With more openings than ever in London, styles and operators are becoming more swayed to international trends. The Beaver noticed this recently during his many weekend strolls around the capital to find somewhere new and innovative for lunch with some friends. On his travels, past the various Lebanese, South American and African restaurants, the term ‘cultural appropriation’ came to mind and is something that has exploded in usage recently.
For those that aren’t aware of this term, in its strictest sense, it usually relates to the usage or exploitation of elements of a minority’s culture, by a dominant culture, either for profit or ‘aesthetic’, with no credit being given to the originators. In today’s high street market, this currently involves hipsters reimagining an obscure ethnic dish and stripping it of context, making it unrecognisable to its originators but palatable to Western tastes.
The Beaver took this idea to the dinner table for discussion, where the debate started to heat up. One side claims that the term is almost always used with a sense of moral superiority and is representative of society becoming more politically correct. Adversely, the other side claims that discussions of appropriation must be held as part of a larger dialogue on race, power and privilege.
Regardless of which side of the topic you stand with, these debates raise the interesting question of ‘who does food belong to?’. Some would say that Native Indian headdresses are an important cultural signifier, and thus do not belong on the heads of anybody but Native Indians, but if we follow this argument leeks are just as important to the Welsh, meaning only they should consume them.
The Beaver embraces cultural appreciation rather than appropriation. One of the latest London restaurants to open its doors presents a modern twist on Nigerian flavours. Take plantains, for example – The Beaver usually can pop down to his local market and buy 4 for £1. Traditional Nigerian families will buy these and serve them plain as a side. This new London restaurant, and others like it, have elevated this simple ingredient to fine dining status, with buttermilk and raspberry flavours, encouraging diners to venture out beyond French or modern European options, as it become more appealing and interesting to try. This so-called ‘gentrification’ of food can only be a good thing to encourage guests to experience new cuisines. However, another look at the menu reveals dishes that, while stunning, are far from the traditional dishes found in native home countries, or traditional family habitats.
Nonetheless, The Beaver is delighted to see elements of different cultures receiving attention for the right reasons, with other examples including Turkish, Peruvian and Thai. It is positive news that operators are creating a space for more traditional cuisines on London’s culinary landscape past typical street food vendors, alongside other newcomers such as Eastern Asia. For home cooks, combining elements of different cuisines is a great way to experiment, but for operators this poses new challenges regarding how to do it right.
The rise of social media has shortened the chain of communication between operators and the consumer. A high street operator wishing to launch a colonial Indian inspired tearoom concept could have done so effortlessly years ago. Today, their PR would be in overdrive refuting online allegations of glamourising colonialism. Operators want to deliver fresh new concepts from around the world to the public, but the public has no qualms with taking operators to task via social media over any perceived infractions.
The Beaver believes that consumers look towards authenticity when deciding whether a new food concept is appropriative or not; however, such a loaded accusation needs more rigorous criteria. As the famous philosopher once said: “Is the food imitative or celebrative, or is it claiming certain styles of cooking as its own?” The debate continues…