November 2, 2015
by Nashwa Khan
Dear Murgh Makhani aka “Butter Chicken,”
Although your roots are North Indian, you’ve infiltrated the crevices of greasy food trucks and stained the tablecloths at fancy North American restaurants. I should be proud of you: after all, my grandfather hails from Nagpur. Yet I detest you, despise you; I want to forget your name, add it to a long list of ex-lovers, and hope Taylor Swift will dismiss you.
You should be family but we have bad blood—and not the rudimentary stuff in Swift’s video. We have more of an unsettled debt and I’m here to collect it, “Bitch Better Have My Money”-style.
You sit in a sulky state, an orange-red curry pool surrounding your archipelagic chunks of chicken. Each time we meet it is a stare-off, and you seem to be on a winning streak. Now we meet more often; you’re like some embarrassing Tinder date who’s moved into the neighbourhood with the self-congratulatory intentions of every purportedly apolitical gentrifier.
Unlike Taylor Swift, I do not have the will to dedicate you a ballad, but I have a few things I have left unsaid.
I walked into the grocery store recently, and there you were: lying in a cart in a purple Lay’s chip bag while shoppers excitedly told one another, “Can you believe it? There is a butter chicken flavour of Lay’s!”
You are haunting me everywhere I go and more people are falling in love with you; they presume that I, too, must be in love with you. If you ask me, the assumption is orientalist. Butter chicken, you’ve been bastardized as chips, shredded onto pizza, thrown into wraps, and sold as frozen dinners. You’re used and abused to add an exotic kick, but you will never capture my heart—no matter how many times people assume that you do. I see you added to poutine, but assimilation by way of cheese curds has not changed my heart. Yet for so many whose tastebuds you have graced, you are that slight, spicy tang for which they have long lusted.
Perhaps this is a side effect of the ubiquitous Canadian presumption that brown people are identical and have the same cuisines. Even the notion of “brown people” is one rarely unpacked. The Partition of India did not happen because brown people are homogeneous. But alas, here in Canada many assume that we are all the same, ergo we must all like you, butter chicken.
I don’t need white people to love you, but not your “gross” curried siblings—it implies white people can determine which of our dishes are worthy.
You represent the whitewashing of foods and the highjacking of a culture that I am not willing to share just yet.
Cultural “exchange” has been shoved down my throat, just like you—but reparations have not been paid.
I am often told how I am lucky to eat so many “diverse” foods. I usually laugh it off or attempt to smile politely. I tend to avoid engaging with these comments in an honest way. I know it could result in an awkward tango I don’t have time for nor do I care to start. If I show disdain or point out that these foods are not so “diverse” to me, I get painted as ungrateful for others’ “acceptance” of my food. As a brown woman I should submissively be honoured that white people accept my culture, albeit only when on their tongues. My smile serves as a white flag of surrender, an exhausted gesture of reluctance—I do not have it in me to fight a battle over you, butter chicken.
The smile, unfortunately, often serves as a green light for people to start listing “ethnic” cuisines they love, often including Western concoctions that don’t necessarily exist in my culture. Sometimes the cuisines they list do not belong to my people at all; they belong to others. I’ve lost the energy to educate them, because all that matters to most people is not where the food is from but the Instagram photo: true evidence of the cultured white person.
I tend to zone out if the forced tango ensues. The line to which I am most averse may come of no surprise: “I looooooooove butter chicken.” This is no fault of the dish—my hatred is by affiliation. Butter chicken, you have become a tragic, whitewashed dish masquerading as Indian cuisine. You are not something I consumed until university. I am Pakistani and Moroccan: a combination that yields glorious dishes though butter chicken is not one of them.
I am in a non-consensual relationship with you, butter chicken. You are my silent stalker: an extended lovers’ quarrel I never signed up for.
I used to be self-conscious about school lunches. I used to whitewash the food I would eat at home in response to other kids’ questions about what I’d had for dinner the previous night. I often felt like a puzzle piece that never fit, one that had fallen off a table and bent out of place. I relished the opportunity to eat lunchables and feel like other kids, bonding over meat that resembled soggy bandages.
I am now grateful for the nights I had couscous instead of hot dogs, rich homemade lentil soups instead of canned ones. The food that earned me jeers and made me feel othered as a kid has largely been watered down and bastardized by the world around me. You weren’t a part of my childhood, butter chicken, but the assumption is that we were friends.
White people dominate determining what foods are acceptable. I have a complex relationship with food white people deem “exotic”—politicized foods. I want to share parts of my culture, but I am also starting to realize that food seems to taste better when the waiter is white. Are my foods improved when embraced by world famous chefs? I am in an ethical dilemma when I watch those who ridiculed my family for smelling like curry now enjoying eating curries. Our food was not appreciated until it was appropriated.
Now that I am older, my dad has changed the narrative of his happy immigration to Canada. He tells me of the racial slurs he endured, and my aunt tells me about white girls who told her to take showers whenever she ate curry.
Now the taste buds on those colonizers’ slur-hurling tongues water from the smell of Paki curry.
Now they craft our dishes, the descendants of the Europeans who colonized this land, and my family’s too.
Now they love our food, but do they love us?
People will rattle off and explain my foods to me, as if hoping this exchange will produce a bond. Something to ground themselves in relation to my brown self. Something that will constitute a cultural exchange.
But no matter how you slice this samosa, I will always be a Paki’s child.
Our foods are devoured and our lands ravaged by imperialism: the Pakis so many hated and continue to hate. Cardamom and saffron lace white dishes just lightly enough to be called “fusion.”
My culture’s food may now be palatable but my existence is not.
Butter chicken, I never intended to loathe you, but I do. I do not see my future as one where I will be able to embrace you while everyone else does in the form of chips, sprinkled on poutine, or shredded on an artisanal flatbread. In a post-Eat, Pray, Love world it seems that white people want to be congratulated for being willing to consume you.
I want you to be consumed by the audience you deserve, murgh makhani. Perhaps one that never berated you when you were sold in dingy stores by immigrants trying to get by. Maybe an audience that does not only admire you when you are infused with something else. I think I’m still rooting for you.
In reluctant solidarity,
Nashwa Khan is currently living and learning in the Greater Toronto Area. During her undergraduate career at McMaster she served on Hamilton’s Status of Women Committee, McMaster’s Women and Gender Equity Network, and chaired the City of Hamilton’s Youth Advisory Council. Her work has been published in a variety of places including Vice, RH Reality Check, This Magazine, and the HuffingtonPost. She is currently enrolled in the Masters of Environmental Studies at York University with a focus on creating access to safe(r) spaces in healthcare for marginalized populations. She is an avid storyteller, lover of medical humanities, and public health education. Feel free to tweet her @nashwakay.
Image: Louise Reimer
“An Open Letter to Butter Chicken” is from our FOOD/LAND Issue (fall 2015)