An Unlikely Colonizer Deciphering The Rose Cookie Through The Lens Of Colonization
A thin batter of rice flour, eggs, whole milk and sugar lies waiting for a mould to be dipped into it. The flower-shaped, batter-coated mould is then dunked in hot oil and lightly shaken to release a perfectly fried, crispy, paper-thin snack that is the most glorious blend of savoury and sweet. The Rose Cookie. You probably recognize it by a more familiar name, depending on where in the world you are from - Rosettes, Bunuelos De Viento, Kembang, Kokis, Achappam, Kuih Rose - versions of this cookie exist in cuisines around the world, nearly exact replicas of each other
Achappam (from the Malayalam word “acch” for mould and “appam” for bread) is a popular snack in the South Indian state of Kerala, where yours truly is from. They are also popular among the Anglo-Indian community and among Christians in Goa and Mangalore, who make this sweet snack during the Christmas season. Rose Cookies, as they are called among these communities, get their name from the “rose”-shaped mould that is used to make it (although variations in the shape of the mould are plenty - my grandmother had one that was butterfly-shaped!). From Iran to Turkey & America to Scandinavia, this sweet-savoury treat that no one country can call its own finds a place in cookbooks and kitchens across the world - but how did it get here, and where did it begin this long journey of circumnavigation?
The answer is both simple and complex than one would think.
Colonizing People, Colonizing Food.
Colonization is defined as control by one power over an area or people; when one nation subjugates another, conquering its population and exploiting it, often while forcing its own language and cultural values. We might remember the term from our high school history classes, but not many of us realise that almost everything we eat - from butter chicken to guacamole - is born from the violence of colonialism.
In her essay “Colonization, Food & The Practice of Eating”, Dr Linda Alvarez says food is history, it is identity, it is power. It has never been merely about the simple act of pleasurable consumption - every meal you eat is a reflection of your cultural identity, of the history of the land you inhabit, of the local produce and the agricultural practices of the communities you live among. So it isn’t surprising to learn that food played a well-documented, crucial role in the violent era of colonization that tore cultures and people apart.
In fact, one of the first worries of the Spaniards who landed in the Americas was that they no longer had access to the “superior”, “hearty” foods they were accustomed to. As people who came from a country that drew distinctions between classes based on the food they ate - the upper classes in Spain ate bread, meat and wine, while the poorer classes ate oats, barley and vegetable stews - the automatic assumption of these men was that the indigenous people who ate food they had never seen before were an inferior race to themselves. The lack of wheat or wine, which were necessary for the all-important sacrament of the eucharist, also made the local food oddly “unchristian”.
It is in response to this crisis of not having European foods to live on in the colonies that wheat and livestock were then introduced in these “new lands”, prompting the beginning of the devastating meat and dairy industry that continues to thrive even today. When the settlers ran out of the “right” foods to eat, as supplies often did not last beyond the long voyage to the colonies, they began to depend on the local ingredients while trying to replicate the food from home. In time, with the superiority that the Europeans had managed to confer upon themselves, the locals in colonies around the world began to adopt European food practices too, as a symbol of their higher status in the colonial society they lived in. This cross-cultural exchange of ingredients and cooking methods sparked the first slew of fusion foods and as historian Rebecca Earle said, “race (became) in part, a matter of digestion.”
The Rose Cookie’s Place in History
A wise man once said that all cuisine is “fusion food”, as any region we live in today has exchanged more ingredients with other regions than anyone is aware of.
With the advent of sea-faring trade and explorations spanning from the 6th to the 16th centuries, the bellies of ships saw more than just spices and silk make their way across borders. Along with the several kinds of fruits and vegetables, and drinks like coffee and chocolate that made their way between the colonies and Europe were recipes and methods of cooking that were taught and shared in kitchens world over.
These cultural exchanges predominantly took place along the maritime Silk Road: a route that spanned the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the straits, islands and peninsulas of the ASEAN region, connecting them with South Asia, China and the Arabian Sea. The Columbian Exchange, the widespread transfer of plants, animals, human populations, technology, and ideas between Asia, Africa and Europe in the 16th century further cemented the fusion of cultures that had been set in motion by the explorers of the centuries before.
Which brings us to the history of the humble rose cookie - although it’s exact origins are unclear, the Achappam is said to have been brought to India by the Dutch, who first came to the subcontinent in 1605 for trade. Although there is no documented history of this delectable snack, if you were to dig up a map of Dutch colonies, you’d find that every single one of those regions and their neighbours now makes their versions of the Rose Cookie. Coincidence? Probably not.
It doesn’t take a giant leap of imagination to presume that the Achappam was one of the more desirable results of food acculturation - what makes it exceptional, however, is the unanimity with which every region it was introduced appropriated it wholeheartedly, adding their regional touches to it, making it truly their own.
Can The “Real” Rose Cookie Please Stand Up?
As writer and editor Coral Lee describes it - “Authentic” cuisine is just a relative descriptor—geopolitical borders shift, and those borders too are membranous”. What is authentic to a cuisine or culture now may not be tomorrow. Worth pursuing instead is a kind of syncretism in food—where all relevant voices shine forth equally and truthfully.
The Rose Cookie is a good example of why it is dangerous to try and pursue the most “authentic” version of any specific cultural food - every country is going to claim it’s own version as the most authentic one and not be wrong in their own right, and in countries like India, you will even find regional differences across state borders.
Whether it is the Iranian version that is flavoured with rose water, the cinnamon-flavoured Mexican version or the turmeric-infused Sri Lankan one, there probably isn’t a recipe that finds a home in as many cultures as the Rose Cookie does, without any significant alterations to its base flavour and while retaining the characteristic tool and method required to make it.
Meanwhile In Kitchens Today
The rose cookie continues to be a well-loved and often-made snack in several countries today. Take thefamiliarkitchen on Instagram, for instance, a food storyteller in the USA, who says making Achappams is a truly “therapeutic” experience.
Or Zoe Kanan, an NYC-based baker who was recently featured in Vogue as one of three women “changing the way we think about bread” - her star-shaped rosettes (whose recipe she picked up from a Scandinavian cookbook!) has left all of her followers wanting to rush to her pop-up sale as soon as they can.
In the context of examining the Achappam through the lens of colonisation, and in the sense of it having taken over kitchens in every nook and corner of the world, I couldn’t help but think of this humble snack as being an unlikely colonizer. Despite the violent history that precedes it, the snack is something most people associate with warm childhood memories and the nostalgia of watching someone they love fry them up batch after delicious, golden batch. It’s a strange yet wonderful feeling to realise that all this time, we’ve been tasting world history in our grandmothers’ kitchens.