Kopi with Bertha: Vadai goes with green chilli lah

Oct 30, 2016 11.00AM |

by Bertha Henson

I LIKE vadai. Never mind that it’s greasy and probably fried in oil that’s fried another 1,000 vadais earlier. I cannot go past an Indian stall without buying a couple.

Plus green chillies, of course. If the stallholder ran out of chillies, I’d make a beeline for the nearest provision store, wet market or supermarket to buy some.

Which is why I think watching that much-derided TheSmartLocal video on Singaporeans trying Indian snacks made me so angry. Vadai must be eaten with green chilli, you idiot! Instead, the two young people were mouthing off about its floury feel and deciding whether vadai was bitter to the taste.

Unlike others who felt that the five-minute video was racist or tasteless or offensive to Indians, I was more appalled at the cultural ignorance displayed by the millennials on the show who seemed to have forgotten that they live in a multi-racial country.

I blame YouTube.

The young ones – I gather none of them are above 25 years of age – are growing up in a YouTube world of short clips, sound bites and fun.

YouTube has plenty of videos about people trying out this and that. So you have Americans trying exotic Asian food and Indians trying Korean snacks and so forth. People watch such videos to laugh at the reactions of these virgin tasters. The Americans who had to try eating chicken feet made all sorts of faces and said all sorts of things about the delicacy, including describing it as s*** . They also had to try durian, which one of them gagged on.

I gather that millennials seem to prize this sort of “authentic’’ feel. There’s also the sense that the “unvarnished truth’’, “real sentiment’’ and “sincere feelings’’ are being displayed. How frank and forthright! Such videos work better at getting eyeballs of young people than scripted or filtered or polished material. So fake!

Plus, the expressions and reactions of people caught off-guard in strange or awkward situations are entertaining.

Growing up with such videos, it’s no wonder they see no need to mask their feelings. After all, other people do it online all the time. Why should a personal opinion truthfully held be considered offensive? You can say anything you like about food, including hating it.

The difference is that these aren’t Singaporeans trying exotic cuisine of foreign origin. These are Singaporeans trying food that is normal for other Singaporeans. You’d expect foreigners to be less familiar with local fare. You’d be surprised to see a Caucasian who can eat durian at first try or who thinks nothing of slurping spicy curry. But you don’t expect locals to be so flippant about food, especially food that marks out a community they live among.

I doubt that the young people – two Malays, a Eurasian and five Chinese – are racist at all. What came through was their ignorance.

Where have they been living? Don’t they even know that most Indian sweets are, well, sweet? They’ve never been to an Indian stall, or a north or south Indian restaurant? The only thing they know is prata? And I don’t even want to start about vadai.

People who’ve been thinking that the video is an attempt to make fun of Indians or deride Deepavali have got it wrong or have a very low threshold of tolerance for the foibles and follies of young people.

It’s about sensitivity – both on the part of the young people and the people who think the video is a disgusting portrayal of Indian food, and therefore, the community.

Where do you draw the line on making comments on another community? Is there a line dividing sensitive and over-sensitive when it comes to hurt feelings?

The website has been doing a series of “Singaporeans trying” including swallowing Chinese herbal medicine, of which there hasn’t been much complaint.  (Maybe because the tasters were mainly Chinese and this is more of an age-divide than a race-divide).

This time it seems, some strident comments about the Indian snacks video have caught the attention of people on social media – and the flames were fanned. There was some chatter online, for example, that Indian snacks were described as diarrhoea or diarrhoea-inducing. Actually, the poor kid was referring to the name of the snack, laddu, which sounds like la du zhi in Mandarin or, yes, diarrhoea.

Okay, it’s not funny, but let’s get the facts right before getting madder and madder.

So the site has been bashed left, right and centre, including by people who might not even have watched the full clip. It was up for two days before it was taken down with an apology.

Is it my imagination or is there a heightened (in)sensitivity towards race and religion these days? I see it on social media where there are complaints that commercial spaces are more inclined to revel in the Halloween atmosphere than drum up a Deepavali feel. And that Christmas decorations are up before Deepavali is over. There’s some grumbling about a G video on Deepavali, which seemed focused on getting a plump Indian granny to cut down on sweet snacks. Part of the war on diabetes or raining on the Deepavali parade?

I didn’t see the Toggle video of a Chinese actor painted black who was hoping to secure an Indian part and which was also taken down. Another un-thinking video? Except that the very idea of referring to skin colour sounds really racist to me. What’s worse is that this isn’t a production by millennials but by an arm of Mediacorp.

What if the boot was on the other foot and an Indian paints slit eyes on his face to get a Chinese part? What if there were young Indians among the millennials tasting Indian snacks? I reckon that would cancel out most of the bad reaction because they would probably be explaining why they like the snack. And even if they didn’t, they can’t possibly be construed as racist for not liking Indian desserts.

As I said, I blame YouTube. People on video shouldn’t forget that they are facing the public, in other words, other people. I doubt that the young people would have the same reactions if they were offered the snacks in an Indian home. The snack might be too sweet or even nasty, but they’d find a way to be polite about it in front of their host. This is likely true for most people; they would be polite to their hosts, even Americans eating chicken feet in a Chinese home.

But it still befuddles me that young people are so ignorant about food in other cultures in a country that is food-rich and food-mad.

Deepavali is over but if you want to know about Indian sweets, read our stories here:

Making much of Deepavali sweets

Traditional Deepavali treats to know now


And remember that vadai goes with green chilli.


Featured image from TMG file.

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.