Twitter row over Indian food

Tom Nichols, US professor, called Indian food ‘terrible’. The comment divided netizens

Nichols’ tweet on a thread asking for controversial food opinions triggered a heated debate.

In an interview with Glamour magazine in 2017, Priyanka Chopra spoke about her experience being bullied as a teenager. She shared that she was subjected to name-calling, with the most used slur being “curry”, a rather unoriginal insult, one can argue, but racist to its core. For the longest time, the term ‘curry muncher’ was used to describe people of South Asia. The term, therefore, carries within itself a long history of racialised stereotyping of people who have had their histories defined by European colonisation. 

Using food to insult someone can seem rather childish, but it rather speaks to the kind of skewed perspectives and hierarchies that shaped the course of events centuries ago. In the latest of blatant ignorance, Tom Nichols, a professor at the US Naval War College in Rhode Island, was lambasted by Twitter for his ‘opinion’ on Indian food. But, why would anyone be upset about someone’s taste in food? After all, choice of cuisine is personal. The problem, however, was how he chose to express his opinion. 

Nichols’ responds

Nichols remained unfazed, choosing to retweet posts that supported him and using other far-fetched examples to justify his position. As a response to the debate that was sparked, he penned an op-ed for USA Today calling people who had criticised him for failing to understand the breadth of the cuisine “well-meaning but misguided”. He suggested that calling his opinion racist was simply “lunacy”. 

“I have been dragged along to numerous Indian restaurants in the United States, and I even went, on my own, to one of the top Indian restaurants in London on the recommendation of a friend and asked the waiter to guide me. I didn’t like any of it,” he wrote. He also went on to suggest that he was only trying to bring “pretentious foodies among Americans” down a peg.

“I am told that spicy food releases endorphins and dopamine. Personally, I think of food as pleasure, not as a test of character, and at dinner, I am not trying to trigger my brain into releasing natural painkillers,” he continued his diatribe. He also seemed to suggest that the problem was that we have become “too connected as a global society,” which was creating the room for hatred. 

On the other side 

ABC senior national correspondent Terry Moran similarly got dragged into the controversy for his contribution: “Chinese food is tired,” he tweeted. “It’s boring, gloppy, over-salted and utterly forgettable.” 

The real issue

No one can enjoy all the cuisines the world has to offer, that is a given. If he had taken to Twitter saying that he disliked Indian food, no one would have batted an eyelid, even though, as many pointed out earlier, there is no such thing as ‘Indian cuisine’. While one can expect a certain amount of ignorance when it comes to foreign cultures, suggestions of collective hatred can be triggering. It has only been 60 odd years since we freed ourselves from a country that thought we needed to be governed for our own sake. 

Let’s set aside the fact that he is unfamiliar with our food. By his own admission, the only Indian food he has ever had is from restaurants in the US and UK. Most restaurants abroad adapt the cuisine to suit their palate or create a menu that is extremely limited in its variety. Choosing to form a half baked opinion is one thing, but to publicise it as a fact, another. 

San Francisco chef Pim Techamuanvivit might have had the very best response to the entire debacle. In a tweet that also went viral, she wrote that in Thai, instead of saying that you “don’t like” a food, you instead say you “don’t know how to eat this.” That expression, she wrote, represents a more generous way of looking at food — and maybe at the world, too. 

The controversial tweet

On a thread that was asking for controversial food opinions, the academician wrote, “Indian food is terrible and we pretend it isn’t.”

The tweet instantly received many angry comments, largely from Indians on the platform. “Do you not have tastebuds?” retorted TV personality, Padma Lakshmi. 

However, many came to his support, as well.

Outrage that followed

Many criticised him for having formed an opinion without having tried the authentic fare and for attacking a vast and varied cuisine. A few others even called his response racist. One even equated him to Donald Trump. 

One of the most relevant points was brought up by Shashi Tharoor’s son, Ishaan Tharoor, who asked who is the “we” that Nichols seem to refer to. Even if one were to assume that he was referring to Americans, how is he the custodian of the collective tastebuds of the 50 states? 

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