Cultural appropriation: Sri Lankan food

Hoppers are my favourite type of everyday Sri Lankan food. Cultural appropriation is my least favourite everyday form of neo-colonialism. So imagine my reaction when I read this article about some British girl minting it making hoppers in one of the poshest food market spots in the heart of London. My disbelief turned to outrage as I read the article. There is no way I can transliterate or exaggerate how terrible, ignorant, and patronising towards Sri Lankan culinary culture this article is so I’m just going to furnish a few extracts. (All italics mine for emphasis)

  • To start off, the writer calls appa/appam thatchchis ‘appachattis’ consistently through the article. Is she confused by the Tamil word chatti that describes a cooking utensil? Would I be wrong to postulate that some basic familiarity with Indian cuisine made her assume this was the right word? Or perhaps she google image-ed the hopper pan and found that it looked exactly like the South Indian appachatti and decided that this indeed applies to Sri Lanka too. I’d be happy to concede that she was using the right word if the discussion were about South Indian appams but clearly, this article is about Sri Lanka. In the Sri Lankan context, it’s either appa thatchchi or appam thatchchi; appachatti has too insignificant a usage in comparison to justify its use in the article.
  • Hoppers are apparently cooked in ‘a special wok called appachattis’. Way to take down two cultures at once since, of course, as part of the general Orient, the cooking utensils are clearly all just a variation of each other.
  • ‘…hoppers are designed to be rolled up like a taco and eaten with your hands. They’re not something you eat with dignity.’ Again, with taking down two cultures at once.
  • ‘Even the word Weligama [the name of Ms. Dobbs’ shop] is playful. It comes from Tabprobane Island, in Weligama Bay on Sri Lanka’s south coast. The private island is owned by her uncle, hotelier Geoffrey Dobbs, and is where she first tasted hoppers. Not that she was exactly a fan to start with: “I remember as a kid thinking it was weird eating curry for breakfast.” The private island, the relation of G. Dobbs (1), the ‘weird food-turned-commercial opportunity’… Can’t begin commenting here without running the risk of imploding.
  • When Dobbs couldn’t perfect the hopper, she apparently ‘ran around Tooting Broadway and Southall for months asking the South Indians and Sri Lankans for tips on how to cook a hopper.’ To which they responded ‘Miss, even my mother can’t make hoppers!’ I don’t know about you but I can’t remember the last time I called a random person on the street ‘Miss’. Unless this is some British idiosyncrasy I’m not aware of, I’d hazard a guess that this appellation is included in the quote as a (perhaps unconscious) reversion to images of old-world colonial status distinctions: a group of backward, slow South Asians responding to a frantic, entrepreneurial, progressive young ‘Miss’. This is a common type of literary technique used consciously by satirical postcolonial writers but I, uh, don’t think that’s what’s happening here…

I think the only redeeming feature in this article is its ability to sell hoppers as the ‘healthy’ way to consume curries, claiming them to be ‘not only healthier than your average curry’ (I didn’t realise I could only eat hoppers OR a curry) but to also be ‘the lightest way to eat curry in London’ (so I do get curry and hopper? or either/or? Help.) The writer also sells it as a great choice for ‘clean eaters’ since ‘hoopers [sic] are gluten and dairy-free’. I’m much calmer now knowing that there’s going to be a whole load of new fat hipster and yuppie Britons gorging themselves on ‘hoopers’ believing they’re being culturally aware vegans. That’s long-term justice right there.

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I also wanted to mention briefly another food article in which this form of shameless appropriation happened. (It was commented upon by the wonderful culinary blogger at riceandcurry.wordpress.com but his article is no longer to be found.) The writer/chef of the article tries to pass off a ‘chicken and cashew nut curry’ as something ‘Sri Lankan’, when any Sri Lankan knows nobody puts cashew nuts and meat together in a curry. It is this line that takes the cake though: ‘I have not visited Sri Lanka, and probably won’t anytime soon, but it’s my new fantasy.’ With an ignorance that seems completely unproblematic to him, the writer casts his imagination into the far-off Orient where the culture is there to extract selectively for his boredom and commercial purposes. There is clearly no need for him to understand its richness in order for him to feel entitled to use, mix, and adulterate it as he sees fit: and that my friends, is appropriation at its purest.

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  1. Australian hotelier who owns several boutique hotels in Galle, has a 99 year lease of an island off the Galle coast, and founded the Galle Literary Festival.
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5 thoughts on “Cultural appropriation: Sri Lankan food

  1. How about Elephant House Hot Dogs? Maybe the people of NYC should stop us Sri Lankans from this cultural appropriation. Or maybe we should all stop eating Patties and Xutlets? The Portuguese will be offended because we Sri Lankans can’t have a party without them and we think they are ours. We put chillies in ours. Not right no?

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  2. So glad to have read this and completely agree! this has to be cultural appropriation at its worst.
    There is another restaurant in hackney London serving Sri Lankan food, owned by a British person who visited the hill country while travelling and hence considers their roots to be Sri Lankan. Utter ridiculousness!!!

    Like

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