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22 August 2018updated 30 Jun 2021 1:27pm

Jamie Oliver’s jerk rice doesn’t have to be cultural appropriation to be bad

His rice fails the first and most important test of a meal: it’s disgusting. 

By Stephen Bush

The culinary case against Jamie Oliver’s “punchy jerk rice” is open and shut. The word “jerk” connotes meat marinated, then cooked over an open fire on a spit, just as the word “tandoori” takes its name from the clay ovens it was originally made in. And, just as with the word “tandoori”, it has also come to mean the specific spices that the marinade in question includes: in the case of jerk, that means allspice, chillies, and ginger at a minimum.

So it’s not clear that “jerk rice” can exist in any meaningful sense. You cannot cook rice on a spit – or at least, you cannot cook rice on a spit and end up with something you are happy to eat afterwards. Yes, if you make a jerk marinade, realise you can’t be bothered to cover some meat with it and instead pour it over some rice, the resulting dish could fairly be called “jerk rice”, though it would also be a waste of a perfectly good marinade.

But that isn’t what Oliver has done. His “punchy jerk rice” contains the following: aubergines, jalapenos, yellow pepper, and red pepper. It lacks allspice – the defining ingredient of a jerk marinade. It’s closer to a paella than anything else, and having tried it, it is not a particularly good example of that cuisine either. Food, as with all other aspects of culture, evolves and borrows from others, but this isn’t evolution: it’s just bad eating.

Anyone trying it because they had an excellent meal at a Jamaican restaurant, a friend’s wedding or a work cafeteria – the combination of dry spices and the ease at which you can scale up makes jerk a hardy perennial among industrial caterers – would be bitterly disappointed, and perhaps wouldn’t try jerk anything ever again. In doing jerk so badly, Oliver – or rather Oliver, Inc., because let’s face it, across his vast culinary empire I doubt the man himself had much to do with this recipe – risks turning people off the idea entirely.

Much of the reaction to the criticism of the “jerk rice” has focussed on the fact that a New York pizza is a very different beast to the Neapolitan original. This is true, but it is worth remembering that many Italians still regard the New York variant as an abomination: not a cultural offence, not appropriation, but simply as a bad way to eat and to live. And really, that’s the biggest problem with Oliver’s jerk rice: it’s disgusting.

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But is Oliver’s bad cooking an example of cultural appropriation? I’m not convinced that is a very useful question. The problem with the Oliver empire is that his brand allows him to sell a series of low quality ready meals to diners at home, and his restaurants are scarcely any better.  Across every cuisine that Oliver cooks in, there are better, easier and tastier recipes to be followed, and that goes for “traditional English” fare as much as anything from further afield.

Oliver’s sin is a lack of respect for both the dish he is trying to make and the customer who will end up eating it, just as someone who wears a Native American headdress without having won honour and esteem, or a Victoria Cross in similar circumstances, is showing a lack of respect. I wouldn’t be appropriating anyone’s culture but my own if I donned the traditional clothing of either a devout Ashkenazi Jew or a member of the Shona tribe, but I would, in both cases, be showing a lack of respect.

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There is a real geopolitical inequity at play, though: almost every single one of the world’s powerhouse economies goes to great care to protect its local delicacies, and paying due deference to those recipes is a sticking point in striking any meaningful trade agreement with those countries. (Some Brexiteers believe that we will be able to shed these protections after we leave: frankly, while Cornwall continues to be a vital electoral battleground, I doubt it, but who knows?) In the case of the West, those protections tend to go too far the other way, as even someone following the methods and ingredients to the letter cannot describe their sparkling wine as champagne, for instance, regardless of its quality.  

And as a lack of respect, and a failure to cook a meal well, are terms that are easy to understand and make the point just as well, I am not sure what is gained by describing it as “cultural appropriation”.