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The world for some spice

This is a bit of a rant, it was going to be a twitter thread but I realised I had more to say that a few posts so thought I would take the liberty of this space - after all, that is what it is here for.

But, the editing - typos, spelling, phrasing etc - will all be a bit off, as I write this in rant and in rush.

Two things happened yesterday that are connected, and another thing this morning that is adjacent to the same thinking. 

Firstly - 
I listened to Take A Bao podcast (which I am going to write about more Kavey Eats blog for next week), and I was reminded how it is pitched for a global audience, it is talking about global food trends, but what makes is so great is that it completely takes out a western-centric narrative. 

This isn't a food podcast that explores politics, it is a gentle, interesting look at various interesting foods and drinks. It just takes the assumption that Asian foods are interesting to all, and that to talk about it we don't have to exoticise, or dumb down, or place within a western context. And yes, this is a show about Asian food, so why would it need a western-centric narrative? But, it is written for a global audience, and english-speaking global ear. The presenter, Jun, I think is in Malaysia, but has written for (and lived in?) American publications, and the language feels American, and yet it still isn't Western or Global North centric. 

Why? Because it looks to experts all over the world, and gently reminds us that food has a long history across the globe. There is no tone of adventure or of unusual-ness. It takes that stance that the food we are discovering in the episode is 'normal' to someone. 

So what happened yesterday is that I realised I was listening to something that felt familiar to all my worlds, that my experiences of being Asian, in the Global North was a 'normal' thing. I have written in other occasions about holding multiple identities at the same time, as opposed to seeing being mixed-race/cultures as caught in between, and this podcast epitomises this for me. 

Secondly - 
Last night I watched Great British Menu. And dear god, can the British food world please learn to talk about spice? Firstly, there is heat and there are aromas, and other nuances, these are different things. The catch all of 'spice' is lazy.

John Chantarasak was one of the chefs, he is half Thai and from Wales. He trained in Bangkok and has worked predominantly in (very successful) Thai restaurants. His food is reflective of him, it is influenced by Thai and British food culture - I would say that it leans towards Thai food with British produce, but I don't think it needs to boxed up like that (his food is a bowl that holds multiple identities). His food has been enjoyed by a wide range of people, across the world. He has never compromised the way he cooks, and this has been met with pleasure from eaters (Marina O'Loughlin's review of his food is excellent.)

The way chef and judge Lisa Goodwin Allen first spoke about John's food was so poorly phrased. I can't remember the exact wording but it was enough for JB to turn to me and say "a chef should not speak like that about food". I hold my tongue sometimes in these moments, as I know that I am tuned into these nuances - but if a Frenchman, half watching a show whilst he looks on his phone and eats dinner was shocked... well, then, it was bad.

It was framed around her tastes, and that something outside her taste preference was problematic. It was said without contextualising that to balance spices is a skill, it is a skill that all chefs utilise - the balancing of flavours. It is simply that. And, some chefs have a palate for different profile of flavours; and it should be that a good chef can understand a flavour profile even if it is not something they enjoy. Michael O'Hare did better, his feedback was that it was an excellent dish, but the heat was high "I'm a chef, so am used to different flavours but I can only just deal with this heat. Take it down 20% and you'd get 100% enjoyment" (slight paraphrasing). This feedback says it works but it's about a broad audience, and we all know that chefs can be 20% extra on all sorts of things so this feedback felt 'normal'.

Can you imagine if Sommeliers only recommended wine they like? They find pleasure it understanding the different profiles. 

What this does is makes 'spice' an other.

Which, in Britain it is not.

So, if you want to start saying that this is Great British Menu and so what does Thai flavours have to do with Britain - well, John, and all the other British people with Thai heritage, prove that Thai food, Thai people, Thai culture are very much a part of the identity of Britain. To not, is to deny John's identity, legitimacy and British-ness. 

Thailand does not have a colonial history with the UK, but its spices do. The global movement that was colonialism is entrenched in spice, in food in general. The first guild in the UK was the Pepper Guild, for pepper obvs, started in the 1200s, and is now the Guild of Grocers. Christopher Columbus set off to find the a new route to the 'Spice Islands' (which, in a slightly simplified telling, are islands in Indonesia) so that Spanish could get a dominant 'leg over' on the lucrative spice trade that Europe were battling for. New York is what it is because the Dutch traded it with Britain for the Banda Islands in Indonesia for the monopoly of nutmeg. The jostling between Europe for domination over so many spices mean that spices are entrenched in our system, and it's about fucking time we learnt how to talk about it.

These two things are about decolonising our food culture. To make normal diverse food cultures, and understand that the British identity is complex and varied, especially when it comes to food. Decenteralising the food narrative, away from the Western (imagined) idea of what food and flavour is.

Thirdly, Alicia Kennedy's newsletter today. She speaks about 'the gentrified mind' of the food narrative. To me, this sits adjacent to the idea of decolonising food. I am not going to repeat what she says - go read it for yourself. But she investigates the idea of who is allowed to have a voice in this COVID-19 world. It is about unchecked power. The 'leaders' are the people that had voices before, because they are familiar, despite doing nothing to lead and rather are further jeopardising the restaurant industry with harmful practices. 

I felt deeply uncomfortable with the Gabrielle Hamilton NYT piece, despite understanding that it was poignant. I wanted to know why she was allowed to have a voice? Yes, her restaurant might not survive and yes, that is sad and it was great that she asked whether her restaurant was even needed. But, her dealing with the Spotted Pig affair was so, so harmful, that I don't want to hear her voice. I want to hear from people who don't have books published, who haven't had a thriving career until now. Those who have got to survive, now. Those are the voices that need to be heard. 

Why is she allowed to speak for an industry, when she is representative of very few of the people in it?

(I do think that we need to complicate the conversation, therefore I am not saying her piece shouldn't have been run, but it should not have been a voice that was prioritised. Other voices, need to be heard first. We need to see who can be the leaders.)

We need to de-colonialise and de-gentrify our food world, if we can even begin to see a future. 

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