Embracing difference with Mallika Basu
Food writer and consultant Mallika Basu explores cultural sensitivity and diversity in the food & drink industry – an area where there’s certainly more work to be done by producers and retailers
Have you seen the meme of the Happy Ramadan banner hanging above an alcohol promotion in a supermarket? Did you know that only an estimated 2% of the UK’s food & drink businesses are black-owned? Have you ever tried Gujarati curry paste – supposedly inspired by a cuisine that doesn’t use cooking sauces?
When it comes to cultural sensitivity and diversity, there is still a lot to be learned in the UK food & drink world.
Independent retailers and smaller brands are adept at translating trends into products for discerning customers, and the mainstreaming of diverse cultures means we now have a world of opportunities to showcase different tastes and flavours. However, that world has also seen some sweeping changes in recent times.
Global movements like Me Too and Black Lives Matter have brought injustices to the fore while conflicting opinions on issues, ideologies and national identity get played out angrily online. In this environment, every organisation, brand and business has a role to play in setting wrongs right and addressing injustice and lack of opportunity.
Representation is low. As stated, just 2% of the UK’s 7,400-plus food & drink businesses are black-owned, with no more than three black-owned brands having national distribution. The barriers are many, including lack of access to funding.
While this is a larger socio-economic issue, some companies have found ways to improve the environment for entrepreneurs from minority backgrounds. There is Add Psalt, founded by the UK MD of Innocent Sam Akinluyi, which specifically champions and helps black-owned food & drink to overcome these barriers. More of these kinds of initiatives are needed, though.
Then there is the challenge of working sensitively with the food and flavours of other cultures. How do you commercialise from a culture in a way that doesn’t ‘other’, reduce or offend the very community you are profiting from? Attempts are often mired in lack of understanding, ignorance and – increasingly – the fear of getting it wrong.
A shift in mindset starts with understanding bias. Looking for similarity and familiarity is a basic human instinct – it helps us makes sense of the world – but problems arise when it colours our judgement. Attitudes and opinions that sometimes date back to a colonial past often get in the way of diversity and inclusion. Terms like “exotic fruit” and “ethnic aisles” create accidental othering of minority cultures.
Reductive and incorrect terminology can at once erase centuries-old customs and cultures. The “Asian Salad Dressing” is a case in point – where the tastes and techniques of some 48 countries are mixed into oblivion.
Consumer desire for convenience and familiar formats can also lead producers to commit crimes against cultural foods. Gujarati curry paste is a fictional creation, because this Indian state doesn’t cook with sauces. Katsu Curry Sauces are also inaccurate because the word ‘katsu’ means ‘breaded cutlet’ in Japanese, and is not a type of sauce.
These instances highlight the need for ‘decolonisation’, which is the rebalance of power between a dominant culture and indigenous people.
The quickest way to deconstruct colonial attitudes, is to flip them and ask how you would feel if someone did it to you? Colonial attitudes fuel cultural appropriation, the practice of a culture with a colonial past exploiting the products of communities beyond its own for financial gain.
For people from cultures that have been subjected to difficult recent histories, it is a hundred times more significant to have artefacts of their culture repeatedly mistreated.
While it may not seem like a major issue to some people, food is a cultural artefact and needs to be treated with care. I should stress that there is nothing wrong with cultural inspiration where there can be – and often is – deep engagement, platforming and support.
Underlying all good NPD, of course, is robust research and understanding. Holidays in Kerala do not an expert make, and Google has its limitations.
Retailers can play their part in improving things too. They should make a point of asking producers where they get their intelligence. Language and labels can be a particular challenge. There is a difference between Vietnamese, Vietnamese-style and Vietnamese-inspired. Humour can be offensive, especially if it reinforces stereotypes or uses outdated cultural references.
While product, shelf and store labels can be limited in space, QR codes and websites can do much to help sensitively communicate the history and inspiration behind a product.
This feeds into representation. Diversity and inclusion initiatives should reflect the local community, the shop floor, local and national trends. Can your customers buy products from their own cultures in store? Do they have a say?
Diversity without inclusion is like having a seat at the table but not being given a chance to speak. Initiatives need to be embedded across departments with strategic thinking and rigour. The same organisations with diversity tick boxes, and ‘good business credentials’ often get called out online for running roughshod with their product development and marketing (think about the Ramadan meme!).
Importantly, diversity and inclusion is about information, knowledge and systemic change. It is not an add-on. To use a food analogy, it’s a spice, not a seasoning, and the ones who will do it well will bake it in, not view it as the icing on the cake.