Once something has been appropriated, what can a culture do to reclaim it?
Today’s consumerist society knows what it wants and when it wants it. Whatever it grabs a hold of is immediately transmitted nationwide at breakneck pace. The hype, the build-up, the chase—all repeated ad nauseam. Consumers flee into the unknown, hoping to get their hands on the latest craze. But what is there to do when the culture, being manufactured and therefore appropriated, is your own?
That’s where Mithalee Rawat comes in. The 31-year-old queer woman of color runs Shorba Broth Bar in Vancouver, where she makes a bone broth that applies the principles of Ayurveda, an ancient food science of India believed to be over 3000 years old.
Ayurvedic medicine consists of using various combinations of herbs, earths, spices, and resins to treat and cure ailments of the body and mind. Bone broth has been used for thousands of years in Ayurveda, where it’s been prescribed for building bone tissue and treating dislocation of joints.
This food-as-medicine approach is something that has resonated very deeply with Rawat and her family. It is a practice that she applies in her everyday life—including using Ayurvedic hair oils regularly, avoiding canned foods, and not drinking water immediately before, after, or during meals.
Rawat has also been making bone broth since her early days in culinary school, and in every subsequent chef job thereafter. A go-to when sick, the all-ending hangover cure—it’s a staple in her diet. About four years ago, while working in London, the Indian-born chef noticed it becoming a trend after a bougie rebranding. Athletes and celebrities jumped on board, touting the benefits to the media. At the same time (in fact, for longer), Rawat watched as haphazardly labeled Ayurvedic foods entered the market.
Rawat was constantly irked to see traditional Eastern foods being rebranded and sold as superfoods to mostly white people willing to spend a lot of money. Rawat viewed this as an extension of colonialism—exploiting another's culture for one's own profit without giving anything back.
“I found that hardly any consumers are cognizant of the fact that once a non-white food is rebranded by white people for white people it seems to be valued more,” Rawat said. “This is due to systemic racism. Once they think about the colonization equivalency and exploitation aspect, it seems to make more sense to them.”
Rawat is passionate about her product—she sees it as her way to reclaim agency of her own culture, a culture that she feels she’s watched first-hand be appropriated for decades.
Currently, Shorba Broth Bar offers both chicken and beef broth. To many consumers, the use of beef might be a red flag, but to Rawat, that’s just a common misconception.
Eating locally and sustainably are key to both Rawat’s personal life and business practice. In India, broth is made commonly with chicken and goat bones; because that’s what’s prevalent there, and the obvious issue with cows and Hindus. Now that she lived Vancouver, Rawat has adapted her diet to what is easily accessed locally.
“There are of course many vegetarians in India, but a much larger population aren't. I grew up eating a lot of chicken, fish, and goat,” Rawat said.
To create the perfect broth, Rawat selects specific bones, then simmers them for 48 hours, with the primary purpose of extracting as much collagen as possible. For the chicken, Rawat uses a fifty-fifty mix of feet and bones of local free-range chicken. For beef, she uses local pastured grass-fed beef knuckles and marrow bones.
Today, almost all brands sold in grocery stores contain onions and garlic, both of which, according to Ayurveda, are not suitable for most people. Rawat includes neither in her broth. Instead, she boils the bones gently with her signature Ayurvedic elixir blend that includes ingredients like fresh turmeric root, fresh ginger root, fenugreek seeds, cinnamon bark, green cardamom pods, and black peppercorns. After nearly two days, this gets strained; the fat is then separated and mostly removed. Once the broth cools, it is packaged and frozen.
Rawat hopes that with her product, she can help create a more educated narrative by acknowledging and crediting the original source of the knowledge, thus ensuring they benefit from the commercialization of it. She hopes to empower her culture by using its ancestral teachings, and making sure its stories are told through an honest lens.
Through Rawat’s hard work and dedication to her craft, Shorba Broth Bar is now a thriving small business in the lower mainland. While she has done a few pop-ups, and regularly appears at farmers’ markets, Rawat also personally delivers her product to customers. Navigating an interesting culinary cross section that is trendy food product with millennia old roots in ancient wisdom from the East, Rawat hopes to bring Shorba Broth to grocery stores later this year.