The Cultural Appropriation of My Lunch

What I hear when you tell me my food is ‘strong smelling’

Photo: Pille-Riin Priske/Unsplash

“Cultural appropriation is when members of a dominant culture adopt parts of another culture from people that they’ve also systematically oppressed. The dominant culture can try the food and love the food without ever having to experience oppression because of their consumption.”

—Rachel Kuo

BBefore I left my home in Mumbai to study in the Netherlands, I thought the idea of cultural appropriation of food was outright bogus. I was working as a food writer for a startup back then, and I often wrote about new restaurants serving foreign food across the city.

I believed that food was a way to bring people across the world closer to one another. I believed that everyone was free to eat, cook, write about, and sell whatever food they wanted to. I still do.

Things changed when I moved abroad. My food, which I love, became a source of embarrassment. The lunches I brought to work attracted unwanted attention.

Once, I met a friend for coffee before an afternoon class, having just had lunch at home. “Why are the tips of your fingers yellow?” she asked, inspecting my digits.

“It’s because I cooked with turmeric,” I told her.

“Do you add turmeric to your food with all your fingers?” she probed in good humor.

I felt uneasy at the thought of admitting that my fingers were yellow because I had just eaten dal and rice with them. When I did tell her, she responded that, as a child, her mom would give her a rap on the knuckles if she dared abandon her fork and knife. I felt a metaphoric rap on my knuckles, too.

She probably noticed the crestfallen look on my face, and was quick to add an apologetic “I love curry, though,” before steering the discussion elsewhere.

MyMy tiny university town doesn’t have many late-night food options. The lone Turkish kebab spot is one of the only restaurants that caters to the post-party crowd. One evening, I found myself there with a Dutch friend who’d had one too many beers.

“The only reason our government lets ‘these people’ stay is the food! So bloody good!” he exclaimed.

He wrote to me the next day to apologize for the “rude comment.” He blamed the beer. I couldn’t help but wonder, though, if his words betrayed his true feelings about Turkish immigrants. Does he tolerate them only because he likes doner kebab?

It reminded me of Donald Trump’s taco bowl tweet. I hope my friend never runs for political office.

Beyond casual outings with friends, these incidents happen in professional settings as well.

Earlier this year, I attended a symposium in Amsterdam. The speakers were brilliant, the event was well-curated, and the audience was participative. Everything was going well until lunch break. I hadn’t been sure if lunch was included, so I’d packed some of the previous evening’s pulav (rice cooked with spices and vegetables). The symposium did provide lunch, but rather than waste the pulav, I decided to eat it. I found a microwave, warmed my lunch, and joined other attendees in the makeshift lunchroom. I moved around with my lunchbox, networking, socializing.

Halfway through, a senior staff member from the organizing team approached me and asked about my lunch. “It’s an old building. We don’t have the best ventilation. Smells tend to stay, you know.”

I didn’t know what to say. To me, my pulav smelled delicious. Doesn’t all food smell?

It’s unclear to me why my eating habits hinge on someone else’s approval.

“Personally, I have no problems with strong-smelling foods,” she continued. “I live right next to an Indian restaurant, and we end up eating there often because it smells so nice. It’s just the time and place that’s a problem.”

I ate the rest of my lunch in the washroom, thinking about how, next time, I’d have to plan on the right time and place to eat my food.

TThese are only a handful of the many experiences I’ve had involving food and cultural appropriation. They make me feel like I need permission to be proud of my cuisine and eating habits—but this permission seems to be granted at the whim of others.

As a result, I’ve become increasingly protective of Indian food while living abroad. I am quick to rebuke friends and acquaintances for eating roti and rice like a burrito. I get upset when they call anything and everything Indian “curry.” And I snap when someone tries to school me about turmeric latte or curry powder.

Every time my European friends tell me they love Indian food, I wonder if they’d feel the same way if I ate with my fingers in their company, or if they caught a whiff of my masala-laden food anywhere other than at an Indian restaurant. It’s unclear to me why my eating habits hinge on someone else’s approval. I’m not asking anyone else to alter their food culture to suit me.

I have begun trying to be more approachable and less angry, though—more prepared to explain and reason, less defensive and flustered. On most days, I seem to be making progress.

But then I read about Gordon Ramsay telling foreigners how to cook their own food and it all goes downhill again.

Research scientist, first-generation migrant, feminist. I write about food — sustainability, science, and culture.

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