Discover more from Vittles
Hospitality is not conditional
Throw a naan at a racist. Words by Sharanya Deepak.
Good morning and welcome to Vittles!
A Vittles subscription costs £5/month or £45/year. If you’ve been enjoying the writing then please consider subscribing to keep it running — it will give you access to the whole Vittles back catalogue — including Normal Country, London restaurant guides and all new columns.
Hospitality is not conditional, by Sharanya Deepak
In September this year, after the earthquake in Morocco, a photo by a British reporter appeared on my Twitter feed. In it, the journalist is being served tea and bread by displaced Moroccans. The tweet, and comments underneath the video praised Moroccan hospitality, lauding their resilience and generosity despite all odds. The video was commented on with enthusiasm by both Westerners and Moroccans. Even though these comments were well-intentioned and heartfelt, the video irked me because it played on the idea that ‘hospitality’ is necessary in order to humanise Moroccans and Arabs to European and American audiences. It sometimes feels like the only way to cajole people into caring is to celebrate these communities’ ‘bravery’ and ‘generosity of spirit’ in times of crisis. Moroccan hospitality is legendary, no doubt, but these were the people that needed care – so why was the focus on their performance of it instead?
Hospitality is so often used as a tool to humanise certain cultures, which is then reflected in global food media. The glowing generosity of South Asian homes, the resilience of displaced refugees, the kindness of immigrant-owned businesses; all are summoned to neutralise the more ingrained fear and resentment of these communities in public thought. I have noticed India’s ‘heritage’ and Nepal’s ‘spirituality’ are often mentioned when their cuisines are documented, since nations with Hindu majorities have increasingly assimilated (even if within reductive stereotypes) into the Western imagination. Simultaneously, I have seen how Pakistani and Bangladeshi colleagues must brandish hospitality to battle biases of ‘terrorism’ and other prejudices towards Muslim communities, spending their time and lives decoding the bizarre geopolitical biases in the minds of people everywhere.
I first properly noticed this when I lived in Brussels between 2013 and 2017. These were the years Belgium witnessed what Europe referred to as the ‘refugee crisis’ – a vague term coined by the West to wash its hands of wars it had created – and the 2015 Bataclan shootings in Paris. Several of the strategists behind the shootings were found to be residents of Brussels, from a neighbourhood called Molenbeek, where I also lived. Molenbeek was made up, mostly, of people of Arab and African descent. It lay across a canal, less than four kilometres from the city’s centre, but was distanced from Brussels’ consciousness, constantly invisibilised and discriminated against.
After the shootings, Molenbeek and Schaerbeek (Brussels’ Turkish enclave) were shrivelled by surveillance; their black and brown residents – especially young men – were bullied and rounded up by the police. Walking around, I would hear reporters from Western media outlets term Molenbeek Europe’s ‘neighbourhood of jee-had’, creating grounds for further dehumanisation and ghettoisation of anyone that looked and spoke a certain way. For Belgian Arabs, new asylum seekers, Pakistani restaurant-owners, there was now a new burden to bear. They had to convince Belgians that there was nothing to worry about; convince them – even though the economic and social odds were stacked against them – that the city was safe from threat. A Syrian tea-shop owner near my flat asked me to help him decide if he should serve beer in his shop, which was otherwise halal. ‘Europeans think we are all dangerous,’ he said, joking that I could be a sort-of intermediary between collegiate white people and his Arab and South Asian clientele. ‘So, with some beer,’ he continued, evidently unconvinced, ‘they may think we are not.’
In the years that followed, efforts to make Molenbeek safer (read: whiter) began. Among the various efforts at rehabilitation was a performance of hospitality: immigrant-owned businesses (the ones that survived) had to smile and perform, despite the surveillance they were subjected to. At the same time, many of the white Europeans I knew communicated that they felt betrayed by Molenbeek. For the few that lived in or near the neighbourhood, they could not comprehend that the notion of ‘multiculturalism’ they nurtured had failed; that their visiting Syrian restaurants and drinking the occasional mint tea in a Moroccan cafe had not been adequate to solve the inequalities and violence borne by history, and prevent them from happening again.
In the wake of all this, my own naïve visions of European liberty collapsed, and the scrutiny that brown and black people in the continent were subjected to became clear. I hated the decontextualisation of imperial massacres that create and perpetuate these cycles of violence, the historical revisionism and constant absolution of all European blame. One day, I sat in the kitchen of my flat, upset by a recent conversation with dinner guests that drew narrow, racialised histories out of recent events. ‘Don’t let them get to you, yaar’, my flatmate, who is Pakistani–Belgian, said to me as I spat curses at the dishwasher. ‘Don’t worry so much’, he said. ‘Just throw them a naan’. This made us laugh on that day, and after as well. ‘Throw a naan at a racist’ became a common refrain, an inside joke when we found ourselves lost or stuck in presumptuous, incriminating conversation. It also cleverly played on the expectation that this continent had of people like us: that even as our food was quickly welcomed on their tables, for our thoughts, our tempers, and especially our criticisms, there was simply no space.
Earlier this summer in London, I spent time at a Chinese restaurant in Lewisham for hours on some days. The food was always excellent, but one day, in the face of a family crisis, the staff served up cold soups and wrong orders. I ate, not caring; I loved this restaurant. I overheard a duo of diners nearby who were dissatisfied. ‘We should go to a Japanese restaurant. They take hospitality more seriously’, they concluded. Even though it is natural that diners make such evaluations, the comparison bothered me because of its willingness to pit immigrants against one another, to place cultures that may not otherwise have any etiquette in common into a heirarchical capitalist ‘meritocracy’ . The necessary performance of cuisines towards a mainstream often leaves little space to breathe. A Tibetan chef in the UK recently told me about how he sometimes cooks to tell people about Tibet, but ‘not always’; ‘Some days, I also don’t want to explain myself, and I don’t want to keep saying “This is not Chinese food”. Some days, like someone French or Italian or something, I just want to cook’, he said.
In India and South Asia, similar power-addled standards of hospitality exist. This summer, I reported on housing conditions for Indian street-food vendors, often migrants into Delhi and other big cities. I thought about how street food in India is such a singular triumph of hospitality; it is no small feat to serve up delicious food and constant care on the sides of rattling highways and busy marketplaces in some of the densest, paciest cities in the world. But even as their hospitality is used to decorate India’s image in foreign publications and visiting foreign envoys, little consideration and care is given to the lives of the vendors themselves. Street-food vendors work in the brunt of South Asia’s endless decaying summers; they live on daily wage cycles, in the face of little sanitation and precarious housing (which is almost never addressed). India’s poor form the bedrock of its eating cultures, but their hospitality is erased of context. Consider the ‘migrant exodus’ that occurred in India during the Covid pandemic: of the tens of millions that were displaced, many were street-food vendors. Or when ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ministers in cabinet utilise the hospitality of oppressed-caste citizens for political gain by being seen eating at their homes.
Meanwhile, Indian Muslims are similarly summoned for their culinary cultures (often by the country’s panicked liberal imagination) to serve up biryani and other images of India’s diminishing syncretism. But as with others, the material and social conditions that Indian Muslims live in, and the routine threats to their livelihoods are ignored. With Kashmir, this becomes all the more insidious. Even as Kashmiris remain dispossessed by Indian rule, their self-determination dismantled and lands constantly under threat, Kashmiri hospitality and cuisine is demanded with entitlement by the scores of Indian tourists that travel to the region. Something similar happens in Pakistan, too – when white YouTubers travel the country and are amazed by its hospitality, they do little to decode why they are so taken aback, never thinking to question the origins of their surprise about Pakistanis, the ‘fear’ they have been fed. Like much else, hospitality can uphold structures of colonialism, occupation, and patriarchal entitlement. It can often be akin to servitude itself.
As the annihilation of Palestinians by Israel continues, I worry about how amidst and after all this, food may be used for fleeting repair in an atmosphere of rampant dehumanisation. Though conducted with a lot of goodwill, efforts at rehabilitation of Palestinians (as well as Syrian, Afghan, Iraqi and Kurdish refugees) have often involved hospitality, asking the region’s food to vouch for its people’s humanity. Meanwhile in the West, critiques of Israel’s culinary and agricultural hegemony on Palestinian land and its cultures are infrequent and inadequate. To writer and historian N.A. Mansour, these ‘food conquers all’ narratives are hollow efforts: ‘In other words, hummus will make everyone feel less angry about ethnic cleansing’, she writes in her essay, ‘The rise and folly of the refugee cookbook’. Like Mansour, I am cynical about how besieged communities are asked to earn their humanity through food again and again; how despite different communities being forced into these cycles, they continue so relentlessly. Where rude French chefs and shouting white men are celebrated to no end in food media, racialised people are only perceived positively if they constantly provide relief through generosity, often against unforgiving odds and at their own expense.
In the end, no one should have to throw a naan at a racist – hospitality, after all, is a rare joy. Just as I couldn’t stop the Kurdish baker in Molenbeek from handing out free bread, and I can’t stop my father from buying bananas that ripen at perfect speed for guests, I cannot suggest that people stop taking care of customers that visit their establishments. I also cannot stop taking care of people myself. But I yearn for a more elastic, reciprocal version of all this, one in which hospitality is circular and unconditional, a system of care not just built on the backs of those who cook and feed us, but one which requires care from those receiving the food as well. More than anything, hospitality should not have to bear the burden of ‘changing minds’, of neutralising hate and hierarchies through service with a smile. Perhaps everyone should do their own work – to change their own minds, and dismantle their own biases – before they go to these restaurants at all.
Today’s newsletter was the last edition of The Hater. To read all the past columns, please see below:
The TV Food Man, by Ruby Tandoh
Everybody Hates Norman’s, by Tom Usher
Rich People Peasantcore, by Sheena Patel
Gatekeeping Pubs, by Jimmy McIntosh
The Gallery Dinner, by Phoebe Cripps
STREETFOODZ and other atrocities, by Katie Mulkowski
Why I hate Americans talking about tacos in London, by Chloe-Rose Crabtree
Against Curation, by Jonathan Nunn
What is the point of the recipe box?, by Thea Everett
Against Culinary Cuckooism, by Luke Dunne
McLondon, by Robbie Armstrong
The biweekly British vs American food debate, by Niloufar Haidari
What is wrong with the London restaurant scene
Gut Feelings, by James Greig
Ultra Processed Foods, by Laura Thomas
The SEO-ification of food, by Mina Miller
We have also finished our column Cooking from Life.
Urgent Tender Care, by Anuradha Roy
A prodigious attitude to cream, by Rosanna Mclaughlin
Why is the thought of cooking so dreadful?, by Shon Faye
Finding my way to bannan fri, by Edna Bonhomme
Maintaining a private cult, by Sam Dolbear
A preservation of summer pulled into winter, by Séan Hewitt
A map of her mouth: offerings to my daughter, by Jessica J. Lee
The glamour of having crepes on hand, by Marlowe Granados
How to eat an orange, by Vijeta Kumar
Soaking up the juicy morsels of our lives, by Claire-Louise Bennett
People of the Salt, by Gabrielle de la Puente
Salad, Schnitzel and Fake Meat, by Molly Pepper Steemson
Cooking against the theft of time, by Uzma Falak
Sex, HRT and lots of meat, by Sam Dolbear
Empanada Mutiny, by Kevin Vaughn
Cooking in Crip Time, by Hannah Turner
Vulnerability, Death and Dinner, by Nyla Ahmad
Eat, Play, Protest: A life with prawns, by Rajkamal M
Three Generations of French Home Cooking, by Orphée You
We will take a short break and return later this month with Season 7, a new publishing schedule, and an exciting announcement!
Vittles is edited by Rebecca May Johnson, Sharanya Deepak and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.