Food

Perspective | Padma Lakshmi says disparaging Indian food isn’t funny. It’s ugly.

Comedy, when done well, has the power to transmute our personal and collective pain. From slapstick to satire to memes, it can be a balm, a moment of catharsis to punctuate the often-cruel and random nature of life, reminding us of our common humanity.

But instead, Gene Weingarten’s column headlined “You can’t make me eat these foods,” published in The Washington Post Magazine, is unintentional anti-humor, regurgitating an unimaginative, racist joke with no punchline.

In his weekly column, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist produced a coarse list of things that he doesn’t like to eat: Old Bay Seasoning and bleu cheese, but also “Indian food” as a whole. That’s when the self-described “epistemologist” — one who studies the construction of knowledge — betrayed himself as a man who does not think to do a rudimentary Google search on something about which he knows nothing.

He wrote that Indian food is “the only ethnic cuisine in the world insanely based entirely on one spice”: curry.

“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 don’t get it, as a culinary principle.”

My issue is not his performative contrarianism (though it is tedious) or that the Indian cuisines he has tasted did not please him — but that his writing, besides being racist and lazy, is simply not funny.

For generations, people have slung racist insults about the “stinky” foods of immigrants: Italians with garlic, Irish with cabbage, Koreans with kimchi and, yes, South Asians with curry. It was never funny.

On the heels of a pandemic that particularly devastated India and a cultural reckoning with racist structures in the United States, mischaracterizing and denigrating the food of 1.3 billion Indians is not a good look.

I’ve seen similar drivel pass for good copy over the years. But again, this was published in The Washington Post this week, not muttered as a throwaway line at the Cleveland Chuckle Hut in 1982. (Or maybe it was, who can say?)

What’s puzzling is that editors and copy editors let his words through. Does The Post still have so little diversity among editors that this mini-screed raised no red flags? The paper issued a correction about the factual errors, but not the root of the issue: the bigotry.

A quick review on curry: It was a term first coined by European colonizers in 1500s India to describe all the sauce-based dishes they found. The British then commercialized and sold a spice blend under the name “curry powder,” what you see in your basic grocery store today. “Masala” (as in garam masala) is the Hindi word for spice or spice blend.

As renowned Indian actress and food expert Madhur Jaffrey wrote in “An Invitation to Indian Cookery” in 1973, “ ‘Curry powder’ attempts to oversimplify (and destroy) the cuisine itself.” Over the years there has been a direct link between the word “curry” and racial slurs. Indians who migrated to England and other colonies were called “curry-munchers” by bigots.

Today, Indians distinguish between dry curry (a kind of stir-fry with spices, such as beans poriyal, with coconut, red chiles and mustard seeds) and wet curry (meat or vegetables steeped in a cream-, nut- or tomato-based sauce, such as a korma or jalfrezi).

India is a vast country, with distinct geographic, cultural and linguistic zones, and clear culinary regions. Bengali food is heavy on seafood, mustard seeds and coconut; southerners serve mountains of rice topped with sambar laced with tamarind; Kashmiri food focuses on meat, especially lamb; and my favorite North Indian snack food, chaat, is defined by its thrilling mixture of temperatures, textures (crunchy, crispy and soft) and flavors (hot, sweet, tart and tangy).

But you don’t need me to explain this — you could have found all that on Google.

The type of ignorant energy displayed in this piece was much more pervasive when I started in food 20 years ago, when White male chefs dominated the industry and were the only authors getting book deals. I’m happy to say the landscape has changed somewhat since then, but it’s a constant process. Recently, the restaurant industry and food media have gotten a much-needed wake-up call, from exposing the brownface incident and workplace racism at Bon Appétit to the influx of BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) voices in the culinary world, one of which is my show “Taste the Nation.” People are slowly realizing there’s a lot more to the world of gastronomy than the French, Eurocentric worldview.

After the article was published, Weingarten doubled down in a since-deleted tweet, saying, “Took a lot of blowback for my dislike of Indian food in today’s column so tonight I went to Rasika, DC’s best Indian restaurant. Food was beautifully prepared yet still swimming with the herbs & spices I most despise. I take nothing back.”

When I personally called Weingarten out, he wrote again saying, “From start to finish plus the illo, the column was about what a whining infantile ignorant d—head I am. I should have named a single Indian dish, not the whole cuisine, & I do see how that broad-brush was insulting. Apologies. (Also, yes, curries are spice blends, not spices.)”

I’m absolutely certain there are some young, hungry, comedy writers of color who would love a syndicated column in The Post. In fact, I’ll do an open call on my Twitter! I’m sure we can find someone.

Perhaps a good candidate is the Pakistani writer Shireen Ahmed, who tweeted at Weingarten: “May your rice be clumpy, roti dry, your chilies unforgivable, your chai cold, and your papadams soft.”

Lakshmi is the host and executive producer of “Taste the Nation” on Hulu and “Top Chef” on Bravo, and is the author of several books, including “The Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs” and the upcoming children’s book “Tomatoes for Neela,” available in bookstores on Aug. 31.

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