Stories are powerful, they shape our cultural identity, teach us how to behave in our communities and tell us what is valuable.
In the process of storytelling, speaking and listening refer to realities that do not involve just the imagination. The speech is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched. It destroys, brings life, nurtures.
~ Trinh 1989:121
Food is one of our biggest stories. Food can be a great unifier, food can be complicated; it crosses continents, blends cultures, and can bring whole worlds together on a plate. A dish is a sum of all its parts, but what stories would those parts tell? What journeys have the individual ingredients travelled to get there?
Stories and food have always travelled together, with the smallest ingredients often travelling the greatest distances. Cinnamon sticks crossed the silk road hand in hand with stories of Marco Polo; nutmeg sailed on East India Company ships; pepper from South East Asian paid rents in Europe’s medieval period; and coffee beans are a black gold that has fuelled global economies since leaving its native home of modern-day Ethiopia.
Over the last few weeks the topic of spice has been in the background of a couple of food conversations in the US and the UK, which got me thinking about how we talk about spice in the West. Although spices have long been part of the lexicon of cooking there is still an exoticism around most of them, and one of the key things I have noticed is how this exoticism is enabled depending on who is cooking with them.
The two situations that I am referring to are the experience of up-and-coming chef John Chantarasak on Great British Menu, and the way media personality Alison Roman appropriates ingredients and flavours in her cooking without references.
Chantarasak was consistently told his food was too hot by the well-known chef judges, and it was often questioned about his use of ‘spice’ – a vague reference when what was really meant was chilli and heat. There was an otherness about the way his food was spoken about, which as any immigrant child will remember the otherness of food gets mapped on to the eater of that food.
Roman’s ‘Stew’ is a chickpea, coconut and turmeric dish which is very reminiscent of curries but by calling it a stew she has stripped any heritage and cultural citation – turmeric is a spice that is present in many South and Southeast Asian dishes.
Modern stories around food are told on Instagram and through newspaper recipe columns, often by celebrated chefs and a small group of influencers and journalists. These storytellers are mostly white, and elevated by a white, or white-lensed, audience. This elevation is often thought of as inherently meritocratic, based on how much these influencers and chefs capture our imagination, but this meritocracy is fictional, and their authority is based on traditional forms of power, that are racial and socio-economic in origin and exercise.
And where does this leave those 1st, 2nd, 3rd generation migrants, not to mention growers and producers of the global south, who get left out of these conversations? They are often left to perform the kind of ethnicity that enables influencers in the West to spin certain stories – this explores Narayan’s (1997) dichotomy between the “material West and the spiritual East“. Korsha Wilson, a food writer who often interrogates the intersections between food, identity and race, said on an episode of her podcast A Hungry Society that we can’t “strip people from food“, a narrative that happens when food culture is centred around a personality, such as Roman.
Therefore I think it’s important to take a moment to think about the history of spice in the West. Our current global economy is built on the European race to control the trade of spices. The building of Empires was based on food trade, colonising of people and cultures and enslaving people. The following four points are just notes, in a huge story, to begin ruminating on. Spice has been part of the UK’s food story for a long time, we should know how to talk about them, to include those that cook with them and listen to a multitude of voices around spices. We have more options than to other or to strip of context.
- Firstly, what is spice? I like Caz Hildebrand’s definition from The Grammar of Spice: “It is to spices’ credit that the slipper task of defining them has long eluded the greatest men and women from so many different disciplines […] Herbs are the (often) green, herbaceous, aromatic (generally) leafy, non-dried parts of plants that grow in (mostly) mild climates. Spices, by contrast, are the (mostly) dried parts – the bark, root, flower bud, resin, fruit or stigma – of plants that grow in (broadly) tropical climates.” She goes on to detail chemical elements and also show her adoration of spices. To me, this complication, highlighting the grey areas is what is important – there is no one box, we as readers cannot simplify and so the people who use these ingredients get to also be multidimensional and complex.
- Spices came to the UK in the middle ages. Pepper in particular captured hearts and the Guild of Peppers was formed (the first guild to exist) in the 1180s, becoming the Company of Grocers as it took on the responsibly of setting standards for all spices coming into the country. Clarissa Dickson Wright’s A History of English Food has a wonderful chapter about how spices were used in British kitchens in the middles ages, batting away myths – such as spices were used to hide rotten meat – and explains how some spices, such as ginger, became part of the everyday for the British.
- Christopher Columbus sailed for the Spanish crown to find a new route to India and The Spice Islands, a group of islands east of Indonesia which grew nutmeg, mace, and cloves; his intention was to try and get a monopoly on the spice trade for Spain. Instead he landed in the Americas; he was the catalyst of colonialism to the region, mass murder of the indigenous communities, and a number of other atrocities that Columbus can take sole responsibility for (e.g. enslaving and brutal subjugation of native people). But he also enabled the trade of chillies – native to the Americas – which thrived in many countries from Spain to South and East Asia changing cuisines globally. The word ‘chilli’ is derived from the central Mexico language of Nhuati, chīlli. Caz Hildebrand’s book An Anarchy of Chillies is a lovely visual journey through a huge number of chillies, detailing the diversity in heat and flavour of the plant.
- Turmeric is a member of the ginger family, but did not take root in Europe in the same way ginger did in the middle ages. Turmeric is a spice that has many stories and myths; it is used for medicinal purposes, as dye, and of course in food. It also has a spiritual context with many auspicious meanings attached to the spice, and is used prolifically across South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. “[Turmeric is] a story at once old and new, a latter-day spice route making unexpected connections between the grandmother in India, stirring turmeric into warm milk for a sniffly child; the Goop acolyte in California, sipping an après-yoga pre-packaged turmeric ‘elixir’, whose makers extol the ‘body harmonizing’ powers of the spice’s key chemical compound, curcumin; and Dávila wielding a pickaxe in rural Nicaragua.” Ligaya Mishan writes in the excellent NYT piece How Spices Have Made, and Unmade, Empires.
I want to see the story of spices being told with complexity; with acknowledgment of the pain and violence that is part of their story, and most importantly I want to see people at the centre of it. This doesn’t have to be difficult, but it does mean that we all need to take responsibility to learn a little bit more about the history – both ancient, but also current, as it unfolds in front of us through our contemporary storytelling. We need to listen to a more diverse group of storytellers.