Opinion: Gastronomic Columbusing

Opinion piece by Shireen Ahmed
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Flowing Indian materials, aromas of sage and rose petals. A graceful woman gliding across floors concocting a staple recipe from South Asian tradition. We hear the fire from the chula, the sizzle of when the makkan meets the heat. Then comes the stirring with the wooden spoon, the straining of the golden fluid, and finally cherishing the rich, beautiful result.

Sounds like a glorious scene from The Lunchbox or The Hundred Foot Journey.

Well, it’s not. It is actually the newest offence in a series of greasy cultural appropriation. And this time it’s really serious, folks. They have come for our ghee.

We have barely had time to recover from Starbucks-drinking hipsters extolling the virtues of ‘chai tea’ — a recipe that Oprah stole from a hospitable Indian family and marketed as a must-have libation — and now have to deal with a former model in Toronto declaring her love for clarified butter.

That’s right. The latest victim of post-colonial theft is our very own ghee.

When Lee Dares spent seven weeks studying everything India in India, she learned the time-honoured craft of preparing ghee. But, because it wasn’t exciting enough, Dares decided to add herbs and flavouring just to make it more exciting.

A recent excessively flattering Toronto Star feature on Dares provided information: “In India, ghee is made plain but eaten with herbs. Dares offers hers in seven flavours, including Plain Jane, the all-purpose ghee, Gold Standard, infused with turmeric and black pepper, Sage City, with dried organic sage leaves, and Cardamom Kiss, which has organic ground cardamom and rose petals.”

Perhaps, this would render her product more authentic to hipster clients. Namely those, who instead of actually going to a South Asian grocer in the Greater Toronto Area — where ghee has been readily available for decades — would have to go to the ‘One of a Kind’ Show in order to purchase her fabulously packaged product. There are so few South Asians in Toronto after all.

Even the little jar covers are wrapped in Indian fabric. How wonderfully ethnic!

It’s very traditional for Desis to wrap their spices and staple ingredients in ethnic cloth. We can all reminisce how we saw our Grandmothers and Mothers grind garam masala, make dahi at home and then beautify the reused, leftover jars with decorations. Right? *crickets*

Dares might want to consider adding bindi on the jars as an extra treat to delight customers. Something like be-dazzling the ghee!

It’s not fancy enough as it is. But the elephants were a cute touch. Ganesh and all.

Lees Ghee
(via ‘Lee’s ghee’)

The online response to Lee’s ventures from real South Asians have ranged from irritated to exasperated to flaming-hot angry as a juicy laal mirch. I have read dozens of Facebook rants and comments from everyone in my Masala Militia group (South Asian feminists) to sympathetic allies recognizing that Dares roaming around in an Indian shawl is disingenuous at best.

lees ghee

It must be noted that the Toronto Star is culpable surrounding ‘gheegate’. Their cavity-inducing story on Dares was stickier and sweeter than leftover sheer from gulab jamun in dessert bowl after a wedding. Does Michelle Henry even know that Gerrard Street exists? This issue even got several tweets from Globe & Mail Food Critic Chris Nuttall-Smith.

lees ghee

But first and foremost the responsibility lies at the non henna-ed feet of Lee Dares. In a situation as mortifying as ras malai left out all night on the counter, Dares kitchen in Leaside (an upscale neighbourhood in Toronto) happens to be within *minutes* of the largest South Asian Grocery Store in all of Ontario. And yes, they sell ghee.

Perhaps, Europeans are still reeling from the fact that Marco Polo likely discovered pasta in China and brought it back to his native Italy, who claimed it as their own culinary discovery.

To live in the most multicultural metropolis in Canada, with a vibrant and wonderful South Asian community at every corner of this great city, and be so steeped in ignorance is unforgivable. If Dares was going to offer some of her profits to the elderly women from northern India, from whom she learned this recipe, then perhaps I might be a little less inclined to accuse her of cultural-culinary theft. Or maybe not.

But this is too much. I can’t even begin to imagine what will happen if other non-South Asians find out the benefits of turmeric. *shudders*

lees ghee

(picture from ‘Bend it like Beckham’ as possibly the best way to capture most opinion by desis on ‘Lee’s ghee’.)

 

Shireen Ahmed is a writer, public speaker and sports activist focusing on Muslim women in Sports. She is an athlete, advocate, community organizer, and works with Youth of Colour on empowerment projects and is an avid sports coach and mentor. She is a regular contributor to Muslimah Media Watch, a Global Sports Correspondent for Safe World For Women and works on the Muslim Women in Sports website.

Her work has been featured and discussed in Racialicious, Policy Mic, The Globe and Mail, Jezebel, VICE Sports, Islamic Monthly, Soccer Politics/ The Politics of Football, A Football Report, Huffington Post, Football Beyond Borders, International Museum of Women, Best Health Magazine, Aquila Style, Muslim Voices, Women Talk Sports, Footynions, espnW and Edge of Sports Radio.

Shireen’s blog Tales from a Hijabi Footballer, where her passion for sport, politics and women’s issues collide, has been recognized by Sports Media for its candid discussions. She is currently working on her first book and drinks a lot of coffee. Shireen lives in Toronto, Canada with her family.

Follow her on Twitter: @_shireenahmed_

 

 

By: March 27, 2015

8 Comments


  • “But this is too much. I can’t even begin to imagine what will happen if other non-South Asians find out the benefits of turmeric. *shudders*”

    They already have. Can’t spend one second in the company of hippie/organic/vegan types without them going on and on about how turmeric in your green smoothie will cure cancer.


  • I am not entirely sure what the fuss is about. This is Toronto. Culinary cross-fertilization is a good thing, if only by being yet another tool to break down walls between ghettos.

    If we would live by the values expressed above, we’d be straight back in the 1950, where only the Irish would eat corned beef, only the Jamaicans would make patties and only the South-East Asian community would use ghee. Scary and counter-productive.


    • Margo, I believe the issue is profiting from culinary cross-fertilization while being blatantly ignorant of the communities that exist within your own country/city/neighbourhood.
      As the writer pointed out “To live in the most multicultural metropolis in Canada, with a vibrant and wonderful South Asian community at every corner of this great city, and be so steeped in ignorance is unforgivable….”


  • Margo, you miss the point. We aren’t saying you can’t eat ghee. We are saying you can’t steal it and then market it as your own and sell it for a ton and make a profit. If Lee gave a care for basic respect she would invite people to support the standing businesses of actual South Asians.


    • Uncle Bens has sold Basmati rice for years. Kraft sells Indian inspired curry sauces. Anybody complaining about those guys? Not as far as I can tell.

      Or is this about an easy target, a young, perhaps somewhat naive, woman who can’t fight back against the bullying masses? I am ashamed of some of the things that have been flung her way.

      All I see is a huge amount of petty jealousy.


      • Halal Foodie on April 14, 2015

        From what I remember, Uncle Ben’s basmati rice packaging looks the same as other flavours except the obvious name and beauty shot – also the price point is similar if not a little more than your regular rice. Same thing with other big brands that branch out into ethnic flavours.

        I can guarantee there would be similar reaction if Uncle Ben’s came out with basmati rice, called it artisanal and then sold it for 500% + profit margin. They don’t because they understand there is already basmati rice in the market.

        In South Asian culture ghee is just as much of a staple as rice which is why it’s so bizarre to see it fluffed like this.


  • Jealous much?

    Why didn’t you think of this and get out and market it first?

    Toronto is called a crab bucket, because crabs claw and pull other crabs back down and prevent them from reaching the top and escaping.

    This author is a crab.
    Rather then come up with a creative idea, they choose to pull others down to their own lackluster, despondent and whiney level.


    • LOL at Shahin. I didn’t have to “think of it first” as it was already thought of eons ago. I have nothing against entrepreneurial women, but marketing and taking another community’s tradition, capitalizing and dressing up to look a part (to which one clearly doesn’t belong) is ridiculous.
      You are certainly entitled to your own opinion. That can be done without labeling me -said author- a *whiny (not “whiney”) crustacean.


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