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Movement: The Forgotten Ingredient Part II

Whose Story is it Anyway? Food, Language and Appropriation

As part of Movement: The Forgotten Ingredient, an online Chefs’ Manifesto gathering in partnership with the London SDG2 Advocacy Hub that took place on July 6th and 7th, a selection of guests and panellists discussed language and its role in the appropriation and misappropriation of food.

Ozoz Sokoh, food explorer and researcher, joined Chef Michael Elegbede on a panel discussing the role of movement in our experience of food. Using the example of palm oil, Ozoz explained that the single-track thinking towards one ingredient, palm oil – admittedly farmed under dubious circumstances in certain parts of the world – breeds condescension and dismissal of cultures tarred by the same brush, farming and using the same ingredient sustainably elsewhere.

Scratching further beneath the surface, many of problems with palm oil can be attributed to western refinement processes and western companies driving the market towards social, environmental and public health comprimises, added Michael Elgbede, chairing the panel.

Kudos to the Cultures that Co-create

The free-flowing movement of ingredients has, naturally, been forever accompanied by migration of recipes and belief-systems around food, as evident in Californian sushi as it is in a Dutch flat white. But, with thousands of miles, millennia and multiple steps of migration now under the belt of most food scenes, how are the contributing conduit cultures credited for their respective roles? Well, often, they are not. Ozoz picks apart this question with the example of ‘golden turmeric rice.’

Repatriation for Rebuilding National Identity

When a food system is systemically pushed out, how does a culture reclaim it? This question has been front and centre of the work of Francis Mwanza, former Head of WFP London, as he experiments with re-introducing traditional fruit and vegetable varieties to his native Zambia. Francis discusses how these varieties were lost and the benefits of re-introducing them.

As Francis went on to explain, in Zambia the adaption of a rich and diverse food system through colonialism, to one both uniform and western-oriented has meant that, over time, local varieties of vegetables have become considered food of the poor man. Under imperial government and in the years that followed, people have looked down on their own foods, returning to them only when desperate. Through this process, Francis discussed the perception problem that so many local foods face, hypothesising that the potential to realise nutritional gains could come through marketing. By branding and packaging old varieties considered out of trend, presenting them in much the same way as larger, commercial foodstuffs, traditional ingredients could see their market value, share and accessibility restored.

Calling Food by its Proper Name

Throughout the two-day event, knowledge and historical understanding were highlighted as critical starting points for reclamation of an appropriated food culture. To understand and to name is to re-define ownership and identity within food. Using the example of Bambara groundnuts, South African Chef Linah Maruping explained the origin of the nut’s name in her locality – ‘bone nuts’ for their tough outer shells. As mentioned already by Francis Mwanza, traditional ingredients such as these not only face a perception problem (as primitive peasant food), but have been pushed out through the resulting low demand and, as in the case of bambarra nuts, resurface as something entirely different in appearance (shelled and packaged in supermarkets, bearing no resemblance to their traditional counterparts, thus confining the local name to historical reference).

We are More Similar than We Think

It is only upon understanding our own food culture that we can begin to understand that of others, and subsequently just how much we share. For Ozoz’s closing point, she explained why the most common ingredient in the world is smoke.

This is the third in a series of five articles covering the main themes of the Chefs’ Manifesto online events held on 6th and 7th July 2020. Keep an eye out for further articles over the coming weeks:

Waste or the Movement of Food in a Circular Economy

A Sustainable Supply Chain 

To find out more about The Chefs’ Manifesto or the SDG2 Advocacy Hub, visit their site here.