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Whose curry is it anyway?

The cultural appropriation debate has finally reached the Berlin food scene. So, who gets to cook what?

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Daeng Khamlao runs The Panda Noodle in Kreuzberg and is one of Berlin’s loudest voices in the debate over cultural appropriation in food. Photo: Maria Bogachek

Chicken and rice: it seems like an almost banal dish. A portion of poached chicken, a small mound of rice, a bowl of the poaching broth, two little dishes of sauce. And yet this tray of colourful plates, as served by Daeng Khamlao at her lunch spot The Panda Noodle in Kreuzberg, means so much more: it tastes of home, of belonging.

But to whom does this dish belong? Who owns culinary identity? These are questions that Khamlao herself has been grappling with, both as a Thai restaurateur and as one of Berlin’s loudest voices in the heated debate over cultural appropriation in food.

In this context, “cultural appropriation” doesn’t merely mean someone from one culture cooking the dishes of another. Berlin is rife with Vietnamese sushi chefs and German pizzaiolos; Khamlao has even been known to offer a Thai riff on spaghetti Bolognese. The problem, as she sees it, is when white restaurateurs assume an air of authority on cuisines to which they have no family or cultural ties, positioning themselves as “more authentic” than the Asian snack bar around the corner – and profiting commensurately. She refers to it as “picking the raisins out of the cake”: taking a culture’s recipes while jettisoning the cultural background, the long struggle for recognition and belonging, the stories and experiences that lie behind the individual plate.

They see a bunch of Asian people in the kitchen and order a ‘China Box’, or ask for sushi. They don’t even take the time to look at the menu.

She’s been running The Panda Noodle for a good five years now – with some success. At lunchtime, all the seats are often taken, with happy faces at the tables, spooning creamy curry, tucking into fragrant rice and tender chicken, or slurping Khamlao’s version of Sichuan dan dan noodles, a nod to the Chinese part of her family. But it wasn’t always like this. When she opened in 2016, she says, “No one outside our neighbourhood was interested in us.” Even now, some walk-in customers “see a bunch of Asian people in the kitchen and order a China Box, or ask for sushi. They don’t even take the time to look at the menu.”

‘Premium’ street food

Which must have made it all the more frustrating when, say, Khwan – the northeastern Thai barbecue restaurant owned by a white Londoner – took Berlin by storm not long after Panda Noodle opened. Or when, during the 2020-21 pandemic lockdowns, the online food world swooned over a home-style Thai delivery service from Khwan’s British ex-chef. “What annoys me the most is when some create that narrative around themselves to explain why they’re cooking this specific food, so they spin this story of, ‘I’m diving into the culture, I’ve studied it.’ When a Thai woman opens a restaurant, it just seems like this natural thing – I’m Thai, so of course it’s ‘easy’ for me to cook Thai food. Whereas for these guys, it’s so special and outstanding that the second they open their doors, they’re celebrated as the hottest new thing,” says Khamlao.

Some are even arrogant enough to ‘improve’ on other cultures’ recipes, using trendy methods like brining or sous vide for their ‘Thai street food’. “No one does it that way in Thailand. If you have a market stall by yourself, you don’t have time to prepare a chicken for 24 hours before it’s sold.” With ‘premium’ food comes ‘premium’ prices, which she herself doesn’t have the luxury of demanding. A white chef, she points out, “could charge €9 for a grilled chicken thigh and no one would question it. But I’ve had customers – honestly, only white customers – walk out when I tell them that my Thai lunch costs €9.80. It’s internalised with all Asian people I know. Why do we always have to stay under two digits to make it appealing to white people?”

I’ve had customers – honestly, only white customers – walk out when I tell them that my Thai lunch costs €9.80.

For the Thai-born, Hesse-raised Khamlao, food is intertwined with identity but also exclusion: she recalls being afraid to bring family dishes to school. “As a migrant kid growing up in a white country, you spend most of your life trying to assimilate with the whiteness around you. You’re policing yourself to fit into a culture that might not even be interested in that.” She points to the “parent generation” of Asian, mostly-Vietnamese restaurateurs who opened cheap fried noodle/curry/sushi stands in the 1980s and 90s to cater to German palates and expectations. “And now those restaurants aren’t ‘good enough’ any more, because a bunch of white dudes are coming in and pretending they discovered Thai food.”

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Photo: Yozy Zhang

The sincerest form of flattery

Jamie Clinton of delivery service turned pop-up Khun Xyu Ban had a few words to say on the subject. As he puts it, he didn’t “discover” Thai cuisine so much as he “fell into it”. Originally from Manchester, he came to Berlin to work at Khwan’s grill but, within months, was promoted to head chef. “At the time, I didn’t know much about Thai food other than that I loved eating it. So I put a lot of pressure on myself to learn about it, and it became my passion.” A stint in the kitchen of the Thai-owned restaurant Khao Taan followed – and then came corona. At first, he began making curries, salads and other traditional dishes at home “to stay sane, and feed my neighbours. But obviously it ended up going well.”

He says he has received little if any blow-back for being a white man cooking Thai food. “I’m not one of those white people who’s like, ‘I’m going to do what I want and I don’t care.’ I’m trying to respect the food, respect the culture, respect the history. And I’m not presenting myself as authentic – I don’t really use that word with what I’m doing.”

His former boss Gaan Kitkoson, who has been serving family-style Thai meals at Khao Taan since early 2019, agrees that respect is key to cooking another culture’s food – but so is due credit to the cuisine’s origins. As long as those pieces are in place, “anyone can cook what they like” as far as he’s concerned. In fact, “I actually learned a lot about Thai cooking from a white chef!” Kitkoson says.

I actually learned a lot about Thai cooking from a white chef! I got my restaurant experience at Nahm in Bangkok, which is owned by [Australian] David Thompson.

“I got my restaurant experience at Nahm in Bangkok, which is owned by [Australian] David Thompson. He’s been learning about Thai cuisine for the past 30 years, the history and all the details. When he shares a recipe, he never forgets who it’s from, and never claims to own it. I think that’s fantastic.”

Crazy white bastards

“Respect” is also a culinary cornerstone for Jonathan O’Reilly of Crazy Bastard, Berlin’s most successful home-grown hot sauce company. In order to be able to keep selling his habanero, jalapeño and ghost pepper concoctions out of his store on Weserstraße, he started to organise regular restaurant pop-ups, which became so established they’ve taken over the space next door. The “Crazy Bastard Kitchen” now serves dishes from a different corner of the world every week: sometimes it’s “Brazilian Week,” then “Manchester Curry Mile,” then Jamaican jerk chicken – and yes, sometimes deep-fried specialities from O’Reilly’s native Ireland.

His multinational kitchen team spends a lot of time on research, even hiring experts on the cuisine in question if necessary. Generally, “people are happy when others show interest in their cuisine and culture – as long as it’s sincere interest.” The notion of authenticity, O’Reilly says, would be problematic: in Jamaica, for example, every family has its own recipe for jerk marinade. So what is authentic?

So far, he reports, there has only been one critique, from a woman of Jamaican descent who was taken aback by the fact that a non-Jamaican kitchen team was serving jerk chicken. He got in touch with her personally and emphasised that he and his team would never claim to cook “authentic” food, but would make an effort to be respectful of Jamaican culinary traditions. That, he said, settled the matter. “I can understand it, food is an emotional thing,” he says, “but people realise we’re in it with respect and curiosity.”

But as long as systemic racism exists, are respect and curiosity enough? Khamlao points out that part of the reason behind certain restaurants’ popularity was their inclusion in the “clique of white dudes” – from fine dining chefs to upscale street vendors to influencers – running the Berlin food scene. “Everyone knows each other, everyone’s pushing each other’s work.”

Smells like racism

Since 2019, she’s been part of her own clique, a collective of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) gastronomy workers, chefs, writers and foodies known as Smells Like. She co-founded the group “in order to have our own space, share our experiences and have a network where we can provide support for each other.” Aside from private, members-only dinners, their activities have included a food market and a raffle to support organisations combating anti-Asian racism.

Through her work with Smells Like, Khamlao was invited to appear on the Die Zeit podcast Rice and Shine, hosted by Vietnamese-German journalists Minh Thu Tran and Vanessa Vu, for a June 2021 episode titled “Is that phở or disrespect?” – one of the first discussions of culinary cultural appropriation to hit the German mainstream media.

“It’s all because of Black Lives Matter,” Khamlao says when asked about the topic’s newfound popularity. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, “people were going out on the street, standing up, finally talking about colonialism and post-colonialism – of course this was going to come up.”

Judging by the comments on the podcast, however (“I’m Bavarian and I don’t feel appropriated when people in Hannover put sauerkraut on Weißwurst”), not all white Germans have caught on. “They’ve really been avoiding this a lot. They want to get over their reputation of being this former Nazi country, so they shut the door to their past without really dealing with it. So when it comes up now, they immediately feel accused of being a Nazi or a racist, and from then on a conversation isn’t possible any more.”

A guilty aftertaste

Khamlao is doubtful that the conversations sparked over the past year will lead to actual change. She may have a point. Just months ago, German celebrity chef Tim Raue, who has peddled his high-end brand of Asian fusion everywhere from Michelin-starred restaurants to cruise ships, came out with a corona delivery service called “Fuh Kin Great”, the font stylised to look like the sign on an old-school Chinese Imbiss – grotesquely caricaturing Berlin’s already-beleaguered, Asian-owned restaurants to market meals that cost €88 and up.

For his part, O’Reilly has hit upon at least a partial solution for his business: at several Crazy Bastard events, he tipped his staff himself and asked guests to put what they’d give as a tip in a donation jar. The total amount then went to a charity or organisation involved in the country whose cuisine was on the menu that week. Call it guilt-offsetting, but for lack of a better answer, it may be a good start. 

You can follow Daeng Khamlao in her new video series Papaya & Pommes (in cooperation with Tagesspiegel) as she explores migrant food and climate issues.