on a diet of roaches and flies, not only was the comment insulting but was also factually wrong.
Food is a very visible part of our identity, it’s sometimes the only connection many of us have with our cultures and nationalities. It is therefore something that is extremely personal to many of us. Food is often seen as something people do not bother too much about, it is seen as non-political but the above instances prove that food is sometimes the most political variable in our lives, when we talk about someone’s diet, we are directly referencing to their identity, it is therefore extremely important to talk with caution when we talk to someone about their food. Anti-Racism is commonly defined as not seeing differences among people based on their skin colour or nationality, we often forget the other variables through which we can be racist- language, food, clothing, accent and even common etiquette. Common misconceptions and stereotypes exist about the food people eat, some foods are seen as acceptable foods whereas some are seen as grotesque and disgusting, some foods are viewed as nourishing and vibrant whereas some are seen as gross. When we insult someone’s food or eating habits, we indirectly insult their culture, their past, their experiences and their existence. It is very easy to isolate groups of people and invoke racist messages through food. We need to not only start accepting the foods of other people as normal but we also need to start exploring the diets of other people, only then can we break the culinary stereotypes which exist.
This however is an universal problem, it stems from age old misconceptions and ideas, it is upto us to start breaking down these walls. Don’t gross at your colleagues lunch, don’t gross at the new food menu at the cafeteria having dishes from various places, don’t gross when someone offers you food from their hometowns, don’t gross when people tell you about their traditional foods- Food is an integral part of our identity, insulting food choices amounts to racism.