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Why it hurts when they get our food wrong

June 11, 2014

When Marco Pierre White got chicken, rice and peas wrong it genuinely hurt me like racism. Accuse me of trivialising racism. I would not blame you. But there was something so offensive about that mockery of a cookery clip. Rice that looked like it had been regurgitated, the bizarre use of garden peas, the anaemic chicken, the 17 Knorr stock cubes needed to make the dish taste of something other than wallpaper paste – it was such a disgrace.

A jollof rice recipe has been doing the rounds of late. Distributed by it truly is a total bastardisation of the dish. The accompanying picture was shocking, looking as food tends to look when it’s been dropped on the floor and rescued for the homeless, or maybe the birds.

Why does it hurt so much? Why does Twitter and Facebook vent disgust at what is essentially just a misunderstanding. We can’t expect people to understand our food? Surely we should be glad they are just having a go.

No. We should expect more.

Food culture is an oft neglected yet phenomenally important part of our identity as black peoples. They took away our religions, even our names, but much remains. There is nothing more authentic that a steaming pot of palm soup, peppery, rich and tantalising. How satisfying is a plate of rice stained with the goodness of black eyed peas, sweetened with creamy ackee and finished with a sticky, spicy piece of fish or well cooked meat? When I feel dispirited I treat myself to thick slices of soft, plump fried plantains. When I feel OK I just boil them. When I roast aubergines stuffed with scotch bonnets and garlic then scoop out handfuls with roti, I find I run out of roti very quickly. Don’t get me started on the endless enjoyment of stews made with okra and shrimp, or pulses tenderised after slow heating with tomatoes and palm oil…even sardines on toast piques the interest of my taste buds.

All of the above and much more belongs to us, whether of African or Caribbean descent. And it tastes good.

When our recipes are taken, deemed too complicated, and transformed, it stings in the same way our names were taken, deemed too complicated and transformed. It stings in the same way our cultures were taken, deemed too complicated, transformed. It relates to the way our lands were taken and destroyed.

It stinks of disrespect. They would not treat a jalfrezi in this way. You might argue that tikka masala is not an authentic Indian dish, yet it’s Britain’s favourite dish, and Indian communities embrace this. That’s because Indian communities invented it. It’s authentically Indian. It’s an Indian response to the British palate.

Marco Pierre White’s “rice and peas” and the jollof disaster are not Caribbean and West African responses to this country. They are white English responses to us. Staples of our lifestyle, that connect our childhood memories with our adult selves have been taken and put on mainstream platforms in forms that are frankly spurious. Even more insultingly, those who don’t know any better are encouraged to imitate these flavourless offerings. Further misrepresenting our food, our culture, in a way we have no control.

Misrepresentation is the key to both these kitchen calamities. If you want an authentic Jamaican recipe, why not get a Jamaican? If you want an authentic jellof, just ask a Ghanaian (or Nigerian…). If a white face must be the person patronising the viewer, that’s fine. Just check with either of the aforementioned first.

Of course, that sounds too much like hard work. And this is where the real insult is. No Caribbean person on the planet would put bleedin’ Birds Eye peas in rice and peas. And no West African on the planet would produce jellof that’s the same colour as correction fluid. It’s pretty clear to me that not one black person was involved or represented either of those pieces. Not as a consultant. Not as an ingredient supplier. Not even as a taster. We weren’t even considered as an audience either. Black people were wholly absent from the inception to the delivery of those media pieces. We watch, from the outside, as our identities are interpreted on our behalves. If that doesn’t remind you of the racisms we still endure, I don’t know what else will.

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