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Alison Roman, ‘The Stew’ and the Need for Mindful Global Cooking

cooking
4 min read

Alison Roman, a contributor for The New York Times was quoted calling cookbook author Chrissy Teigen’s online cooking platform Cravings a “content farm” in addition to mocking her cookware line at Target, in an interview on May 7. In the same interview, Roman also targeted another woman of color. She used profane language to describe Marie Kondo as a “sellout” because she used her platform to sell consumer’s items after promoting her ‘less is more ideology’ in her book and Netflix series.

Teigan and Kondo both in their own right have earned their way through industries that are increasingly challenging for women of color to breakthrough. While the Internet community rightfully rallied around these two women in a time when their respective images were attacked I can’t help but assess how we got to this place.

As an avid consumer of online food content, I immediately noticed that when society first transitioned to mandated stay-at-home policies cooking at home became wildly popular again. I saw many articles praising Roman’s “culinary authority” as she was named the “domestic goddess of the apocalypse.”

[Read Related: In Conversation With Toronto-Based Food Blogger, Radhika Gupta]

It is without a doubt that with the increase of home cooking due to the novel coronavirus paired with the timing of the Jewish holiday Passover—during which she released a full eight recipe menu on The Times Cooking platform, Roman was experiencing another wave of popularity. This comes just after the release of her second bestselling cookbook “Nothing Fancy” back in October 2019.

With a strong and growing following Roman’s chilled out attitude has made her appealing to millennials who have in some ways been apprehensive about getting in the kitchen.

While it seems that one would be grateful for this increased level of fame in these times of uncertainty, Roman admits in her public apology on Instagram issued the following Monday evening on May 11 that:

“My inability to appreciate my own success without comparing myself to and knocking down others – this case two accomplished women – is something I recognize I most definitely struggle with, and am working to fix.”

“The fact that I didn’t occur to me that I had singled out two Asian women is one hundred percent a function of my privilege,” she added.

If you’re unfamiliar with Roman’s work let me fill you in. Her infamous Spiced Chickpea Stew (named by fans as “The Stew”) is described in the recipe as a “basically-good-for-you stew that evokes stews found in South India and parts of the Caribbean” is garnished with a dusting of turmeric powder.

While we are not oblivious that the Western world has a weird obsession with turmeric, “The Stew” in its humblest form is a curry, a term that is nowhere to be found in any of her posts or videos about the dish. Other dishes include a “streamlined” version of chicken tikka masala that is “accessible to anyone with a well-stocked pantry” on The Times‘s Cooking and a Flaky Bread on Bon Apetit that has an awfully close similarity to a Paratha or Roti. Roman has used repackaged Asian cooking as a part of her platform in the same careless way she went after two Asian women.

To rename a curry a “stew” or roti a “flaky bread” is to strip a dish of its identity and what gets left behind are the people of color whom the dish was to be associated with. This separation can trickle down and have the power to adversely affect ethnic food markets, restaurants, and people of color looking to establish themselves in the culinary world. It is an erasure of culture to rebrand food without citing its roots or history.

[Read Related: Double Standards: The Misconceptions of Non-Western Cuisine]

While this is disheartening and worrisome home cooks should not be weary when it comes to approaching new cuisines and recipes. In these unprecedented times, diverse home cooking should be encouraged even as the lines between authentic vs. accessible and appropriated vs. appreciated are becoming increasingly difficult to navigate. While it is left up to the hands of the recipe writer to responsibly share a dish, mindfulness in recipe reading and selection is the next step to becoming a better home cook.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself when delving into a recipe:

Is the author of the recipe from the same decent of the dish? If not, how are they sharing the cultural background associated with this dish?

If you’re looking to make an authentic dish from a cuisine you are unfamiliar with, your best bet is to go by a recipe from a chef or food blogger of the same decent. If you choose otherwise, has the writer of the recipe had formal training in the respective country or a restaurant of the same cuisine? Are they well-traveled in the region? What makes them an expert? The more you vary from this, the less authentic the dish will be.

Is this recipe a tribute or a fusion?

Tribute recipes will call for authentic ingredients and/or use traditional cooking methods but will be executed differently which creates something that is adjacent to the authentic version. Fusion dishes will blend authentic ingredients and cooking methods from a variety of cultures to create something brand new. Just because we add black beans over melted cheese on roti doesn’t mean it is Mexican, Italian, or Indian. But is it delicious? Sure it is.

How can I support a local or online small business grocery stores in pursuit of better ingredients to make this dish?

Shopping in your local ethnic food market is a direct way to contribute back to the community that a dish may come from. See these ingredients as a chance to expand your palate and enhance your pantry. Online markets and subscription services have also filled the gap in providing ingredients to those who may not live near urban centers with a variety of food markets. Using mass-produced generic spices or subbing in ingredients will alter the intended outcome of the dish.

What can I learn from making this dish?

See the food you choose to cook as an opportunity to respect and appreciate other cultures and their people. In this time when travel is increasingly restrictive a well-executed and authentic dish can be your passport to another part of the world. Similarly, a tribute or fusion dish may reveal to you unknown cross-cultural connections. In a world that is increasingly divisive the ability to create human connection through food will always remain. We can begin to bridge these connections right at home in our own kitchens.

To food writers, recipe developers, and content creators, your followers trust you to have done proper due diligence. By withholding information, claiming your expertise, and ultimately profiting from recipes that are repackaged in an inauthentic way it is a direct contribution to the cultural gap. If there is one thing I hope larger food platforms take from Roman’s recipes and remarks are that increased diversity and representation in test kitchens and food writing staff will ultimately check the erasure that is happening and work towards a trusting balance between creator and consumer.

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