Saffron Colonial and the Colonisation of Cuisine

Updated May 13, 2016 8:06pm PDT

Saffron Colonial's Saffron Scramble on gruyere toast with squash and spinach, per Yelp User Wendy B.

The recent opening of Saffron Colonial in North Portland has occasioned substantial critique, and a great deal of public pressure to remove the word “colonial” from the restaurant’s name.

I agree that the name is unforgivable; the colonialism of Saffron Colonial goes far beyond its name, and is in fact merely a more-glaring-than-most instance of the colonialism of the wider restaurant industry.

For all that a significant proportion of restaurants are non-white owned, with non-white head chefs cooking food of their own cuisines, these are very rarely considered "fine dining". Restaurants where people of colour serve their own cuisines have to fight for any kind of status; Chinese takeout is practically a stereotype for cheap, unglamorous food, and nobody takes their high-profile client to a Thai or an Indian restaurant to impress them. 

When non-European cuisine is classified as fine dining, it is almost always in white-owned restaurants with white head chefs.

A google search for “fine dining Portland OR” yields a New York Times article featuring Ava Genes (an Italian restaurant with a white head chef, Joshua McFadden); Roe (a Seafood restaurant with a white head chef, Trent Pierce, whose food includes Southeast Asian influences such as “nuoc cham, the Vietnamese dipping sauce, and an emerald emulsion of Southeast Asian herbs”); Ox (an Argentine steakhouse with white chefs Greg Denton and Gabrielle Denton boasting a “creative” menu that includes influences from around the world); Smallwares (a restaurant with a white head chef, Johanna Wares, that serves what she describes as “inauthentic Asian cuisine”).

There is also a Guardian article that pops up in this search titled “Top 10 Restaurants in Portland, Oregon” that features 10 white-owned restaurants with white head chefs; of these, two (Pok Pok and Biwa) are explicitly non-European cuisine restaurants.

People of colour serving their own cuisines are denied the title of “fine dining”, but restaurants where these people of colour’s cuisines are appropriated by white people and anglicised to the white palate are considered creative, exciting, worthy of this coveted status.

To briefly revisit the definition: colonisation is to lay claim to another’s land through occupation. In this possession, the colonising power also lays claim to the products of the land, and thereby takes the profits of these products from the colonised people. To do this to cuisine, then, would be for the colonising power to appropriate, and claim the profits from selling, the colonised peoples’ cuisine, making it impossible for the colonised people to profit off their own cuisine in the same way. 

This is exactly what white peoples’ monopoly over fine dining does, and Saffron Colonial is a prime illustration of how this colonisation has been conducted and solidified over the past hundred-plus years.

Food is a propelling factor in the history of colonialism. It was the lucrative spice trade that first drew European powers to India, and competition over this trade that incentivised Britain to ultimately take control of India and become the colonial master in the region. Indonesia, South Africa, and the vast majority of the tellingly named “commonwealth” were also colonised for their valuable spices.

Colonial cuisine, then, is not simply a by-product of colonialism, but, in many ways, its objective, its very means. Cuisine is what brought the British to their reign of terror, and it is the means by which they were profitable enough to remain a colonial power in India, South Africa, and South East Asia. 

Spices (and other materials) have always been front and centre in the colonial machine. To say, then, that Western Cuisine incorporating flavour notes of other cuisines is a natural product of globalisation, that it's merely "an exchange of cultures", is reductive and erasing.

Colonial cuisine such as that served at Saffron Colonial is a combination of traditionally British foods dressed up with the spices for which they colonised the rest of the world (saffron scramble), colonised peoples’ foods "delicately adjusted" (see also: mangled) to the British palate (Kedgeree), and colonised peoples’ foods that supposedly maintain their authenticity (Burmese Golden Curry). 

These foods are approximately as British as the Crown Jewels–which is, of course, not to say that they are not British; there is nothing un-British about crude, unnecessary theft. 

Saffron Colonial is able to charge $15 for a dish of kedgeree with eggs. It is unimaginable that khichiri with salmon chutney and eggs could be priced nearly so high. The anglicising of this modest dish has turned it into a pricey delicacy, allowing the descendants of British colonisers to profit off it in a way that the Indian people whose creative product it is never could hope to–much like the British were, and still are, able to profit off spices in a way that the people who grow them are not. 

The present-day ramifications of this colonisation extend to the restaurant industry, and account for why high-end dining is a title so difficult to obtain for restaurant owners and chefs of colour. The owner and head chef of Saffron Colonial, Sally Krantz, insists that the word “colonial” is simply a reference to the period in history that the cuisine she serves hails from, and that it is therefore a neutral descriptor. 

It is anything but, and accounts for the success of her entire enterprise.

Saffron Colonial, while it does feature the dining experience from that time period, features it only from the colonial perspective: the food that the colonial masters would have eaten, off the crockery that they would have used, on the furniture that they would have had, surrounded by their characteristic décor. In one of the themed brunches, she even “playfully” includes their after-meal cigar.

“Colonial”, then, refers not to that particular period of history, but to the colonial masters’ experience of that period of history. There is no resemblance between Saffron Colonial and an eating-house of the period run by any local, colonised people in any British colony for local patrons. Instead, the furniture, the food, the table manners–the whole ritual–replicates that of the British aristocracy in a colony; a sign barring natives from dining there is all that’s needed to complete the picture (although genocide has gone a significant distance toward accomplishing that particular goal).

American and British society today is the successor of colonial Britain. These are the people whose history colonial Britain is, these are the people who have inherited the wealth, the legacy, the culture, practices, and customs of colonial Britain. When Britain was officially a colonial master, the richest, most sophisticated, most respectable people–the aristocracy–were also the colonial masters of the empire. Their practices and rituals, their fashion, their manners, were the height of respectability and sophistication. They were the people who controlled and defined social spaces. 

Their practices have spread–globally, what is ‘formal’ in attire, manners, social interactions, and rituals such as shared meals, follows from the standards set for us all by the British Colonial masters.

Dining, especially social dining, is a very culture-specific ritual. The furniture, the cutlery, the courses, the décor: all of these things are defined by culture. Such rituals are inherently conservative: they are predicated on the existence of a “right” and a “wrong” way of doing things. Since these standards are completely arbitrary, what is “right” is synonymous with what is already accepted, and consequently considered acceptable. 

This creates a system where norms of high-class social dining are slow to change; the most proper way of doing all of these things now is still essentially what was prescribed by British colonial masters.

Since rich white people are essentially the modern day aristocracy, of course a place aligned with their colonial, and colonialist, traditions, is guaranteed far better success than a place that deviates from them, explaining the perceived greater sophistication of restaurants run by white people than of those run by people of colour: colonial society, which in many ways exists in the present tense, has a monopoly over the definition of formality, and this has enabled white people to establish a monopoly over high-end dining.

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Lace Dagger is always on the hunt for baby elephant gifs and new ways to phrase "I hate everything."