OPINION: Keep calm and curry on - we can't cancel Asian dish
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As a columnist, dipping your toes into the world of cancel culture is a sure-fire way of getting the bottom half of the internet hot under the collar.
Anonymous keyboard warriors on both sides of the debate seem incapable of making their cases in a calm and considered manner; invective and abuse seems to be the norm.
Fortunately, when you write about food, such cultural wars don’t tend to be involved, and whilst I am occasionally on the receiving end of angry trolling (especially when I dare to suggest that Brexit doesn’t seem to be delivering the nirvana we were promised during the referendum campaign), cancel culture is a topic I have successfully swerved.
Up until now, that is. Because a story this week goes right to the heart of what it means to be British. This is a development which threatens the very existence of our nation’s favourite dish. It threatens to sweep away years of tradition and will no doubt have the Little Englanders mobilising to protect our very essence.
You see, someone has suggested that we should stop using the word ‘curry’. That our appropriation of the term – rooted in colonialism – is an insult to the many and varied cultures of the Asian subcontinent.
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An Instagram video posted by California-based food blogger Chaheti Bansal, in which she calls on people ‘cancel the word curry’, has been viewed more than 3.6 million times.
The ‘cancel culture’ debate is one of those where it seems impossible to have a reasoned discussion about the nuances and subtleties of what is a complex issue.
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For example, whilst I have some sympathy with those who say we cannot wipe out the past and pretend it didn’t happen, I don’t believe we should leave statues of slave traders standing, any more than statues of Adolph Hitler and other Nazi leaders should still adorn every public space in Germany, or that of Jimmy Savile should still be standing at Stoke Mandeville Hospital.
Acknowledging our history does not mean excusing the unsavoury parts of it, and sometimes that does indeed mean changing the language we use, especially when it causes real offence to members of our present-day society, and even inflames hatred and prejudice.
I’m just not convinced that the word ‘curry’ falls into that category. Bansal claims that the word originated during colonial times, perhaps deriving from the Tamil word ‘kari’, which translates variously as ‘side dish’ and ‘blackened’.
But all languages develop through appropriation (just ask a Frenchman what he is doing during le weekend), and there is nothing wrong with that. Certainly not enough for shows of schadenfreude every time someone gets it wrong.
Bansal’s other gripe is that using the word ‘curry’ is a lazy way of describing the entire food culture of a huge country which has a mind-boggling variety of different regional cuisines.
This may be true, but we don’t bat an eyelid when directed to an Italian restaurant, for example, even though that country (which didn’t even exist until 1871) also does not have one single cuisine.
Cancelling the word curry makes no sense, not least because it is widely used in the subcontinent itself, from South India where it can describe a variety of dishes including ‘meat in gravy’ ones, to Sri Lanka and Malaysia.
I try to be careful with the language I use, and I do think that sometimes we need to stop using words and phrases which come from a different time, and which cause offence. But when I’m tucking into my Methi Chicken at the Merchants of Spice on Friday night, I’m pretty sure I won’t be offending anyone by saying “nice curry”.
It's all a bit vanilla
As a PR man, I’m a sucker for a consumer survey, and have not been shy in the past of using them to create a juicy news angle in a shameless attempt to gain column inches for my client.
The two rules of thumb have always been that the survey itself has to be genuine and robustly conducted (usually by an independent research company); and that the resulting findings should be interesting and surprising.
Someone in Ocado’s PR department came up with the idea of celebrating the summer (they obviously weren’t looking out of the window) by finding out what are the UK’s favourite ice cream flavours.
This is all in aid of promoting a new range of ice creams which they claim are ‘scientifically designed and personalised to match a variety of moods and occasions’.
The new concoctions draw from 63 different ingredients available at the online supermarket, and some of them tick the ‘surprising’ box: anyone for crunchy bacon sprinkled on their sundae?
Unfortunately for Ocado, their scrupulously-conducted survey (of 2,000 adults) came up with the less than earth-shattering revelation that the nation’s favourite ice cream flavour is in fact… vanilla.
Followed by chocolate and strawberry in second and third place. I suspect few people will have fallen off their chairs in shock at that result. Interesting and surprising? Back to the PR drawing board.