Most of the time when we speak or read about food culture, it’s either in the context of learning about people through their food and how they cook or in the context of appropriation. While these are accurate lenses, I find they’re an outsiders view. Instead I often find myself thinking about how although food culture can be such a unifying force, it’s regularly looked down upon in many societies unless it’s delivered in socially-acceptable platform.
Let me contextualise. A couple of weeks ago I was selling Kashmiri tea at a market stall in Canopy Market in London. It was a weekend activity as part of a wider campaign to raise awareness of our brand (run by myself and my cousin) and also to road-test what the response would be to our products. It was an exhausting but fun experience. Except for this one thing. Somewhere around the second day, as we’d been freshly brewing and selling pot after pot of Pink chai and Rose Kahwa – two girls came by. They were chatty and friendly – as most of the people we met that weekend were – and while one of them was happily ordering some pink chai; her friend, in Urdu, said: “Imagine doing this back home in Karachi – selling chai like this, what people would say!”
And just like that the patriarchy landed on our table.
Maybe she thought I didn’t understand Urdu (clearly I do). Or maybe it was that timeless gem “she didn’t mean it that way”. Either way, we were in customer-facing mode so no matter how inclined I was to snap at her for being rude, I had to maintain a polite front. Instead I said something I wished I hadn’t. Without skipping much of a beat I said on behalf of both of us in English, “I know! Hilarious isn’t it – our parents must think – 2 degrees each and after all that you’re selling chai,” with the brightest smile I could muster, hoping she couldn’t tell I wanted to actually smack the smugness out of her.
Here’s why I hate that I said that. It’s an indication of deep-rooted classism which I would never normally identify with. I don’t consider myself to be classist and yet there it was: as an almost instantaneous reflex. It makes my skin itch to know that it got to me the way it did. I felt offended by her implication that being at a market is somehow not a socially acceptable activity. It showed me that no matter how open-minded we believe we are, I have still somehow internalised this negativity as a result of my culture. In the 3 days we were there, we were bombarded with nothing but positivity from friends, family and strangers who thought it was a wonderful thing to do. So why did I feel the need to justify our choices by making sure she knew we didn’t ‘just’ sell tea? This complete stranger to whom I had nothing to prove.
Classism is endemic in most South Asian, Muslim societies. In fact it’s endemic in most societies full stop, but there’s something particularly chronic about it about South Asian cultures – especially as it relates to women and their activities in public and as I learned, even when it comes to food culture. Cook at home – great. Cook for money – somehow it’s now a commentary on all your abilities and your ‘place’ in society. Like colourism; class-systems and “socially-acceptable behaviours” are internalised through social conditioning. You can live in the most liberal societies in the world, as London probably is, and you’ll still internalise some form of hierarchy from your environment. If something in your environment has always told you that certain work is appropriate for women and others not – it’s hard to unlearn this. Even when you know it’s wrong.
The irony of this is that food culture is a subject which elicits some of the most passionate and proud responses in South Asian communities. Debates about who makes the best samosas and what is or isn’t ‘real’ biryani and who some dish or the other ‘belongs’ to abound. Not to mention the cultural appropriation debate. It is indeed a serious issue – but the people who shout the loudest about other people commercialising ‘our’ food culture are often also looking down on those from ‘within’ who pursue it. Food culture used to be – whatever your primary care-giver put on the table. In most cases that was women: your mother, grandmother, sister, foster-mum etc. The person responsible for feeding you, for unintentionally creating your cache of memories marinated in spices and hopefully love. In his book ‘In Defense of Food’ Michael Pollan writes:
“…for most of human history, humans have navigated the questions (of what to eat) without expert advice. To guide us we had instead, Culture, which, at least when it comes to food, is really just a fancy word for your mother“ (page 3)
Food culture, now, is definitely an industry unto itself. Yet in many cultures still; the pursuit of work in the food industry – when they’re for serious professional aims – are judged in a way that cooking a feast for a family of 10 every weekend would never be. Is the latter only valuable because it’s in the privacy of the home and doesn’t contribute to economic growth for the person cooking? If a “woman’s place is in the kitchen” then what’s wrong with making a living off of it? Is the feeling that when you make money off of feeding someone that you somehow ‘cheapen’ it still really a thing? Or rather cheapen yourself from whatever aspirational middle-class social status we’re meant to achieving? And would this woman have had the same reaction if we were male?
Hindsight is always 20:20 but if I could have a do-over I would have simply raised my eyebrows – to indicate that I’d understood her comment – and carried on, carrying on. Instead I accidentally reinforced the very thinking which I and countless other women are working hard to reject.
Asma is a freelance writer and entrepreneur. Her start-ups include Kashmiri Table: a food blog focused on highlighting Kashmiri food and tea culture which hosts events in London, New York and Miami. As well as AB.Ltd: a luxury shawl brand for the conscious consumer & collectors of authentic, handmade Pashmina's. She enjoys travelling to warm countries, bread of all kinds and a good strong chai at least every 1.5 hours before 4 pm. Follow her adventures on Twitter @asmabandey and Instagram on @kashmiritable and @ab.ltd