If you have been keeping up with Twitter, you know people are really, really mad at Sweden. A screenshot of a Reddit post that recently went viral had someone describing their experience of visiting their friend’s home in Sweden, where they were asked to wait in a room while their friend’s family finished their dinner. This screenshot eventually made its way to Twitter, where non-Swedish people – particularly Asians – lost their minds.
So, why do Swedish people not want to feed their guests? Or their kid’s friends who’ve come over to play? Apparently, in Nordic cultures, hospitality was the duty of people with higher status. “So, hospitality not only brought honour to the giver, it had the potential to bring shame to the recipient,” wrote one Twitter user. An old map made by Instagram user @LoverOfGeography surfaced which says where in Europe you’re most and least likely to be offered food if you’re a guest.
SwedenGate is also stirring conversations around how different cultures treat their guests. Another hilarious map that’s clearly a parody showcases where you’ll receive weed as a guest in American households.
But the revelation was met with heightened reactions among South Asians, who generally equate hospitality with gastronomic generosity.
For as long as I’ve been alive, food has been a dominant love language for South Asians like me. When I want to apologise to my sibling after a fight, I make their favourite spinach and corn sandwiches. When my parents want to check in on me, they offer me a plate full of sliced fruits. When a friend and I fight, we go out for biryani the next day, or he sends cookies to my place. For many South Asians like me, food is not just the language of love but also a means to express our guilt, regret, support – basically a medium of our relationships.
So, when I came across #SwedenGate on Twitter, I was at first almost offended that guests are not offered food in Swedish homes. However, in an op-ed for The Independent, the Swedish writer tries to explain it by saying, “The Swedish thinking goes like this: the other child (or the other family) may have plans for another kind of dinner, and you wouldn’t want to ruin the routine or preparations. I don’t think it is anything to do with not wanting to feed the other child or because it costs money or anything like that, it’s more to do with tradition and wanting to eat with your own family.”
Other Swedes have offered other explanations – from old traditions which put the onus of hospitality on the rich, to how Sweden was once a poor country and thus, its people only cook for their own family, or how feeding someone else’s child can be seen as a critique of the kid’s caregivers' ability to support their family.
But not everyone understands this. The discourse has now stirred questions on hospitality and community building. Many Twitter users pointed out that Sweden was indeed a poor country once. But colonialism (which Sweden took part in) made countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia – places where people consider it sacred to feed their guests – poor.
In my Indian household, if someone shows up unannounced, they are offered tea, biscuits and salted snacks called namkeen. Indian families often say, “Arre chai toh pike jao” – at least have tea before you leave. But it’s never just tea. At the very least, there’ll be a couple of Parle-G biscuits.
It’s not uncommon for Indians to feed strangers either. When I covered the year-long Indian farmers’ protest, I was offered meals and tea by almost everyone. Some of my journalist friends would joke that covering the farmers’ protest was making them fatter because of all the food they were eating. Just last month during Ramadan, a friend and I were at Jama Masjid, a historic 17th century mosque in Old Delhi built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (the same dude who built the Taj Mahal). When it was time for iftar, when everyone breaks their fast, strangers offered us portions from their meal. To them, my overtly religious Hindu sounding name or religious identity didn’t matter. “There’s a terrible heatwave,” said one of the women who offered us food and lemonade. “The least we can do is offer you some fresh watermelon.”
Even during our family road trips all over the northern Indian plains and the mountains, strangers have shown my pet dog the same kindness they’ve shown my family. They’ve offered my dog paneer (cottage cheese), curd, fruits, eggs and biscuits. Feeding my dog even helped several strangers and little children get over their fear of dogs.
Rana Safvi, a writer of culture and history, points out that in some South Asian cultures, people eat from the same plate. “In the Bohra Muslim community, everyone eats from one large plate. Sharing food and eating together is not only an act of closeness but also a reminder to everyone that they are all equal.”
Sikh places of worship (known as gurudwaras) and shrines of Sufi saints regularly host community kitchens where people come together and cook meals for everyone. “The underlying value to these acts is service to mankind and humanity,” said Safvi. “It’s an act of expressing respect and humility through food.” Community kitchens in India across all faiths are not new, but have existed for many decades. “It is said that on the Day of Judgement, us Muslims will have to give an account of every morsel. But it's also believed in many communities that shared meals don't have any hisaab (account) but in fact [can get you] more barkat (blessings).”
Safvi believes food is the primary language of love in South Asia. “There was a TV show called Khichdi where the character Hansa would always say, 'Khana khake jaana (eat before you leave).' The show was a hit comedy show but there are indeed many IRL Hansas in India who won’t let you leave their homes hungry.”
I checked with my colleagues from Japan, the Philippines, and Pakistan. If I showed up to their place unannounced around meal time, what would they do? All of them said they would at least offer me a cup of tea or coffee. “For sure invite you to dinner,” said VICE Asia editor Therese Reyes from the Philippines. “Hello is ‘have you eaten’ here, it’s super rude if you don’t at least invite them.” VICE World News South Asia correspondent Rimal Farrukh added, “All I can cook are Maggi Noodles but I would definitely feed you somehow. We could probably order in.”
But just because Sweden seems to stand out in how its culture relates to food, doesn't mean everyone else who takes pride in offering food so freely is superior. Like all cultural nuances, it is all a matter of history and perspective.
Kurush F Dalal, an archaeologist and cultural anthropologist, said that the current debate on the Swedes’ social habits are a lesson in social norms. “I think lambasting Sweden and their social norms is wrong. As Indians, we see food as something that helps us bond but in Sweden, it’s seen as a resource.” Like many comments on Twitter, Dalal pointed out that people in Sweden don’t feed their guests unless they’re specifically invited for dinner or lunch, since they assume there’s food waiting for them at home.
Dalal, a Parsi (Parsis are the descendants of Persian Zoroastrians who set sail for India around 1,300 years ago), grew up with friends of all religions. “They would come over to my place and eat meals with us and I would do the same at their homes. My mother was famous for never greeting people with ‘hello’ but rather, asking them what they’d like to eat,” he recalled.
Some might debate that in Indian households, it’s the women who take care of cooking and household chores. Having unexpected guests over and feeding them might add to the burden. However, Dalal views this differently. “In a lot of communities, roles between men and women are sharply defined. Men are in charge of earning a livelihood and women manage the household. For many women, their power lies in the kitchen. Food is not just their love language, but also a source of pride.”
This is by no means to say that Indian hospitality is perfect. The caste system, which divides people on the basis of caste hierarchy, remains prevalent in India. In India, your caste often decides your diet. My lineage involves marriages between upper and lower castes, making me an inter-caste person. My last name instantly gives away that I do not belong to an upper caste. I get an equal amount of generosity and invasive questions about my caste and heritage when I travel. I’ve met people who have served me food because of my Hindu name, but boast about not letting Muslims inside their homes. In many households, separate utensils are kept for domestic workers who usually come from lower castes.
Food might be a love language for Indians, but it denotes hierarchy and social status too. Using food to welcome and include means it can also be a way to exclude, reject and pass judgement when it is denied or refused.
In late May, students at a government school refused to eat food prepared by a Dalit cook. Dalits were a formerly untouchable community and are at the bottom of the caste system. Dalal, the cultural anthropologist, pointed out that while caste finds its way into food practices in India, upper caste people in Indian villages are less likely to discriminate against you if you come from an urban area. “To some communities, taking care of their guests is more important than their caste. So while caste-based discrimination might continue in the village, they wouldn’t treat a traveller from an urban area the same way.”
Indians often say, “athiti devo bhava,” which means a guest is equivalent to god. But if we’re calling Sweden out on its seemingly offensive cultural norms, it's about time we take a look at caste dynamics and its relation to food in India.
As for Sweden, it looks like the country’s reputation changed after a single screenshot.