The discussion about the authenticity of food made me think of the pivotal role it plays for Sikhs.
It’s not often a recipe can offend an entire nation, but Jamie Oliver appears to have come pretty close with his ‘twist’ on paella. By adding chorizo, he caused a Twitter-storm, with many Spaniards declaring that the ingredient has no place in their beloved dish. He’s not the only chef to have come under fire. Earlier this year, a Spanish newspaper lambasted Gordon Ramsay for putting chilli peppers in his version, whilst Marco Pierre White was accused of adding ‘enough paprika to stop a moving train.’
Food is one of the ways we define ourselves. It gives us a sense of collective belonging, a shared cultural heritage, and at times it can be a microcosm of the society we live in. For example, fish and chips might well have been treated as the dish of our islands until the turn of the 21st century, when Robin Cook who was then Foreign Secretary famously declared it had been replaced in the national psyche by chicken tikka masala. A fusion of South Asian cuisine with British-style gravy, reflecting the changing diversity of modern Britain.
The discussion about the authenticity of food made me think of the pivotal role it plays for Sikhs. Every gurdwara has a langar or free community kitchen which serves vegetarian meals to all, Sikh and non-Sikh alike. The concept is over 500 years old, and at a time of great inequality in medieval India, it was societal reform on a plate. In Sikh philosophy, people need physical nourishment before the spiritual, and by feeding whoever comes through the doors, the langar creates a true sense of unity. From monarchs and leaders through to those in poverty, all are given the same meal, all are treated equally.
Voluntary service is a key part of the faith. It’s effectively a form of prayer through social action. Sikhs donate food regularly to the gurdwara, food which volunteers then cook in massive pots to make sure that no-one leaves hungry. Younger Sikhs are taking the concept of the community kitchen to the streets, providing hot meals to the homeless, victims of natural disasters, and to the general public. For them, it’s about serving humanity the best way that they know, by feeding people.
Sikh identity is tied up with food and service to such an extent that the main motto in the 18th and 19th centuries was Victory to the Cooking Pot and the Sword, to charity and to justice. We’re also in the midst of Langar Week, with events taking place around the country to celebrate and raise awareness of the concept of the community kitchen.
So if Jamie Oliver or another celebrity chef finds themselves under attack for tampering with a classic recipe, they’re more than welcome to come to a gurdwara and seek solace in the langar. After all, as Virginia Woolf and perhaps even the Gurus would have said, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”