Entering this place, it feels like a crime-scene. Except there’s been no crime. Victims maybe, but technically no crime. There was never a police cordon or chalked silhouette on the floor; forensics never dusted the furniture for fingerprints.
After all, the incident never happened here, not within these four walls. Instead, it was committed over the austere pages of a national broadsheet, in a review of this restaurant published this time last year.
If nothing else – and what a lot of angst and hurt and anger that phrase just circumvented – the review told me about Kaki, this place across town that specialises in the cuisines of Sichuan and northeastern China. But to be honest, that really seems the least of it.
It’s not often that a restaurant review gets embroiled in accusations of racism. The first I heard of it was through the maelstrom of distressed and angry tweets that had quickly formed in its slipstream, and which compelled me to read the article for myself to see what the furore was about.
The offending content didn’t take long to reveal itself. Rising out of the opening paragraph, barely contained by the speech marks that bookended either side, was a litany of nonsensical harsh-sounding syllables, all in capitals for some grotesque sort of emphasis – a derisory attempt to mimic the dialect of a Chinese waiter.
My mind cast back to those excruciating stand-up routines of the 1980’s by the likes of Bernard Manning or Jim Davidson, where the depths of racism and the device of mimicry were plumbed for some cheap and cruel laughs.
But this was different – or as so argued in the review itself, as though in a sudden pique of awareness of how things could be perceived. In an apparent attempt to pre-empt any accusations of racism, the critic then applied what he thought was his get-out-of-jail-free-card: turning the conceit around on its head, and applying the same shtick to himself, where to the waiter, it’s then the critic’s utterances that sounded like a cacophony of jumbled-up syllables.
Except there is no parity. Not by any stretch. For such warped, exaggerated utterances, especially to extract some gross sort of humour, resonates just too strongly with the racist tropes that so many people in this country have all too frequently and painfully endured.
On social media, this hurt and anger was laid bare at the critic’s door – not just from those of a Chinese background, but from those of other minority groups too, people who could all too easily relate to the anguish caused, as well as from many others besides.
Yet instead of any expression of apology or remorse, or any sense of mortification over the obvious offence caused, there just seemed to be a flat – irked, even – denial of any wrongdoing.
It’s difficult to know what the critic’s original intent was, and whether or not it was actually designed to provoke such a backlash, for publicity or some odd kind of thrill. Or whether he had genuinely convinced himself that there was no racism in it, which would explain his subsequent shrugs of bemusement or contempt in response to the criticism.
“You’re wasting your energy when it could be so much more targeted at racists and bigots..” he denounced on one Twitter thread, in seeming denial of the deep emotional impact his article had had on so many.
And even if there are more brutal incidents of racism out there, that doesn’t negate the perniciousness of his piece, particularly when we consider that it featured in the mainstream media, its reach extending far and wide. The risk is that such attitudes themselves become ever more mainstream, resulting in intolerance and division and worse.
To be a journalist, therefore, is to accept that having such influence comes with a grave responsibility – something arguably lacking in this particular case.
And here’s the nub of it. Who decides what counts as racist? Who decides what is anti-Semitic or Islamophobic? Surely it has to be the targeted communities themselves. And if they call it out, then it’s up to everyone else to listen and respect that line, that boundary.
After all, it’s not the intention that defines the offence, it’s the impact of words and deeds that matter; people don’t get to stay in their protected bunkers shouting how they didn’t mean to be racist. They have to come out and see their comments from the other person’s perspective.
We live in a time when racism is on the rise. The support for Brexit, whilst not intrinsically racist in itself, is at least in part a representation of some deeply-rooted resentment or suspicion of ‘the other’. And the eventual vote to Leave has only further emboldened those who have taken up the racist mantle, as reflected in the rise of racially-motivated incidents ever since.
Social media, meanwhile, provides an increasingly unfettered means of communication where trolls can verbally assail their victims from behind a smokescreen of anonymity, relishing the fallout from the safe distance of a digital screen. Some people even have mock accounts from which to do it.
Then there is the specific enmity in some circles towards Jews and Muslims – communities targeted by long-standing prejudices that tenuously link them to wider global issues and events, views further enhanced by an echo chamber of ignorance.
Even though anti-Semitic abuse is something I’ve (thankfully) only rarely encountered, each occasion it has happened has been a chilling eye-opener of the human capacity for prejudice and hatred. It shows me how for some people, being racially abused intrinsically reshapes their own sense of self and the world, leaving a damaging and long-lasting legacy.
So what is to be done? Well listening to the communities themselves, their views and stories. Not just a token round of arbitrary head-nodding, but really listening, with utter empathy and respect.
On a wider scale, there is also something about the degree to which people in disparate communities have positive opportunities to interact with each other – not least when it comes to their children, given how values and attitudes are often formed early on in life.
Schools have a crucial role to play. Not only can a diverse intake and a culture of equality help foster an acceptance of people who are different from ourselves, but ultimately lead to a real embracing of diversity through genuine friendships and joint endeavours.
And when incidents of racism do arise in society, tackling it should not fall to the abused, but the abusers themselves, and indeed everyone else.
It shouldn’t require an inspiring Raheem Sterling, for example, to call out the racism emanating from the terraces – football or Twitter. Or BBC Breakfast’s Naga Munchetty for her live off-script call out of Trump’s racism, something the BBC outrageously rebuked her for. Or indeed John Li from Spitalfields’ Dumpling Shack, who voiced his own concerns on Instagram about that Kaki review – courageous as all these were.
In truth, it’s everyone else’s responsibility. It’s incumbent on all of us to look for and monitor our prejudices, show humility when we make misjudgments, and to call it out when we see it in others.
After all, racism must never be allowed to go unchallenged. Not now, not ever.
And so I feel a bit guilty for Kaki’s sake that instead of being in the spotlight for its superlative food, it’s again caught up in a discourse about racism. But since for me the restaurant had become strangely synonymous with that particular review, I really wanted to visit it in person, if nothing else to liberate it from the associations of that review, if only for my own peace of mind.
Now I’m no expert on Chinese regional food. Going out for dim sum every Sunday for several years with my former girlfriend and her parents (who had emigrated from Hong Kong shortly before she was born) left me feeling I’d barely scratched the surface of that regional cuisine – never mind this from China’s more northern reaches.
Admittedly, that may in part have been down to my own kosher dietary habits. After all, given the preponderance of pork and shellfish in Chinese cuisine, any Venn-diagram comprising this and Jewish food would only comprise the most meagre of cross-sections – more a brief flirt around the edges than an unbridled union.
At the time, she and I would often joke – although not without some actual trepidation – about how we’d manage any sort of wedding. Particularly the Chinese custom where the groom’s parents present the bride’s family with a whole roast suckling pig, no less.
In the end, that particular challenge was never tested. But our time together did leave me with an indelible respect for Chinese food – its breadth and complexity, as well as the intriguing contrasts of flavour and texture.
A dish of tofu at Kaki is a case in point. It comes as a single hulking slab – an island of white cliffs that rise up precipitously over a dark brooding sea of soy sauce, one that’s been spiked with chilli oil, fish sauce and fermented rice-wine vinegar.
As I tuck in, intense waves of heat and salt crash around my skull, moderated by a hint of sweetness, whilst the fermented vinegar and fish sauce lend a lingering richness and depth. The flavour assaults me from all sides, to the point that my tongue has no place to hide, and my mind is left curiously dizzy and disorientated.
It’s in the differences and contrasts though that make it so bewitching. Like how the unexpected coolness of the tofu soothes against the searing heat of chilli, and how its smooth consistency slips so wondrously against the jellied chew of preserved egg and the vegetal crunch of raw scallions.
Colour. Texture. Flavour. This single simple dish embraces all the opposites and holds them together in perfect balance.
Then comes an epic main of poached sea-bass, immersed in a hallucinogenic broth of chilli oil, star-anise and Sichuan pepper. Now – and this may sound like a bad thing, but I assure you of the opposite – it sort of looks like a luridly polluted river, all rust and ruin, replete with a fish-head bobbing up from the murky depths, its mouth agape as if swallowing a final gulp of oxygen before meeting its eternal abyss.
As I swirl my spoon round this soup of primordial red, flashes of emerald flotsam appear in and out of focus, like some sort of unique culinary kaleidoscope – beansprouts, pak choi, lotus root, spring onion, coriander leaf – all of which add a satisfying crunch against the sweet soft morsels of sea-bass.
As before, the contrasts are all there. And so is the sheer intensity of flavour, which has me going back again and again with that dinky wire net and spoon. Even before I’d swallowed the previous ladleful, I’m there compulsively going for the next one, in an ever more frenetic attempt to chase the hit that’s pinging around my mouth. Not even the burning in my gullet and the beads of sweat over my brow put me off, such is the way this addictive dish just grabs you and refuses to let go.
That’s how even though it’s obviously a dish for sharing, given its reservoir-like volume and scale, I somehow clear the contents of the bowl single-handedly, and then have to endure a mildly uncomfortable few minutes at the end as my brain’s dopamine craves for more and the tingling on my tongue eventually subsides.
And so in this way, having literally immersed my whole physiology in these dishes, and been educated in the primacy of balance and the embracing of differences and contrasts, Kaki for me is now all about its glorious food, and no longer just a victim of casual racism.
For more reflections on racism, here’s a piece I wrote on Donald Trump, the plight of immigrants, and what’s left of the American Dream.