Turmeric and white colonialism of food

In the last few years, the popularity of turmeric has surged in the western world. What was once a common spice in Asian and Middle Eastern households across the world has now been touted as a “health food” by people in the West. It is considered an anti-inflammatory, a spice capable of keeping colds and viruses at bay, potentially even able to help prevent diseases from heart disease, cancer, breathing problems, and even Alzheimer’s. People are adding it to literally everything: their smoothies, oatmeal, lattes, and even as a TOPPING on their dishes the way most people add scallions or cilantro to top Asian dishes, or the way Westerners might add salt and pepper to taste at the end. It has become a borderline insane obsession which absolutely need to stop.

Turmeric is primarily added to Asian and Middle Eastern foods for its bright yellow/orange color. It is always added in small quantities because the flavor of the dried form on its own is, to be frank, just like sawdust — woody, earthy, musty, like dirt (the actual fresh, raw turmeric is a different story, with a flavor that is more earthy and pungent). It is always, always paired with a pepper, whether it’s cayenne or black pepper, because the heat of the pepper “activates” the health benefits of the turmeric spice itself. It’s NOT a spice that you take a pinch of and throw in your mouth because it tastes delicious. This is not cinnamon. It’s NOT cardamom. It is turmeric. Have some respect for this spice and use it properly.

So I was a little disturbed, no, EXTREMELY disturbed, when I saw that #thestew was trending on social media. Apparently, some out-of-this-world coconut milk turmeric chickpea stew that the New York Times food writer Alison Roman had published was becoming a sensation in kitchens across America. It was like she had created this stew that just knocked everyone’s socks off. I didn’t understand it: it sounded like some basic, plainer iteration of the intensely flavorful chickpea curries I’d eaten in Indian cuisine. What the heck made this different, other than the fact that she dumbed down the Indian versions and used canned chickpeas?

Granted, I like a lot of Alison Roman’s recipes, particularly her American/European-influenced dishes. They’re flavorful, hearty, and seem well balanced. But this recipe, after reviewing it, just seemed so incredibly boring and like a knock-off of Indian recipes that Indian households and people have been making for hundreds of years. And the worst part: when I actually watched her video on YouTube where she’s making it, she actually had the gall to use turmeric powder as a garnish, as in… SHE SPRINKLED THE EQUIVALENT OF A TABLESPOON OF TURMERIC ON TOP OF THE CURRY STEW.

NO ONE DOES THAT, EVER. PLEASE, NEVER, EVER DO THAT WITH TURMERIC. It felt insulting to South Asian cuisine and to South Asians to me, and I am not even South Asian. A number of Indian views who commented on the video had the exact same sentiments that I have noted here. I have no problem with and encourage people to eat and make food from cultures that are not their own because eating another person’s food is the easiest and best way to learn about another’s culture and perspective. I make Mexican Indian, Middle Eastern, etc., food, all the time; I do not identify as having roots in those countries. However, taking that culture’s food, butchering it, and then claiming it as your own is a completely different story, one that borderlines being the food equivalent of white colonialism in the epicurean world. She’s a white woman recipe creator, so of course, other white people are going to find that version of that stew far more approachable and will be more likely to make and eat it. And this just sits oddly on my shoulders.

The turmeric being sprinkled on the top was really the last straw, and I had to exit out of that video immediately.

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