In April 2018, Masterchef UK judge Gregg Wallace achieved the impossible. He united two camps that up until then had seemed totally incompatible: Indonesian and Malaysian foodies.
Before this moment, these two neighbouring countries bickered a lot. Mainly about their cultural heritage: And then “the culinary culture wars” erupted: “Who really invented rendang?”
The beef (pardon the pun) between the two countries came to a grinding halt when judge Wallace claimed that the rendang presented on the show by contestant Zaleha Kadir Olpin was not crispy enough. Rendang, as you may or may not know, is a stew. The statement by the celebrity chef and food judge led to a united Indonesian-Malaysian internet attack to roast the ill-informed judge. Which seems completely justified if you ask me. The online debate escalated even more when Malaysian Prime Minister Mohammed Najib Tun Razak joined the discussion by posting photos of his home-made rendang.
This anecdote shows how much food culture is intertwined with our identity and how sensitive the topic really is. As the daughter of a first-generation Singaporean immigrant, I resonate with this as I was naturally raised with the love and appreciation of herbs and spices of my culture and something that has always reminder me of my family’s home country.
When you leave your own country for an unknown future, you naturally cling to what you know and are only too happy to share it with anyone who is open to it. And you do so with pride! There is no better catalyst for nostalgic sentiments than the delicious smells and tastes of food from home.
It will come as no surprise that my family, like so many people with Asian ancestry, take an empty suitcase to Singapore just to bring it back stuffed with noodles, dried meat, and delicious spices. We are often the reason that the customs check takes so long — we would rather risk getting a fine than return without a gold mine of traditional ingredients. So for this I would like to apologise on behalf of my fellow country-men and women.
At Chuck Studios, I devise Culinary Identities for food brands. This means that, from a professional point of view, I delve into eating habits, recipes, the presentation of food and the emotional layers involved in the preparation and enjoyment of it. In this context, I find myself increasingly dealing with cultural appropriation, a concept that has spread from the American fashion and entertainment world into every aspect of our lives. There was no term for it for a while, but it has been there for a long time.
Cultural appropriation lurks when a dominant culture adopts the habits of a non-dominant culture, without understanding or respecting the original culture and context. Think of white entrepreneurs who start a company that builds on a non-white kitchen and introduces it as if they were the discoverers or refiners of it — like in a colonial Columbus tradition-kind of way. White people who feel they should or can “improve” heritage kitchens is problematic to say the least. There is a wafer-thin line between appreciation or appropriation, celebrating or profiting, and respecting or stereotyping.
Hema, a Dutch retailer, introduced a roti without the actual roti. Roti literally means ‘bread’ in Hindi. So how on earth could they have ‘forgotten’ this ingredient, it’s in its name. Albert Heijn, the biggest Dutch supermarket chain, introduced a Phô with a stock without star anise, cardamom, or cinnamon, despite these being the exact spices that give the dish the characteristic Phô flavour. On top of it all, the supermarket chain used egg noodles instead of rice noodles. It’s like swearing in a Vietnamese Church.
The food, marketing and advertising industry doesn’t just answer the needs and wants of consumers. We create demand that doesn’t exist yet. We introduce new products and differentiate with brands. Surinamese, Chinese, and Indonesian cuisines have become part of the Dutch food culture because of this.
This naturally influences the variety of culinary options available to consumers. So just do your research and don’t make rookie mistakes. It all starts with putting together a diverse and inclusive team. An empowered Surinamese or Vietnamese R&D specialist would have instantly slammed on the brakes on any of the examples I just mentioned. And if brands still want to give their own twist to dishes, which is possible, just call it something else.
I’m not saying that as a brand you should sort through your products like the luggage checkers searched through our suitcases. I’m also not saying — God forbid — that dishes are no longer allowed to travel between countries, on the contrary, food shouldn’t be static. But look at the book “Indorock” by Vanja van der Leeden. She gives a new twist to classic Indonesian dishes based on deep knowledge, appreciation and love. What matters to me is the way in which this is introduced, presented and approached. It is, for lack of a better word, about respect.
Food brings people together. Interaction between cultures is essential for developing understanding and empathy. I therefore call on all innovative and beautiful food brands to just do a little bit better. Because before you know it, the Indonesian and Malaysian TikTok foodies will be knocking on your door, and you’ll be even worse off than Judge Wallace.