The Cultural Appropriation of Traditional Food

In a country as diverse as South Africa, we are blessed with a multitude of ethnicities and a plethora of food cultures. Our rainbow nation melting pot has made it easy to appreciate and enjoy different cultural foods.

Some like the humble samoosa, the robust amagwinya (vetkoek) or the Cape Malay Koesister, have found a mainstream home in many cafés and restaurants across cultures. However, when it comes to mainstream retailers offering these traditional foods on a commercial level, people tend to become more sensitive. Walking the tightrope between “Appreciation” and “Appropriation” is a fine line.

Maryam Rumaney examines this prickly issue and how local foodies feel about the commercialization of traditional recipes by Big Retail. ­­

“It’s a travesty!”, shouted the people of the land.

Once upon a time there was a little girl who was excited to grow up and do her own shopping. Then she grew up and started to do so, only to realize that it was devoid of joy because all her grandmother’s recipes had been stolen by big retailers and posed as their own. Many people in the land sang the praises of big retailers and applauded the convenience. However, there was another group in the land that opposed this and called big retailers out on their fraud and sang “Cultural Appropriation” from the top of their voices. The latter group was labelled “controversial” by the former, and a gastronomical war broke out in the land.

“All is fair in love and war.”

As the grown-up girl walked down the aisles of the store, she found that there are retailers who sell products under the brand of the small owner. She reported this to the people of the land. The people of the land loved this, and everyone encouraged this act because it helps small businesses to grow.

As the grown-up girl ventured from store to store, she soon learnt that all is not fair in love and war. She would soon learn that there are many injustices in the retail world. One big issue being the commercialization of recipes that belong to certain cultural groups. Recipes are not patented, and thus cannot be legally protected, and this is why big retail food chains can exploit these traditional recipes.

The grown-up girl discovered an ethical dilemma in which big retail does not really care about the consumer. It is all profit driven. After all, it is “money, not love, that makes the world go round”. She was raised to believe that “love conquers all”, but big retail was only singing the “money”, song as they cashed in on all those juicy monthly profits.

Recipes hold stories. They hold memories. They hold love. They hold emotion. It was now emotion and gumption that was driving the people of the land to boycott these retailers that were stealing recipes. They wrote, they sang, they protested. They made posters and refused to support big retailers. They took their funds elsewhere and made little businesses rich. These home industries grew to great heights and accomplished wonderful feats in the land and thereby adding benefit to society.

As a South African Indian, my grandmother’s recipes are not for sale to the colonizer mindset of Big Retail. As a consumer you have buying power, and even more so within the scope of the Halaal industry. Big retailers love to feed off “inclusion” and “diversity”, but this is far from the truth. As a consumer I do not feel represented by seeing barfi on the shelves at a big retail supermarket. I feel EXPLOITED!

Big retailers pay big bucks to fund highly attractive marketing campaigns. They will send you emails with “tablescapes” for Eid and Ramadan, perfectly curated with moon, stars and recipe ideas for the day. Personally, I find it offensive. This article is intended to be an eye opener and a thought-piece for all South Africans. We are uniquely South African because of our heritage. We are diverse and have stories to share. The hardship, the joy, the celebration, and the love in the form of food, that can be explained by those recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation. Every Indian grandmother has her secret spice mix for biryani and a hidden gem that makes her soji recipe turn out to be a “rare” delicacy. We all have those recipes that cannot truly be replicated. Something we call our own. Something that adds “mystery to the cooking pot” and “spice to life”.

“Let’s change the world!”

As the grown-up girl went through life, she learned that she could change the world by providing solutions to the problems. She suggested that there should be some regulations in place, and it would have a positive impact. For example, retailers should source small business owners when they wish to stock items with cultural significance. They should be barred from placing their own labels on products and should have programs in place that allow small businesses to grow.

“It takes a village.”

If we can return to a “community-based” approach, in which big retailers share in the abundance then we can create a healthier South Africa on all fronts. Opportunity empowers positive outcomes.

By Maryam Bibi Rumaney
Maryam is a molecular scientist by profession with a passion for writing. She currently works as a freelance consultant offering laboratory advisory, scientific editing, and English language services. She loves to travel and is always looking for the next adventure. Connect with her at http://www.mbrumaney.co/


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  • I totally agree. Some things are just not meant to be bought at a big retailer. The koeksister from the aunty down the road cannot be mass produced and definitely does not taste the same as the one in the supermarket.