OFS Kitchen Table Report (No. 2)

Diaspora as a force for change
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Clockwise: Munira Mahmoud, Devaky Sivadasan, and Asma Khan

We were privileged to have three remarkable women for the second OFS Kitchen Table to talk about “Women and Diaspora : Making – Do and Rebuilding, For Food, With Food”

Hosted by the formidable Asma Khan, Munira Mahmoud and Devaky Sivadasan intimately shared their stories of how they started their lives again from zero, in a foreign place, amidst a foreign culture, a language unknown to them, unfamiliar smells and tastes. How, through food, they kept themselves together under hardship, overriding all obstacles.

If you missed being there virtually, following is a digest of the talking-points from the chatline…
For the full experience of Kitchen Talk check yourself in at https://vsymp.oxfordsymposium.org.uk/event/

Asma

At first when I opened my restaurant I stayed in the background. Then I thought, why am I hiding? You can’t have my food if you don’t have me.

Chat-line
So true. It’s the case also with so many ethnic communities living in Nepal…

They cannot have my food if they don’t want me. It’s a matter of acceptance…

Accept and also respect – what’s often missing is respect…

Does your flavor and food change people’s mind-set towards more tolerance and accepting each other!?…

Spices help me ‘travel’ In the “before times”, what I brought home from every trip was spices. Now we are using them to marinade our memories and create new landscapes.

Devaky

France has given me the anonymity to be who I want to be. I am a naughty cook – I mix things up – for instance, dried mango powder works brilliantly with rosemary and thyme.

Chat-line
It’s hard to change the psychology of people, especially in France…

It is very difficult to change people’s psychology – anywhere!…

With all that is published on the Internet, there is also so much misinformation about the various cuisines and spices – as a food scientist, I wonder where entrepreneurs like you go for reliable information to substantiate your work?…

Why do you think these three need to substantiate their work?…

People believe chefs more than they believe doctors and the food industry. What they say means more to people everywhere…

The differences are not in ingredients but technique…

Is food a way to integrate more into the community? So diaspora is a way of getting freedom from the constraints of community? Do you feel that people are relating to you differently now that they are more acquainted with your food?

On being a women in a man’s world

Munira

It was the food that kept them coming, that broke that barrier. When people eat, they don’t find it weird.

Asma

There is no box big enough that you can put me into it. I don’t have to burn everything I am to be free. Women educate the next generation – so it’s most important that they accept themselves in all their complex origins.

Devaky

My father told me never to forget that I come from a privileged background – we had a roof over our heads, food on the table, and went to school. There’s always problem with fitting and not fitting. “Fitting in” amongst your own evolves into a challenge. Soon after I opened, a customer came into my restaurant in Marseilles when we were between services, he couldn’t believe that the woman sweeping the floor was the chef-patron.

Chatline
There’s always a problem about who is ‘allowed’ to lead. Applies to science, the Arts, industry etc….

On ‘ethnic’ versus fine-dining’

Chatline
Do you have your brand and copyright ?..seems to me the differences are in technique…

Isn’t the racism in eating reflected in the attitude of “ethnic food” vs fine dining? It is hard, I understand, to convince some to pay above fast food prices for “ethnic food” – separated from cuisine. Sometimes? No question that that terrible name “ethnic food” is disparaging and people won’t pay properly for it. See Krishnendu Ray’s writing about it…

Yes — The Ethnic Restauranteur by Ray is foundational…

I think it would be really interesting to discuss what would be a better term than ‘ethnic’ food, or should we really not lump it all together and identify each food-culture or, as I sometimes say, “non-classical fine dining”?…

Someone gave a testimony for my food. calling it “amazing oriental food”…

How about “International food”? I struggle with this too…

What technique can you use to sell culture within food?…

There’s also the issue of cultural appropriation: from chicken tikka to bagels (with bacon?!)…

Just call it fine dining. No need to say “non-classical”…

Instead of ‘ethnic’ what about global majority food, to borrow from critical race studies…

Or just call it ‘food’….“Fine dining” equals white dining…

A similar discrimination exists in the Chinese culture within the Chinese community – many Chinese people raised in the West are referred to as ”bananas” – yellow on the outside, white on the inside…

I worked with a mixed team – Ugandan, Bangladeshi, Nepali, English, Bhutanese – it was very challenging dynamics. But worked out in the end, just people working together, one goal, sitting down to eat every day for 8 weeks; but we all had a common thread of experience of displacement…

I find ‘global’ better than ‘international’ -important to keep it more general…

I don’t agree that white dining and fine dining are synonymous. Many cuisines have more everyday family food, street food, bistro like food and fine dining, Indian, Ethiopian, surely this applies to all food.

On colour in people and food

Chat-line
The prejudice against skin colour even extends, albeit hardly comparable, to food, mainly grains and seeds. Instead of valuing their brown, black etc skins, ‘refined’ white food is considered ‘better’. In fact it is denatured, vastly reduced in fibre and phytonutrients which are concentrated in those beautiful richly coloured skins and now recognised as vital for our health and immunity. Maybe because rich and powerful people of ancient cultures sought to distinguish themselves? Would love to know…

There does seem to be a general cultural prejudice that prefers light to dark in skin colours, foods etc – I wonder whether it is perhaps ultimately associated with the fact that we are drawn to light – ie our life comes from the sun?!…
The bias towards dark color also extends to foods. Dark colored grains used to be shunned until recently, when someone decided that “ancient grains” must be fashionable and “good for you”…
In Iceland, many people prefer a white lamb’s head to a dark one – and the white-skinned side of a plaice to the dark-sided.

On the shared language of food

Asma

Food is our most profound shared language. If you sit at my kitchen table, I will take you away to a different culture.

Chatline
Food is nostalgia and a massive part of all our identities. I arrived in the UK more than 20 years ago, and a constant search for Balkan foods which weren’t and still aren’t that easy to come by at led me to meet and visit parts of London I probably wouldn’t have seen had it not been for my nostalgia…

How does the search for foods, ingredients, tastes that you miss and want to cook with, drive your exploration of places/towns/countries you live in?…

Asma said how damaging it is to separate food from people, and as an Irish woman living in a post-colonial country, where we had 700 years of British rule, our food history was fully disrupted. It is only in recent years that we as a country are discovering our Irish food and able to be proud of it…

There is a famous Turkish singer, she says: You can take your recipes and songs with you, not your cupboards…

Annalakshmi is a very interesting initiative in Tamil Nadu. It is a very nice restaurant run by women – housewives, destitute women, grandmas, just anyone who wants to cook. The restaurant has been for many decades and has many branches…

For me, food gave me the comfort of home while breaking away from its confinements…

Spices help me travel.

The next Kitchen Table is on 16th December 17:00 – 18:30 (UK time) Shared Visions: Expressions of hope through food on the table.