Thursday, November 24, 2011

What should a cooking show about a cuisine do?

I ask this question having watched the second episode of Peter Kuruvita's My Sri Lanka which again has been underwhelming, to me at least.

Why? I watch it clearly from the position of someone who is Sri Lankan, teaches Sri Lankan cooking, writes about it, cooks it, promotes it etc. I write from the position who in all of these tries to place the cuisine in its geographic and historic context, explaining how the cuisine developed, its influences over some 2000 years of formation of what it is today, with something of the politics of those influences so my listener, reader, student can understand what it takes to create a cuisine, who gains, who loses, what the effort is in producing its ingredients, its philosophy where it can be guessed at or is codified, all of this to deepen the pleasure of its consumption.

Kuruvita's program disappoints on all these levels. That may not be such a problem if the cuisine was well known or programmed within and inch of its liveliness, as say French or Italian is, years and years of exposition that have left little undisclosed about its origins and development. Sri Lankan cuisine is not at all like this; it is a road not just the less travelled but rarely taken at all. As the first national level mass media  program on the cuisine, at least to my knowledge, I had hoped that the program would inform and not just titivate with undeniable beauty of the backdrops against which he cooks and the exoticism of the vessels he uses (never described) or the ingredients (tonight he uses goroka but says not a word about what it is, what it does to the pork dish he makes, what else it is used for in the cuisine, other cuisines in which it is used - virtually no other, by the way), The show becomes about him and not the food.

He goes to a tea plantation and natters on about the 'lovely ladies' who are picking the tea and, having committed the first historic gaffe by asserting that tea has been grown in Sri Lanka for 'hundreds' of years when the first shipment of tea from the country happened as relatively recently as 1873, he fails to mention that all the pickers are Tamils, descendants of indentured workers brought by the British and generally employed under shocking conditions for most of that period, and who continue to live lives that are arduous and minimally economically rewarded, particularly under Singhala nationalism that continues to marginalise Tamils. There is an ugliness to this lauded loveliness that ought to be spoken about but which the program glosses over as it does so much of what makes this cuisine what it is.

Of course I will watch it again, because it does at least introduce people to some of the variety of the cuisine, but there is so much more it could do, and that I think a  cuisine program these days should do.