‘Localising not Westernising’ in The Ingredient Challenge

January 23, 2020 by
kiya

After an email from a loyal customer of ours, caring enough to write, the following correspondence took place. It might answer questions for more, so we’re publishing it  here (anonymously, except for the glorious Kiya and her injera, who everyone should know about!)

I’m a regular to Wandering Cooks. Like many, I have deep concern over our food system and the future of food. The vision you have for The Ingredient Challenge is admirable.

I’m emailing as i’m wondering about the mechanics of The Ingredient Challenge. Does it require all cooks to have 100% of ingredients to be sourced locally, or is it mainly for the fresh produce, or otherwise?

One of the things I love about Wandering Cooks is the diversity in individuals and ideas that it incubates. You can come to Cooks and chat with an Ethiopian injera extraordinaire, a Persian koresht maker or a lovely yogini who makes plates from heaven (and many others).

I work in social enterprise and one of the things we suffer from is the diversity in people and ideas, often capturing only those from a middle class/ anglo demographic. Many of these ideas are phenomenal and have contributed to significant social/environmental change, but I always wonder what we’ve missed out on. This is something I think Wandering Cooks does really well – incorporating other cultures. It’s always easier with food, given cuisine is central to many cultures.

Ultimately, i’m wondering if a strict ingredient challenge could erode that diversity given that many ethnic cuisines require ingredients that can’t be found locally? ‘Majority of ingredients’ could always be a solution?

Hi dear loyal fan of Wandering Cooks

Thank you so much for taking the time. It’s always lovely to hear from someone who gets us – not just where we want to be (The Ingredient Challenge), but our current strength in diversity, which we, too, hold very dear and hope to build upon.

Your concern about the Ingredient List possibly eroding our foodmakers’ diversity has been discussed a lot internally. I see it as a fundamental challenge: how do we introduce ‘local sourcing’ without losing our immigrant foodmakers (who are more reliant on internationally sourced ingredients) and over-catering to anglo/middle class foodmakers (who already have social capital around local sourcing due to their privilege)?

In the past, we’ve used the ‘majority of’ technique for people’s sourcing. However, it’s let us down, allowing ingredients to creep in through habit and lack of knowledge and skill, rather than real need. We hope the Ingredient List challenges lines drawn strongly in the sand long ago. Like Massimo Bottura achieves when he replaces pine nuts with breadcrumbs in pesto, challenges to heritage can result in so many improvements: to taste, to sustainability, to expressions of belonging for homes both new and old.

In the new Ingredient List method for menu creation, we do intend on having an ‘approved exceptions’ list. Already on this list are spices, and we’ve had some strong arguments made for others. For instance, Kiya had to import her teff flour if she wanted to use it at all, and what’s injera without teff? Not injera. But nevertheless we looked for local alternatives, and she tried them. That’s the kind of exploration that happens if we don’t stay with ‘majority of’. So much missed opportunity for localising occurs through lack of access to knowledge of alternatives.

If the reasons are sound (for Kiya, it was about price and irreplaceability), then these imported ingredients can go on the exceptions list. But like all good lists of dos and don’ts, we hope this list will be challenged over time, as better local alternatives surface. And now Kiya can now source an affordable local teff flour, so it’s off the exceptions list, yay!

I hope that, as we form partnerships with indigenous caretakers in value exchanges that are truly worthwhile for them, even spices could come up for investigation under particular Challenges, allowing our food makers to inflect a very distinctive ‘terroir’ on their diasporic interpretations of heritage.

We actually see the work of maintaining our diversity as THE unique opportunity for us, our city and our immigrant foodmakers – a localisation of their food culture which opens them to new audiences and disrupts the status quo for what kind of business they might end up creating.

Thank you so much for taking the time. I find it very useful to have intelligent, thoughtful people like yourself keeping me honest and clear in my thinking.

All my very best,

Angela

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