The last several decades have seen a highly emotive debate the world over on immigration. In the last few years, the United States and the European Union have been the focal point of those debates. Lost in this charged debate has been the role of food as an immigrant. That’s right – food as a non-native. I am defining food here as cuisine as well the plant and animal ingredients from which dishes, foods, and drinks are made. In both immigrant-friendly as well as immigrant-hostile countries, immigrant foods have done exceedingly well. Anti-immigrant natives seem to have no qualms savoring immigrant foods while rejecting the immigrant to whom the food is native. Let’s interrogate why.
Let’s stipulate that most cultures are food dynamic. This means that most societies don’t have non-negotiable pallets. It’s exotic in a globalised world to try cuisines and foods from the remotest reaches of the planet. You will hear all-knowing professionals in major cities tout the health and medicinal benefits of a root from some remote country. Most of the time it’s just a bunch of hooey. Rare is the villager today who hasn’t heard of a hotdog or a hamburger. I can’t forget the time I heard Kenyan kids talk about Kentucky Fried Chicken – they even called it KFC – as though it was their grand mamma’s ugali or mukimo. Of course some of these foods come with the Empire like Hollywood movies.
America is an immigrant country. Most Americans – except Native Americans – either directly came from another continent, or are descended from immigrants. In that sense, America is home to all the world’s foods. Chinese, Mexican, Ethiopian, Thai, and other cuisines are huge in America. Yet the United States has traditionally been hostile to immigrants from those countries. At one point, a Chinese person couldn’t become an American citizen. Donald Trump, the American president, was elected on an anti-immigrant platform. His xenophobic and racist rants against Mexicans and Muslims are well known as are his recent “shithole” comments about African countries. Yet Chinese and Mexican foods are decidedly American today. Xenophobic cultures often exhibit this bipolar disorder on food versus its native “owners.”
One can make the case that some foods make for easy immigrants. Some foods immigrate easily and become fully integrated new citizens in their adopted countries. Like actual immigrants, foreign foods can quickly become a dominant feature in the kitchen of their adopted country. Think of coffee, for example. Coffee is native to Africa. And yet I would argue that coffee is now a key cultural staple of America and Europe. America, in particular, can’t do without coffee although it mistakenly thinks it can do without Africans. Remember enslaved Africans built the United States. Tea has a similar story. Tea is native to China and grows in Africa but not in Europe and America. So whither comes English tea?
Some foods won’t immigrate, even next door. Take matoke, the starchy Ugandan banana dish, for example, which I find extremely delectable. Matoke has refused to immigrate to Kenya, or any of the neighboring countries. Why is matoke so stubborn? It won’t come to Kenya whether as an “illegal” or “legal” immigrant. May be it senses it’s unwelcome in Kenya. The same goes for githeri or muthokoi, the Gikuyu and Kamba beans-maize staple admixtures. These foods won’t be seen anywhere near Lake Victoria, even as tourists. Similarly, fish is largely a foreign food among the Gikuyu or the Akamba. Fish were available in Kitui rivers and ponds, but I didn’t eat much of it growing up. The bones choke me even today!
Other foods are simply unwelcome immigrants. Take snails, for instance. On a recent trip to Pretoria, South Africa, I dined at a haut couture restaurant. On the menu was none other than snail. The mere thought of chewing on the slimy animal was revolting. But that was me. At the next table, a couple was delightedly smacking their lips on snail. But this I can assure you – not many cultures are ready consumers of snail, which I think of as a reptile although it isn’t. A good Kenyan friend of mine is a snail farmer – and I hope she doesn’t read this article, or she will kill me. Some foods are simply revolting. I put drinking cow blood in this category.
The overall verdict is that food – like humans – immigrates everywhere. Most are welcome to new cultures. However, most cultures are hypocritical because they are more than ready to accept immigrant foods while rejecting immigrants. Food is like music – it unites more than it divides. Perhaps xenophobic cultures need to interrogate this disconnect. No culture can be, or is, sufficient. It’s a fact that we are stronger in our diversity than in our little siloes and cocoons.
-Prof Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of KHRC. @makaumutua