What Being Mixed-Race Taught Me About Cultural Appropriation In Food
Namely: that we're asking the wrong questions.
December 13, 2017 ● 6 min read
By Yasmin Khan | Photograph by Matt Russell
I was born in London to an Iranian mother and a Pakistani father.
My parents speak six languages between them (English, Farsi, Gilaki, Urdu, Punjabi and Gujrati), representing the spectrum of countries, regions and communities they have lived in. They are influenced by three spiritual beliefs (Shia, Sunni, Zoroastrian) and raised my sister and me within the parameters of at least five value systems (Iranian, Pakistani, British, Islamic, Feminist, Socialist). My very existence is the result of a love that traversed cultural, ethnic, religious and geographic divides, and wrapped my life in a tapestry of influence that affects everything from the clothes I wear, the beliefs I hold, and the food that I cook. Questions of cultural appropriation and assimilation have always been an integral part of my life.
As a family, we spent our evenings vociferously debating the history, politics, and culture of all of the above. We would do so over aromatic Persian stews infused with the earthy, citrusy aroma of dried limes; soothing mung bean dahls spooned over steaming clouds of white rice, and crunchy fillets of battered fish, doused with malt vinegar and served with chunky fingers of chips and mushy peas. As a child, I was hungry for all of it.
The food we ate in our home reflected the ethnically ambiguous space in which we existed. Authenticity had no seat at our kitchen table and we had little patience for it: Our family was a band of pleasure-seeking culinary pirates and took it upon ourselves to borrow, adapt and integrate the culinary lessons we learned from all of our influencing cultures. When Iranian friends came around for dinner they found my mum’s aash-e reshte — a hearty Persian legume, herb and noodle soup — far too spicy for their tastes, thanks to her generous addition of peppery Indian subcontinent spices. My dad’s genetically-ingrained Punjabi love of red meat propelled him to the barbeque as soon as the sun came out, but his kebabs, made with tender pieces of juicy lamb fillet, were enlivened with turmeric, oregano, and sumac, flavors he had fallen in love with in Iran. And when we cooked our Sunday roast, the quintessential British weekend dish, our chicken glistened in the oven with the amber hue of saffron and lemons.
My parents, who had crossed thousands of miles and disparate cultures to be together, installed in us a flexible approach to culinary innovation; embrace what makes you happy, ignore what doesn’t. It’s a philosophy that has served me well in all aspects of my life.
As an adult, my interest in identity issues matured, taking on a more political slant. I studied law and spent a decade working as an activist, campaigning on issues such as racial discrimination in employment, deaths following police shootings, and human rights in conflict zones. I travelled frequently, and my kitchen cupboards soon revealed glimpses of the places I had visited; za’atar from women’s co-operatives in the West Bank, soso kaani hot sauce from extractives industry activists in Senegal, pul biber pepper flakes from trade unionists in Turkey, gajar ke achar carrot pickle from family in Pakistan and endless bottles of pomegranate molasses from my beloved Iran. In my kitchen, flavors that began as relative strangers ended up as happy bedfellows.
After a period, the stressful nature of my work took its toll, and I suffered a debilitating burnout, forcing me to leave the career I adored behind. As part of my recovery, I channeled my love of spices and seasoning into crafting a cookbook which aimed to offer a window into the country of my mother’s heritage. Armed with just a notepad and a bottle of pomegranate molasses, I traveled thousands of miles through Iran, seeking inspiration in the kitchens of home cooks I met along the way. The result is my best-selling book The Saffron Tales, a collection of recipes, travelogues, and photo-essays through which I hoped to inspire non-Iranians to embrace Persian cuisine and challenge stereotypes of this misunderstood and misrepresented country.
A tea harvest in Northern Iran. | Photograph by Sharhzad Darafsheh
For almost four decades, Iran has been demonized in the West, from hostile news reports to aggressive economic sanctions, to the Trump administration’s travel ban. Ask the average person what they think of when they hear “Iran” and chances are they’ll mention nukes, bombs, or angry mobs. But for me, there was always so much more to the country than the narrow political prism of its current government. Iran for me is a playground of rich beauty, exquisite art and intricate architecture, home to stunning natural landscapes of mountains and deserts and rolling hills of rice paddies and tea plantations. Iran smells like sweet young garlic frying in a pan, smoky eggplants charring over hot coals and the floral aroma of rosewater and cardamom rising from a pot of bubbling quince jam. It sounds like laughter and singing and dance.
All immigrant communities in the West have long suffered our food being represented as dirty, smelly or strange, so today, when my Instagram feed fills with vibrant images of fragrant Persian recipes in the kitchens of people in Brooklyn, Berlin or Brisbane, it makes my heart skip with joy. I know that for most of these people, cooking these recipes for their family and friends is their first ever interaction with Iranian culture beyond what they have seen on the news. It is perhaps the only positive connection with Iran they have ever had.
I’m a firm believer that the mainstreaming of culture is one of the important steps in breaking down barriers between communities, and the culinary arts are one the many ways in which we can do this. Many of our society’s most exciting and innovative achievements have resulted from centuries of cross-pollination and for me, this is the upside of cultural appropriation, a debate which seems to have stagnated around one sole issue: whether it is okay or not for white chefs to profit from food cultures they did not grow up in.
For me, this avoids the critical issue faced by chefs of color. It isn’t about whether white chefs should be able to build careers repackaging “ethnic” food. It’s about something much more old-school: racism, power, and representation. These are the terms I would rather us start using. The food industry simply reflects the paradigms of society at large, and too often, across all sectors, the cultures whose ideas gain increasing popularity aren’t the ones reaping the rewards.
We live in a society where the cultural innovation of black communities is not met with black economic success. A society where it is harder for black business owners to get loans to open restaurants. A society where TV broadcasters feel that “ethnic” food can only be made palatable to a Western audience if it is gently introduced by a white, male, chef. A society where the people who make decisions on commissioning articles and giving awards are overwhelmingly white.
Chefs of color still struggle to get the same recognition as their white counterparts, and this should be a source of frustration to many in the industry. I’m nothing short of delighted that today many immigrant recipes and ingredients are finally being mainstreamed and celebrated at the dining tables of all the biggest names in the food industry and in the food media at large. I just wish that more people of color were invited to share the meal.
So, what can be done? If you work in the food media, do an audit of your coverage. Revisit the process through which you hire chefs, writers, editors, filmmakers and other creators of content. And when you do commission people of color, remember we don’t all just want to write about our “ethnic” food. Pigeonholing us doesn’t help. As an industry, we can also broaden the idea of what is worth celebrating—if award ceremonies only focus on high-end eateries, only certain chefs and certain types of cuisines will be recognized. If you work in the industry, you can offer mentoring schemes for up-and-coming chefs from smaller establishments on all aspects of business or introduce people to those in more powerful positions and recommend their work. None of this is rocket science and all of it is achievable.
When I think back to my family’s rowdy dinner table and the melody of culinary influences we embraced, I can only think of the positive attributes that it taught us about our place in the world. Embracing cultural diversity and learning, borrowing and integrating from others celebrates our commonality, something that we need in today’s world more than ever. All I ask is that we recognize that we live in a world where unequal power structures continue to exist, even in the seemingly all-embracing melting pot of the food industry.