Alison Roman, the Colonization of Spices, and the Exhausting Prevalence of Ethnic Erasure in Popular Food Culture
Look back in history long enough and a certain portrait starts to appear of how our interconnected world was formed, and in the same way civilizations were built by slave labor and human bondage, so were they shaped by a desire for spice. The spice trade helped build the Silk Road, buoying the economies and expanding the palates of ancient empires who in turn traded for, or sometimes just stole, resources from other areas of the world. China. India. Persia. Sri Lanka. Madagascar. Ethiopia. And then, with time, those spices became sought after by other cultures, too. Think of colonization and the subjugation of huge swathes of the world. By the English. By the Portuguese. By the French. By the Dutch. We talk about fusion cuisine, but sometimes we ignore that the French influence in Vietnam, or the Gullah influence in the American coastal South, or the Indian influence in the UK, are all built on spilled blood. To ignore those cultural traditions in the food we make is to exercise our own ignorance.
And so, we need to talk about Alison Roman. Food celebrity, influencer, renowned cookbook author. Published in the New York Times as a biweekly columnist, popular because of her previous stint as a senior food editor at Bon Appetit. The creator of what is allegedly “Instagram’s favorite cookie.” Fawned over by the media and by her devotees, the self-described Roman Empire. The subject of countless features. The author of recipes that people dub as the definitive version of something. The shallot pasta. The chicken and dumplings. The brussels sprouts. The entire NYT Cooking section seems devoted to her work, and before this weekend, if you Googled her name, you would probably pull up one of the numerous profiles of and interviews with her. From Jezebel. From Modern Adventure. Even from places like Madewell and J. Crew, with whom Roman has partnered on sponsored content.
The only pushback to Roman before she went after Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo for the gall to have careers, how dare they, seemed to be from certain corners of Food Twitter, and from certain voices. Non-white voices. POC voices who saw Alison Roman using ingredients like cardamom and harissa, kimchi and turmeric, labneh and tahini, and wondered why Roman acted as if those components didn’t come with certain cultural traditions attached. Wondered why she didn’t seem to mention those cultural traditions very often. Wondered why she would list a Middle Eastern grocery store founded by a Lebanese family as her favorite grocery store, but not follow that up with something like, “Shopping there has really expanded my cadre of spices and my understanding of the world.” Why so mum on the cultures she’s mimicking on her path to overwhelming success?
This brings us to The Stew. Perhaps you have heard about The Stew (full name: Spiced Chickpea Stew With Coconut and Turmeric), because for months I couldn’t not hear about this damn dish. People I follow on Twitter were excitedly making it. Various cooking blogs were putting their own spins on it. Even pop culture websites like The A.V. Club were writing columns about the recipe. This was supposed to be the quintessential Roman recipe: easy, flavor-packed, perfect for a weeknight. People lost their fucking minds over this shit! Unless you were a brown person. And then you looked at the word “stew” and scoffed. Roman made herself a curry and refused to acknowledge that she had made a curry, and this is colonialism as cuisine. This is exactly what people have been grumbling about—the people who often aren’t included in the highest influencer echelons, as Roman now is.
Let me list some of the ingredients of this “stew” for you: ginger, turmeric, chickpeas, coconut milk, and lavash, pita, or any other kind of flatbread. I grew up with these flavors, with my mother cooking Indian recipes she had gotten from friends at the hospital where she was a nurse. Lavash is a kind of flatbread made throughout the Middle East, and my Iranian parents would drive two hours every month or so to buy bread like lavash from a specific Iranian bakery in Virginia. I would take Iranian bread to school every so often as part of my lunch, and other kids would make fun of me for not eating “normal” white bread. Did some of those little jerks grow up to make The Stew? Maybe!
But this isn’t a stew, nor is it a soup, as I saw some other cooking blogs try to claim. This is a curry. These are the ingredients of a curry. Yes, “curry” is itself a broad description of a certain kind of dish that has different manifestations throughout Asia, that has been adapted countless times. I don’t want to be too precious with language here, yet Roman’s refusal to acknowledge the reality of the dish she made is immensely aggravating. To Jezebel, she denied the cultural influences at play in the dish she made, and in doing so, made herself seem at best amateurish and at worst, well, sort of racist. From that Jezebel piece:
The stew’s popularity, though, also brought some trouble, in that it could be interpreted as a curry—a watered-down version of a Jamaican dish, or an Indian one, or a Japanese one. Though Roman is quick to assure me that she never positioned the stew that way, its eventual detractors took issue with the dint of cultural appropriation. Should the stew should be called a curry, and if it was, why would Roman be making it?
“I’m like y’all, this is not a curry…I’ve never made a curry, I don’t come from a culture that knows about curry,” Roman explains, with an air of exasperation.”I come from no culture. I have no culture. I’m like, vaguely European.” The head note of the recipe in the Times was eventually adjusted in light of the stew’s popularity and the outcry. “Spiced chickpeas are crisped in olive oil, then simmered in a garlicky coconut milk for an insanely creamy, basically-good-for-you stew that evokes South Indian chana and some stews found in parts of the Caribbean,” it now reads. Clarity, at last.
And in fact, the NYT page for the Spiced Chickpea Stew With Coconut and Turmeric is one of the only recipes I found of Roman’s to mention any cultural or ethnic influence at all. This is how the recipe is currently described by the NYT:
Spiced chickpeas are crisped in olive oil, then simmered in a garlicky coconut milk for an insanely creamy, basically-good-for-you stew that evokes stews found in South India and parts of the Caribbean. While the chickpeas alone would be good as a side dish, they are further simmered with stock, bolstered with dark, leafy greens of your choosing and finished with a handful of fresh mint. When shopping, be sure to avoid low-fat coconut milk, coconut milk meant for drinking or cream of coconut: All are very different and would not be suitable here.
Why should you care about this? Because Roman’s refusal to acknowledge the groups and peoples and cultures she’s pulling from allows her to present herself as the sole authority on these kinds of foods. Look at her own quote up there: “I’m like, vaguely European.” Sure! Lots of people are! But Roman’s exclusion is not self-deprecating, not really. It’s a way to absorb other people’s identities and present them as her own expertise, and her own expertise only. And, if I may be extremely cynical, it allows Roman to play to a certain kind of reader. Someone who doesn’t want to make Indian food because ew, it’s smelly, or Chinese food, because ew, they eat bats, or Iranian food because ew, they’re terrorists. Roman gets to be the next great white hope, and it’s all over pieces like this one in Modern Adventure, where Roman basically acts as if she and she alone has discovered Vietnamese cuisine for the first time.
All of that looks worse now, of course, when Roman has gone after Teigen and Kondo, two women of Asian heritage. But it speaks to a larger problem within this food influencer culture itself, which is that we often give people outside of certain ethnic groups the authority on that group’s food. From this piece by Lorraine Chuen:
I do not doubt that these people are talented chefs. But what irks me is that many will argue that they deserve the title of ‘authority’, and that despite their whiteness, they are hardly foreigners. After all, many of these chefs have years of classical training (or personal study) in the countries they specialize in. They’ve learned the language! They know the people! They’ve immersed themselves in the culture! They’ve studied the craft! How positively adventurous! How very admirable! But here’s the thing: my parents—and every other immigrant—moved to a new country and learned the language, got to know the people, adopted their way of life, simply because they were forced to, and not because it was fun or exotic or interesting or something that they were curious or passionate about. How come we don’t see swaths of immigrants being publicly lauded for culturally assimilating?
It’s only special when White people do it, I guess.
And from this thread by writer Ahmed Ali Akbar:
Even in pieces that are somewhat critical of the murkiness surrounding Roman’s stew recipe, she’s let off the hook for just wanting to make things easy, you know, unlike those probably problematic non-white cooks. From J. Bryan Lowder at Slate:
Contra curry, it also has an air of unfussy ease. Who couldn’t figure out how to throw a stew together if they wanted? And it feels wholesome, an association that Roman underlined in her column by explicitly situating #TheStew in the trendy, self-care/indulgence zone of the “healthy-ish.” No one can object to a stew: It’s substantive, sustaining, and democratic—common ground in a world with increasingly little. Considering that, it’s no surprise that when Roman’s particularly accessible recipe hit our feeds, we proved hungry for it.
It’s all very tiring, to see the ways people bend over backward to allow Roman to act simultaneously unaware of who she’s ignoring with her food, and then continue to hand her opportunities. And it’s especially disheartening given that Roman talks the talk of inclusive feminism. This was her response when TheKitchn when asked “what inspires you in food right now”:
I think that people starting to acknowledge that there’s a lack of diversity of voices is really great. I think everybody’s trying at least a little bit to be more inclusive of people of color and different genders and sexualities and backgrounds and ethnicities and socioeconomic class, and that’s so important because for so long it was basically dominated by rich white men.
But the reality is that what we’re seeing from Roman is exactly the type of white feminism that doesn’t speak to intersectionality. And I’m not trying to say that other cultures or ethnicities would, or should, only be validated by the approval of white people. That is exactly the kind of bullshit that I think so many chefs of color are trying to avoid since they know that they are expected to be experts on their own food and also be experts in, say, French cuisine. That sort of thinking is a trap. But I think it’s the bare minimum to do even a fraction of what Anthony Bourdain did on No Reservations or Parts Unknown, or what the latter seasons of Chef’s Table have done, or what Samin Nosrat does in Salt Fat Acid Heat, or what Nadiya Hussain is doing with her new show Time to Eat: acknowledging how our history shapes our food.
I understand that people get irritated when they feel like they have to read an essay before diving into the recipe, and I can already hear the grumblings: “Do I really need to know about North African culture before using harissa?” Yeah, dude, maybe you should! Your lack of an attention span should not excuse cultural erasure! And honestly, if I’m being really real, I’m sort of disheartened by the fact that Roman’s cancellation, however brief it may be, only seems to have been brought about by her going after some of the Internet’s faves in Chrissy and Marie. Would we have been so outraged if, say, Roman openly went after Najmieh Batmanglij, or Joudie Kalla, or Ming Tsai? I have to hope so. But given my lived experience as a brown woman, well, I doubt it.