Early this week, a British historian riled up a lot of Indians when he called idli, a popular south Indian savoury made of rice, “boring”. A tweet by British historian Edward Anderson went viral on October 6.
Anderson’s statement came in response to Indian food delivery giant Zomato’s Twitter post, “What’s that one dish you could never understand why people like so much.” Anderson responded, “Idli are the most boring things in the world.” He later added that he loves other preparations that, just like idli, come out of southern parts of India. “But idli are insufferable.”
Since then, public outrage, news articles and television debates from India have been collectively calling out Anderson’s unpopular take. Idli, the protagonist of “idli wars” or “idli-gate”—as the outrage has been coined on Twitter—holds immense cultural and political relevance in India.
Made of fermented black lentils and rice, idlis are a ubiquitous everyday food across the country, especially southern parts of India. India is one of the world’s largest producers of rice, a core part of idli preparation. The grain is also a significant staple across Asia.
“Food invokes different kinds of feelings in different people, and from different cultures,” Diipti Jhangiani, a Mumbai-based expert in indigenous foods and farming, told VICE News. “All these differences stem from the source of the food, how fresh the food is, and the flavours used in it.”
The public outrage, Anderson told the BBC, shows how “food speaks to people’s identity, their regional pride and also resonates with everyone at an emotional level.”
“And a lot of people have made the very valid point that it is a bit rich for a Britisher to criticise Indian food as being bland!” he added.
This is not the first time a non-Indian was greeted with a tirade of criticism and outrage for holding negative opinions about Indian food.
Late last year, an American academic, Tom Nichols, called Indian food “terrible” on a “controversial food opinion” viral thread on Twitter. “Indian food is terrible and we pretend it isn’t,” he wrote. This sparked a conversation about generalisation of foreign cuisine in the West, cultural intolerance and racism.
In August this year, a nine-year-old’s father felt offended after the parents of his son’s friend fed him Indian food. The man shared his experience in a weekly chat column, and titled it Help! I Can’t Believe My Son’s Friend Fed Him Indian Food Without Calling Me First.
“Thankfully Chris didn’t get sick,” he wrote.“ My wife says to drop it because any conversation will look racial in nature and to only let the boys play at our place”. His post went viral. It also sparked a heated debate around racism in food.
Other Asian foods have also been targets of reductive stereotypes by western professionals, academics and publications. In June this year, a New York Times’ piece on the Southeast Asian fruit Durian was criticised for its problematic, orientalist undertones.
Food across the world carries strong political and cultural undertones. Food critic and writer Vir Sanghvi observed that food politics in India is as ancient as the Indians’ revolt against the British colonisers in 1857. The British army had coated the guns’ cartridges with animal fat, presumed to be that of cows and pigs. The cow fat offended the Hindus, while the pig fat offended the Muslims, enough to start a mutiny that shook the British empire.
“Food, for many people, is a big marker of their identity,” Shubhra Chatterji, an Indian culinary researcher and director of Indian food shows, told VICE News. “What’s on your plate is your history, your heritage, culture and religion. That explains a lot of outrage against these unpopular takes. It’s difficult to accept diverse opinions on the food you associate with so closely.”
In the cases of westerners criticising Indian food, comes the narrative of ignorance towards the rich diversity of regional Indian food. “I would invite people [like Anderson] to an Indian home, to freshly made and fermented idli, and then be transformed for life,” said Jhangiani.
Idli has also been the food and rhetoric of politicians’ campaigns. Last month, a functionary from the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party started selling “Modi Idlis”, named after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as part of party campaign.
In August, American politician Kamala Harris, who is of half-Indian descent, invoked Indians’ love for idlis to appeal to the South Asian community in the US.
Some food historians argue that idli actually did not even originate in India. Trade links between Indonesia and South India, they say, brought a variation of the Indonesian dish called kedli. There’s another theory that Arab traders who settled in South India made rice cakes, which is now modern-day-idlis.
Culinary clashes are not new among the Indias as well. Indians routinely debate the regional and cultural currency of food items. Idli has been pitted against another Indian staple, chapati—Indian flatbread made of wheat. In 2017, Food Processing Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal said that khichdi—a South Asian dish made of rice and lentils—should be declared India’s national dish, which triggered divided opinions.
“Any opinion which is not completely informed is incorrect. You have to understand the cultural context too,” said Chatterji. “It’s not just an east versus west thing. It happens in India, too.”
A few months ago, a Netflix film ‘Axone’ sparked a debate about a fermented soya bean from the northeastern state of Nagaland, which has a distinct smell and has a history of causing cultural conflict against Indians who consume it.
In a telling Twitter thread, Thai chef Pim Techamuanvivit based in San Francisco addressed the unpopular opinions on food. “In Thai, when we eat something that’s not to our taste, we don’t really say, ‘I don’t like this’ or ‘this is bad.’ We say, ‘I don’t know how to eat this,’” she wrote.
“‘I don’t know how to eat this’ implies that no food, no cuisine is inherently bad. It leaves open a possibility that maybe, just maybe, if we learn how to appreciate it properly, we might even end up liking it. Might not be such a bad idea to start saying this in English too?”
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