On social media, it’s hard to tell at what point righteous anger becomes a form of self-parody, but one suspects that the distinction has ceased to matter. Take, for example, the long Twitter thread posted by Shailaja Patel on the links between racism, prejudice against South Asians and the long history of, as she put it, “colonial slaughter, plunder and mass starvation”. And what target was the Indian-origin Kenyan writer and activist taking aim at with this politically-loaded cannon? A tweet by a prominent American — and importantly, White male — writer, Tom Nichols, saying, “Indian food is terrible and we pretend it isn’t.’’
Patel wasn’t the only one outraged by Nichols’ “take” (opinion), which was a response to a tweet by another user inviting “controversial food takes”. Other prominent Indian-origin users who responded with disbelief or outrage, included Padma Lakshmi, who asked “Do you not have tastebuds?” and writer and journalist Ishaan Tharoor, who explained how pointless it is to lump all the diverse cuisines of India into a single category. Various others wondered if he’d ever tasted “good” Indian food or whether he was aware that Indian food went beyond “tikka masalas”.
One can see why Padma Lakshmi, Tharoor and hundreds of others were provoked. There is a long history of discrimination in the West against South Asians, particularly when it comes to food. It’s well-documented that many, as racial justice activist Saira Rao pointed out in one of her tweets, were taunted as children about how their food “smells” and, as adults, were told by potential landlords that they were undesirable tenants because they would make the property stink of “curry”. It’s not too outrageous, therefore, to link Nichols’ tweet — especially given his use of the word “we” — to an ingrained belief amongst many non-Indian and mostly White people that Indian food is unpalatable and, therefore, in some way, unacceptable in polite society.
And yet, the furore over Nichols’ tweet seems overblown, probably because South Asians — especially NRIs (who were the most vociferous critics of Nichols’ opinion) have never had a greater global cachet, in modern times, than they do at present. Also, what did Nichols really do except respond to a solicitation for controversial food takes with something that was, in that sense, designed to generate the kind of outrage that it did, in fact, provoke?
However, beyond the good and the bad takes on Nichols’ original take on Indian food, lies the opportunity to understand what is it that makes Indian food so delicious. And could it be that what makes it so delicious is also what makes it so polarising in terms of acceptance by a wider audience? The answer, as discovered in 2015 by a group of researchers from IIT Jodhpur, is that this may indeed be the case. In a paper titled “Spices form the basis of food pairing in Indian cuisine”, researchers Anupam Jain, Rakhi NK and Ganesh Bagler concluded that while Western cuisines rely on positive food pairing, Indian cuisine is marked by negative food pairing. In other words, ingredients which share a larger flavour profile are less likely to be used together in Indian food, unlike food in Western cuisines which rely on overlapping flavours in individual ingredients to make their food delicious. To put it even more simply: Indians bring together clashing flavours to make food that is, for many, unbeatable in taste.
Does this mean that Nichols was racist or just plain unlucky in never having tasted the right kind or variety of Indian food? The answer maybe neither. In a separate tweet on the same subject, he also mentioned disliking Korean food, another cuisine which makes good use of negative food pairing. So perhaps Nichols just doesn’t like his flavours to clash. It doesn’t matter. There are enough of us who do.