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Not Michelin worthy – Racism in the kitchen

door Linda Terrizzi

Ethnic food has to be adapted to the Western taste. Only then does it count on the world stage. Not my words, but the prevailing thought.

Did you know… there are only two black chefs from a Michelin star restaurant in the UK?

Did you know that… the term 'ethnic food' is often the kiss of death is for a restaurant, because it is paid 30% to 50% less than for European food?

And did you know that… TV Kok Ainsley Harriot was not believed when he said he was trained in French cuisine and was often told: "Shouldn't you be cooking Jerk Chicken?"

I should have left it

The events of the past few weeks have naturally made me think. I always like to take the time to do this, so that I can formulate my opinion in a more balanced way. I don't know much about things like racism at work because I haven't come into contact with it myself. What I do know about (and perhaps what gets little attention in this discussion) is racism in the kitchen.

I recently spoke to many people in the United States food industry and again and again the same problem arose:

"African, South Asian and Caribbean food is seen as inferior."

And although a few years ago I had firmly resolved not to throw the bat in the chicken coop too often (something with ground level and heads protruding above it), I found this problem too great not to address.

In the words of Ricky Gervais: “I should have left it…” but I don't do it. Maybe I will get a lot of misery over me again, but I think this is too important not to share.

Ethnic food has to be westernized to make it 'digestible'

What is this delusion that a traditional kitchen from a country in Africa, South Asia, the Middle East or the Caribbean has to adjust its kitchen to count? Why are French / European influences on our dishes seen as improvement or progress? Where is the respect for the history and pure flavors of a dish?

An Indian curry needs to be less sharp and the amount of spices has to become 'more refined'. The Antillean way of preparing fish (fried in oil) is not fancy enough. And African dishes become a little more accessible when everyone gets their own, beautifully made plate and people no longer eat together from one bowl.

The flavors, customs and layout of the food from all over the world must be adapted to the Western standard (and more specifically, the French - because just for fun, see how few restaurants in Spain and Italy have a Michelin star!) to count. That is quite something…

No respect for history

You would almost think that the people who look down on the traditional method of preparation and taste have no idea that the cuisines of colonized countries are based on oppression, poverty and misery. (Yes, that was meant to be sarcastic)

Take our 'sòpi mondongo". This is a traditional soup with beef tripe as the main ingredient. The different stomachs of the cow are washed, cut into pieces and cooked for a long time with different vegetables and herbs. You can rightly do that acquired taste to mention.

Then there are chefs who think that such a dish should be made a bit lighter, a bit more Western, a bit more luxurious. They add meat to it for extra flavor and texture. Or other new ingredients will be added. And there you have it: a renewed dish. Better and more refined than the original!

Small detail: the 'sòpi mondongo 'is a dish that the slaves used to make. While the master and his family were eating meat, the guts of the slaughtered animal were given to the slaves. They, in turn, made the most of it and that is how the soup was created.

Doesn't it almost feel like sacrilege to add meat to a dish with such a history? As far as I'm concerned, it takes the awareness, or the almost ceremonial, out of the meal. It's like adding meat to a dish traditionally eaten by Catholics during the fast. Tasty, but wrong.


You get ethnic food at the toko

As I already wrote, I recently spoke to many people who work in the non-Western catering industry. And over and over there came the same words:

“People are not willing to pay a lot of money for Indian (or Antillean, Surinamese, Cape Verdean, Afghan) food. They are used to paying high sums in French restaurants, but our food is always considered street food, and it has to be cheap ”.

That is why I wrote earlier that the stamp 'ethnic' for many restaurants means that structurally less money comes in than with the Western neighbor. You can get Surinamese food at a toko or, ahead, a take-away shop. Or else affectionately call it a eatery, but not a restaurant.

Unjustly, because the ingredients of the dishes are often just as high-quality and… a lot of 'ethnic food' (practice, I get the jitters of that word) is made by hand from start to finish.

Why is one Antillean croquette more expensive than a Dutch one? Because the Dutch croquette comes from the factory and the Antillean croquettes are rolled by hand one by one. Please note: by someone who lives in the Netherlands and should therefore receive a decent hourly wage to be able to eat at all. Good morning!

This is the reason that many who focus on making food from a 'non-Western' country work long hours and can only live on what they earn. And that is also the reason that many chefs and entrepreneurs, disillusioned, close their restaurant with a heavy heart after a while.

The term ethnic is disparaging

While we are at it: the term ethnic (as in ethnic food) may be abolished as far as I am concerned. What the heck is ethnic food? The term is used for a meal from Iraq, Curaçao or Ghana… but not for a meal from Italy, France or the Netherlands. Why?

Just for fun, consider which kitchens you would like to place in the 'ethnic' category. Chances are that you will end up exactly on the kitchens from countries in Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and the Caribbean.

By calling something 'ethnic', you create a dichotomy. On the one hand are the normal, accepted, well-known cuisines (not necessarily from our own country, but always European) and on the other hand… uhhh… yes, the rest of the world. All those cuisines from all those countries from all those continents – they don't deserve their own name, they are 'ethnic'.

Attention to traditional kitchens

Innovation and change is fun, but first let's pay attention to traditional kitchens. Can you call me 5 traditional dishes from Senegal's kitchen? No? Then you do not (yet) have to deal with a 'modern twist' on it.

Do you know the large Surinamese cookbook by heart? No? Then start with that and then possibly continue with roti calzone and 'pom' made of potato. The latter was a joke eh, Jen - do you understand?

PHOTOS: August de Richelieu


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