When I discovered palm grub sushi at a restaurant in Borneo, I understood full well that while I could milk it for Instagram shock and awe among my friends, this was old hat, or, rather, old protein (for the tribes in Borneo).
But when the West discovers something, it’s always like Columbus “discovering” America. It’s as if it did not exist before or at the least it did not matter before. The latest “discovery” is unripe jackfruit.
It’s a “vegan sensation”, according to The Guardian. The National Geographic wonders if it’s the next big meat substitute. Pinterest dubbed it one of the hottest food trends of 2017. The Jackfruit Company, the “#1 jackfruit brand in the United States”, has a line of packaged meals—Teriyaki Jackfruit Bowl, Tex-Mex Jackfruit, Smoked Pulled Jackfruit. What’s not to love? It’s good for the planet, easy to grow, high-yield. It’s “the miracle food”.
Of course, Indians have been living with the miracle for centuries, blissfully unaware because, as The Guardian says in a recent piece, it was just that “ugly, smelly, unfarmed, un-harvested pest plant native to India” which some people ate “but only if they had nothing better to eat”. In Indonesia, a street in Yogyakarta is lined with restaurant after restaurant specializing in gudeg, a sweetish jackfruit stew cooked for hours with coconut milk and palm sugar. They all have portraits of a stern-looking old lady, the gudeg queen of Yogyakarta, who opened the first gudeg restaurant there in 1942. But at the time the West didn’t care about the jackfruit. Now the jackfruit is ready for its close-up. Even Starbucks has put in a wrap somewhere! It’s as if the humble, dumpy jackfruit has been knighted. Arise, Sir Jack.
Indians who have been eating jackfruit for centuries are nonplussed. The old man who oils his hands and chops the sticky jackfruit for me at my local market in Kolkata has no idea that the West has suddenly discovered the meatiness of what Bengalis always called “tree mutton”. As Alok Jha, science correspondent at The Economist, tweeted, “...the idea of a very commonly-available non-Western food being ‘discovered’ by a (mildly-dismissive) white writer feels more like the subject of a Goodness Gracious Me sketch than a column in a newspaper that usually celebrates cultural and ethnic diversity.”
It reminds me of the time I was living in the US and walked into my local upmarket grocery store to be offered a chai-tea latte, a concoction reeking in equal proportions of redundancy, miscegenation and green cardamom. It was as if someone had taken my immigrant homesickness, made it entirely vanilla, packaged it and sold it back to me at 10 times the price. What’s worse is that after a few months, I even caught myself re-ordering it.
Cultural appropriation is sneaky like that. The gloss of the packaging is seductive as it adds a twist, turning the familiar into cool with a little Devanagari flourish to the font. Grandmother’s old-fashioned haldi doodh gets upsold as turmeric latte. Jackfruit is lucky. If it had been known only by names like enchor, kathal, chakka or palaakkai, it would have had to be re-christened like the Chinese gooseberry or mihoutao or macaque fruit which found worldwide love as the kiwi fruit. Now Chinese markets sometimes sell domestically grown mihoutao as “imported kiwifruit”, according to Time magazine. But jackfruit already sounds globalization-friendly. You could imagine it at McDonald’s—McJack has such a faux meaty ring to it.
All this is often seen as a way of the West embracing diversity, as if acceptance begins on your lunch plate. The logic goes that a country that embraces shawarmas, sushi and seekh kebabs is broadening not just its palate but also its mind. By that logic, if there are more tandoori restaurants in town, there should be fewer incidents like that one in Pennsylvania soon after 9/11 where nervous Americans reported their Pakistani neighbours to the FBI after spotting them carrying suspiciously large containers. FBI agents in moon suits burst in on a family cooking biryani. We can only hope that one day The Jackfruit Company will add jackfruit biryani to its repertoire or Starbucks could turn a burrito into a biryani wrap, making even chakka biryani mainstream. Anything is possible in this pick-and-choose, mix-and-match chai-latte multiculturalism.
The problem is the road to acceptance is paved neither with shawarma nor with jackfruit. US President Donald Trump might love his tacos but he still wants that wall with Mexico. All those coma-inducing all-you-can-eat Indian lunch buffets did not protect desis from hate crimes after 9/11. Nor did they save Srinivas Kuchibhotla, the Indian engineer in a Kansas bar, attacked for being “Iranian” in 2017. Appropriation is always about the product, not the people. The people are eminently dispensable.
The downward dog taught us that. My gym in California had a yoga class. It also had a physical trainer who once complained that Indians smelt funny. Anyway, as anyone who has attended a yoga class in San Francisco knows, the last thing you need in a yoga class any more is an Indian. In fact, these days Indians can sell yoga to other Indians in Mumbai as authentic Madonna-blessed, America-returned power yoga.
Food is the new yoga. American supermarkets are laden with kefir and kombucha in ever more probiotic flavours unknown to their countries of origin. Our old-fashioned dahi is not as cool as its American cousin, probiotic yogurt. Even the marketing head at Danone was quoted once as saying that yogurt “is basically dahi that went abroad and came back”.
Thus there is no reason to get too excited about the West’s discovery of the miracles of jackfruit. As of now, they have steered clear of the voluptuous splendour of the ripe jackfruit cleaved open in extravagant wantonness, perhaps scared off by the shiny blue-black flies drawn to its cloying overripe smell. My great-grandmother, who loved it, much to the horror of the rest of the fastidious family, is probably chortling somewhere.
Of course, this is a two-way street. While jackfruit goes to the West, Cheddar comes to India. But there is a difference. We love Cheddar and Gouda because of their foreign pedigree, not because we can appropriate them, repackage them, add an Indian twist and sell them back to the natives. Imitation for us is still all about flattery, not appropriation. My friend goes to Ooty and discovers some locally sourced cranberry yogurt and Cheddar for breakfast. Both were quite good, she says, somewhat sheepishly, as someone who swears by her desi dahi and has no fondness for either cranberries or American-style yogurt. But she also wonders what it means if it’s easier to find Cheddar and Camembert in metro India now than some truly local cheese from Bandel or Kashmir.
Could Tex-Mex jackfruit be the next food trend in India?
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues that we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.
He tweets at @sandipr