Great British Bake Off accused of cultural appropriation in Mexican week

The Great British Bake Off has been accused of cultural appropriation after a Mexican-themed episode in which the hosts sported sombreros, shook maracas and relied on cuisine cliches such as tacos and tequila.

The backlash to the episode, screened on Channel 4 on Tuesday, highlights how the country still has “one of the most misunderstood” cuisines despite a boom in restaurants that sideline burritos and nachos in favour of authentic herbs and vegetables, say Mexican chefs.

“For me, it’s a bit sad to see this kind of thing because knowing my culture and my country, I feel it’s more than just a cactus and a sombrero. But I think slowly people are starting to learn more and I hope people will get more interested in proper Mexican culture and food. That’s something I’m trying to do with my restaurant,” said Adriana Cavita, a chef from near Mexico City who runs Cavita in central London.

She says that when she arrived in the UK, people thought Mexican food was restricted to “greasy and heavy” tacos and burritos. “Six years ago, I made black mole [sauce] and people were afraid to taste it,” she said, adding that increased travel to Mexico and an explosion in the popularity of the country’s traditional mezcal spirit had sparked a taste revolution.

However, she said there remain many aspects of Mexico that are poorly understood in the UK, especially its diversity: it is almost the size of Europe, featuring landscapes from the desert to the jungle, with 68 different indigenous languages spoken across a range of cultures.

It can also be a struggle to get authentic spices, herbs and vegetables, which are often expensive, and to hire chefs from Mexico, Cavita said.

There is also an entrenched perception of the country that dates to the distant past – Cavita has been asked whether Mexicans still travel by donkey. “It makes me feel that we are undervalued. The world has evolved so much that I cannot believe people think about other countries like they were 100 years ago.”

Thomasina Miers, the owner of the Wahaca chain and author of several Mexican cookbooks, said Mexico’s food is “one of the most misunderstood cuisines out there”, due to Tex Mex’s global success and Mexico’s reticence to invest in promoting its ingredients.

“When I talk about Mexican food, I talk about a country that’s mega-biodiverse, which is a technical term for a country that has so much diversity of flora and fauna,” she said.

This is to counter the view rooted in tacky 90s and 00s restaurants that Mexican food is “naff, cheap, unhealthy”. “The indigenous Mexican diet is incredible for the planet, because it’s rich in pulses, beans, tomatillos and corn, it’s a complex diet with very little meat and it’s the perfect example of the way we should all be eating now.”

The chefs said there has been a boom in authentic Mexican restaurants in recent years, especially in London, where celebrated openings have included Mexican-run restaurants such as Cavita and Kol, the first Mexican restaurant to win a Michelin star in the UK, as well authentic taquerias (taco specialists) such as Breddos, Santo Remedio and Cantina 1910.

Nud Dudhia said that when he opened Breddos’ first taco shack a decade ago after spending time in Mexico, people struggled to understand why they used corn tortillas instead of wheat or opted for unfamiliar Mexican braises rather than simpler Tex Mex flavours.

“Because of what’s happening in the culinary scene in London, people’s minds are being opened to what real Mexican food is, then The Great British Bake Off comes and kicks that back 10 years. It’s almost as though no research or respect was shown to the culture and cuisine,” he said.

He said the show had failed to tap into diners’ increasing “appetite for real food and a real representation of what they might get if they went to that country”. This is not just in London but around the country, with his recent opening, Madre, in Liverpool proving popular, while his UK favourite is Barrio Comida in Durham.

“Mexican food culture is stepping out of the shadow of sombreros and all those silly things and into a place where people are starting to understand how beautiful, complex and understated the cuisine is,” he said.

Other cultural rows about food

Jamie Oliver is no stranger to accusations of cultural appropriation, but the biggest outcry came from his microwavable “punchy jerk rice”. Caribbeans accused him of failing to understand the meaning of jerk – a marinade for meat to be barbecued – and of steering too far from the original recipe, which usually contains allspice berries and scotch bonnet peppers, in favour of garlic, ginger and jalapenos.

Gordon Ramsay’s “authentic Asian” restaurant Lucky Cat was described by an east Asian food writer as “a real life Ramsay kitchen nightmare” for its pan-Asian mixed bag approach to the hundreds of cuisines contained within the world’s biggest continent, and reliance on harmful cliches such as the “lucky geisha” cocktail.

New York City restaurant Lucky Lee came under fire after the owner, Arielle Haspel, contrasted her “clean” American-Chinese cuisine with Chinese dishes swimming in “globs of processed butter”, sodium and MSG that make people feel “bloated and icky”. Fears over MSG have been debunked as racist and unscientific, while Chinese food as unsanitary is a longstanding trope.

New York Times food columnist Alison Roman caused such a stir with her Indian chana masala-esque recipe that it generated its own hashtag, #thestew. Though Roman was insistent that “this is not a curry”, whether her interpretation of a chickpeas, coconut and turmeric stew represented cultural appropriation was a hot topic of discussion during the pandemic.

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