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The Taste of Controversy: Is Padma Lakshmi Justified in Taking Down Washington Post Columnist Who Sneered at ‘Curry’?

The Taste of Controversy: Is Padma Lakshmi Justified in Taking Down Washington Post Columnist Who Sneered at ‘Curry’?

  • The Top Chef’ brings up a good point about how food can and has been seen as a conduit of racial intolerance the world over.

What is too much outrage? Or too little for that matter when it comes to cultural appropriation or racial identity? A few years back Indians the world overtook up a huge affront to showcasing their beloved and venerated gods and goddesses Ganesh, Krishna and Lakshmi depicted as art on flip-flops and bikinis. Then, in 2015 French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published satirical caricatures of Prophet Mohammed – huge uproar in the Islamic world and 12 people were killed and countless injured as a result.

And of course, the movie “The Last Temptation of Christ” was universally condemned for its depiction of Jesus as a human being with warts and all, portrayed by the amazing Willem Dafoe. Remember singer Sinead O’Conner? She of the ripping-picture-of-Pope fame whose career virtually ended after that infamous incident. And of course, Native Americans are still trying to reclaim their names from sporting giants who refuse to see the gravity of why Native Americans should be outraged by Cleveland Indians, Washington Redskins and Kansas City Chiefs. My point being collective outrage over cultural or religious inference is nothing new. But it does lead to the question of when and where do the outrage end and freedom of expression reigns supreme.

Regarding Charlie Hebdo, I condemned the senseless killings of the magazine’s journalists over the caricatures. But was it ok to depict a religious head in sexually explicit materials as a way to poke fun of nearly half the population of this world who follow that religion? And if that is freedom of expression, then why is Christ not seen since in the same breath?

Willem Dafoe’s Christ in “The Last Temptation of Christ” was seen with a prostitute and that ignited a rage in the Christendom probably not seen since the Middle Ages. I exaggerate of course! Religious fanaticism is abhorrent, extremism amongst Hindus, Muslims, Christians is a problem in today’s world and we have to balance out the freedom of expression with communal sensibilities at some level to coexist. The Indian government banned the purchase and sale of beef because the majority Hindus regard the cow as God-like, knowing fully well the meat is consumed only by the minority Muslims – how is that government-sponsored act not seen as freedom of expression or freedom to eat what we like?

On a more mundane front, I recently got a chance to read chef extraordinaire and media personality Padma Lakshmi’s op-ed, taking down Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gene Weingarten’s column headlined “You can’t make me eat these foods,” published in The Washington Post Magazine about his aversion to Indian food. She took affront to his clubbing all Indian food under the word “curry” – a word in itself highly inaccurate to describe ALL Indian food as “curry” and also because it does carry a ton of racial baggage since the British coined the word, and took it back to England after being soundly kicked out of India in 1947.

Lakshmi certainly knows something about Indian food – sarcasm intended – as the author of several books, including “The Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs” and the upcoming children’s book “Tomatoes for Neela”, apart from being the host and executive producer of “Taste the Nation” on Hulu and “Top Chef” on Bravo.

Weingarten believes that Indian food is “the only ethnic cuisine in the world insanely based entirely on one spice” — curry. And this was his first gastro-epistemological mistake as the world knows — or should — India is a vast country and every region, in a space of few miles, has its own herbs and spices that constitute the cuisine of that region. Clubbing ALL Indian cuisines as curry is not just incorrect but inherently flawed. Curry is a spice blend, each region and every household holding tight to its own generational special blend.

There is no one-size-fits-all in Indian cuisine as it does in my humble opinion say Italian food or heaven-forbid even French (how many different types of Italian, French, or German chicken can you seriously make!) Weingarten gets better in the article: “If you think Indian curries taste like something that could knock a vulture off a meat wagon, you do not like Indian food,” he wrote. I’ll agree with Lakshmi that this journalist did not do his research well before condemning all of the Indian food to the coalpits of culinary hell. To call Indian spices curry is to call all French cuisine pastry.

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But more importantly, Lakshmi brings up a good point about how food can and has been seen as a conduit of racial intolerance the world over. There is a commonly held belief that all immigrant food is either “exotic” and therefore inedible or that it “stinks.” Most of my fellow Indians find all Chinese markets “stinky.” Americans abhor garlic breath, while horse meat maybe gourmet meat in Europe, dog or snake meat in the Far East, is considered “abhorrent,” eating shrimps or crayfish is kosher but its land counterparts like crickets and other critters are looked down upon — I absolutely cannot chew on cooked snails! But it is gourmet eats by many, especially if you present them as escargots on the menu!

And yes, we should stop calling “other” cuisine ethnic or exotic. Remember, to a Chinese, Indian or Japanese person your own cuisine is the “otherness” — he or she will probably run from what’s on your plate.

(Top photo, courtesy Padma Lakshmi, Instagram)

Kuhu Singh lives in Eden Prairie, Minn., a suburb of the Twin Cities. Bidding adieu to journalism a decade ago, she nonetheless loves to write and express her very strong opinions on social media and blogs and sometimes in a few Indian publications. She is a Senior Digital Marketing Manager for a broadcast retail company. Race relations, diversity, social issues fascinate and roil her into action. She volunteers her time with certain political organizations and community organizations.

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