Poppadoms And Prejudice: Food And Stereotypes
Image Credit: Poppadom | Image Credit: Freepik.com

We've all heard the stereotypes: Italian food is all about pasta and pizza, Mexican food is always spicy, and Chinese food is cheap and greasy. But where do these stereotypes come from, and why do they persist? And what about other cuisines, like South Indian food, which is often reduced to just one accompaniment: the poppadom?

South Indian cuisine would be incomplete without the ubiquitous papadams, which can be cooked with any number of different flours (including lentil flour, chickpea flour, and rice flour) and consumed as a side dish or a snack. While poppadoms are delicious and a beloved part of south Indian culinary traditions, they are just one small piece of the vast and varied landscape of the region’s fare. Yet they continue to be one of the few dishes that many people in the Western world associate with Indian food.

The root of this misconception is said to have originated during the Victory era. Queen Victoria was said to have been extremely fond of Indian curry, which was first served to her in 1887 by her servant Abdul Jabbar. Her favorite meal of chicken curry, rice, and daal was always accompanied by a poppadom. The papadam remained an add-on to almost any Indian contemporary meal made abroad over the years, including those featuring cuisine from other parts of India that don't have even a remote equivalent to the fryum. This stereotype of narrowing Indian food down to just poppadoms doesn't exist in a vacuum. It is part of a larger pattern of food stereotypes that pervade our society, shaping how we think about and consume different cuisines. Food is often used as a way to categorize and label different cultures, and these labels can carry with them a host of assumptions and prejudices. For example, the stereotype of Mexican food as always being spicy is often used to sideline Latinx people as "hot-blooded" or "fiery." Similarly, the age-old misconception of Chinese food as cheap and greasy is often used to perpetuate wrongful postulations about Asian people as being financially untrustworthy or unclean.

Stereotypes of this nature are not only harmful but also deeply untrue. Italian food is much more diverse than just pasta and pizza. It includes a wide range of dishes, from risotto to arancini to polenta, that reflect the rich culinary traditions of Italy's various regions. Mexican food, too, is much more than just tacos and burritos. It includes a wide range of dishes, from mole to ceviche and tamales, that reflect the diverse culinary traditions of Mexico and Central America. Chinese food, too, features a plethora of dishes ranging from dumplings to stir-fries and braises that represent the myriad of regional cuisines found across China.

Such misconceptions are all too common within the Indian subcontinent as well. The most well-known example is with North Eastern cuisine. Most people think that North Eastern fare is limited to just momos and thukpa, but this could not be further from the truth. North Eastern cuisine is actually quite diverse, featuring a wide range of ingredients and cooking techniques that reflect the region's unique history and geography. Techniques such as smoking and lactofermenting meats are a tradition that is unique to the region's fare and is featured prominently in the many dishes of the region, such as jadoh (a rice preparation that is similar to pulao), pork axone, and singju (fermented fish salad), made with endemic ingredients such as bamboo shoots, sticky rice, and timbur pepper.

So why do these stereotypes persist? Part of it has to do with the way that certain cuisines have been marketed and commodified in the Western world. For example, Italian food has been heavily marketed in the United States as a cheap and casual dining option, leading to the widespread perception of it as "cheap" or "lowbrow." Similarly, Mexican food has often been marketed as being spicy and exotic, leading to the stereotype of it as being "fiery" or "exciting." And Chinese food has often been marketed as being cheap and convenient, leading to the stereotype of it as being "cheap" or "low quality."

Generalizations about food can be extremely damaging, and they limit our understanding and appreciation of the rich diversity of the world's cuisines. The next time you encounter a food stereotype, take a moment to question it. Where does it come from? Is it supported by the evidence? Or is it just a lazy and harmful way of thinking about food? By being more mindful and curious about the food we eat, we can begin to dispel these outdated labels and work towards more equitable and delicious culinary experiences.