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The Ten: Mukta Das

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

Name and job title?

Dr Mukta Das. Research Associate, SOAS Food Studies Centre.

Where were you born and where do you live now? I was born in Harlow, Essex, and I live in Brixton, London. I've landed 30 miles from where I was born, but got here via India, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea and other places. 

How you describe what you do?

I research and write about food culture - how we as individuals live by it and shape it, how we have the power to both transform it, but also to impose it on others. I sometimes work with Chef Andrew Wong, who is also part of the SOAS Food Studies Centre. Together we explore China's historical food culture, from the way kitchens were run, recipes were devised and diners supped, and how all of this changed over time. 

How much did you spend on your last cup of coffee?

I drink tea. Or alcohol. 

What is one ingredient that is crucial to your life?

Tea. It is my stimulant of choice but also the reason why most of my extended family live in Assam. Some in my family were part of the colonial effort to farm tea for the British and European markets, a century ago when tea from China became less viable. Rural wages in China remain high and are rising. In India the opposite is true. My family often takes stock of our past contribution to this current state of affairs.

What does a culinary system mean to you?

'System' isn't a meaningful word - to me anyway. It implies an abstraction, a higher power that feels out of reach to ordinary lives. My work is about how individuals use the power they have to reimagine and rebuild the world around them everyday. 

How does your immediate locale affect your work?

My street is made up of small, operator-owned food businesses, a convenience store run by an Indian family, an off-licence run by a Portuguese family, a takeaway run by a group of Caribbean friends, and someone from an old BBC Masterchef series running a lunch spot and cafe. And there are signs that another takeaway is going to open in the next few weeks. And then in the local park where I walk my foster dogs there is a cafe serving the most delicious vegetable salads, made from produce grown in the park's community greenhouse. My locale is busy, loud, pungent, doggy and everyone still rubs along ok. I guess it shapes my theories about the power of individuals, and the agency of the small-scale. 

Where do you draw inspiration from?

There are a handful of people in my life that concretely inspire me in my work - especially when I am drafting pieces of writing or preparing for talks that explore the intersection of food and identity - specifically race. Communicating about these issues is difficult for me, and they help me stay honest when my instinct is to self-censor

What impact do you want to have?

That I've tread lightly environmentally-speaking, but have left a cultural space for my niece and nephew (and by extensions, others) to explore and embrace their British-Chinese-Indian identity in a way I couldn't with my own British-Indian identity when I was growing up. I've come to embrace Britishness quite late in life, now that my research has led to me to understand that Britishness is shaped by me and not only by others. 

What change do you want to see in the culinary system?

These 'systems' change all the time. The change I want to see is more acknowledgement that our actions are at the heart of this change, that we should be glad of our power and take a moment each day to take account of it. 

We ask all our interviewees to send us two photos: one of themselves and one that represents their work.

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