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Is a British ‘poppadom’ the same as an Indian papad?

I have always believed that papad unites India.

Gujaratis like myself will not eat rice unless we have papad to eat with it. Sindhis are known for their papad. The fried papads of South India are justly famous for their flavour and their texture.

 

But papad also unites India and the UK. The Brits don’t call it papad, of course. They call it poppadom (with various different spellings) a corruption of the South Indian name. But it is now almost as English as Chicken Tikka Masala. In fact, its popularity predates Chicken Tikka Masala by several decades. Way back in the 1970s, my father used to joke that soon a typical English meal would consist of curry and rice with crushed pappadom sprinkled on it. I was only a child at the time and thought this was ridiculous but now I think the old boy may have had a point.

 

   One measure of how much poppadoms have been embraced by British popular culture is that they are often used for racial abuse. When Shilpa Shetty won the UK Big Brother, she was helped by the outpouring of sympathy that followed when her fellow contestant (the now late) Jade Goody, a C-list tabloid-type trashy ‘celebrity’ called her ‘Shipla Poppadom’. More recently there has been criticism of a hit song called the Poppadom Song which, it is alleged, promotes racial stereotyping. (But not as much as it promotes crap music.)

 

   For Brits, their poppadom (as distinct from our papad) is an all-day, any-time snack. They make it in all kinds of sizes. And one popular version (industrially produced and ready-to-eat) is made by Walkers, the company most famous for its potato crisps (what we call wafers and the Americans call chips). It is actually packaged like potato crisps, made in the same size and sold in the same kind of packet.

 

   This is not surprising because a British poppadom, it now turns out is – hold your breath! — actually a potato crisp.

 

   Yups. This has been established by a British court last month which ruled that ‘Walkers Sensations Poppadums’ (that is the brand name) are actually nothing but mis-labeled potato crisps. They are not Indian food items at all.

 

   Why does this matter? And why did the issue go to Court to begin with?

 

   Well, like everything else to do with the industrial packaged food industry, it had to do with money: lots of it.

 

   In the UK, snacks attract a Value Added Tax (VAT) of 20 per cent. But proper food is exempt from VAT. So many battles are waged over what is a food item and what is a snack.

 

   It was this distinction that Walkers used to its advantage by not paying any tax on their ‘Sensations Poppadums”. The advertising emphasised the Indian provenance of the product by using a sardarji Elvis impersonator to flog the poppadoms. In India, the company argued, ‘poppadoms’ are a food, not a snack.

 

  Fair enough. They are a food eaten mostly with meals by Indians. But is a British ‘poppadom’ the same as an Indian papad? Clearly not. First of all, we don’t eat our papad ready-made, we cook it ourselves. Nor do we usually eat it in potato chip-sized pieces.

 

 "Indians will find it bizarre that the case even came to court. The British industrial potato chip-sized poppadom is roughly as Indian as Suella Braverman: zero."

   And even today, raw papad remains an artisanal product in India. Such brands as Lijjat provide employment to the women who make the papad by hand and —you could well argue — papad has become a symbol of women’s empowerment in our country.

 

   None of this was true of the so-called “Sensation Poppadom’. Besides there was the potato factor. We do have potato papad in India but it is hardly the most common variety. Most of our papad is made from some form of gram or lentil, or even rice. Potatoes are not considered an essential ingredient for papad. The Walkers poppadoms on the other hand, not only looked like potato chips/crisps but were also made with lots of potato.

 

   So why shouldn’t they be treated like a snack, asked the judge. They were just another form of potato crisp.

 

   Oh no, said Walkers’ lawyers. They may contain potato products but these are different from the potatoes used for crisps.

 

   From an Indian point of view, it got even worse from that point on. To prove that their poppadoms were not crisps, Walkers’ lawyers then pointed out that they were made from potato starch and potato granules. These are industrial products that no Indian associates with our papad. And no Indian would regard what they made in their factories as papad.

 

   But Walker argued the very opposite: because they were made with industrial potato derivatives, they could not be crisps which were made from sliced potatoes. So, therefore they must be papads or, as they called them, “poppadoms’. At this stage, any moderately sensible Indian judge would have told the Walkers’ lawyers not to be so silly, made them pay the 20 per cent VAT and sent them home.

 

   But the British judge was slightly more accommodating. In a ruling that was so convoluted that only a lawyer could immediately understand what he meant, he ruled “the fact that a poppadom made to a traditional recipe from gram flour without potato is zero-rated for VAT purposes does not mean that a poppadom made to a traditional recipe which includes potato must also be zero-rated.”

 

   Huh? Traditional recipe? With potato starch and potato granules? Yeah, sure. But the bottom-line was that the judge ruled that it was a snack and should be taxed like a potato chip/crisp.

 

   Indians will find it bizarre that the case even came to court. The British industrial potato chip-sized poppadom is roughly as Indian as Suella Braverman: zero. To use the name of our traditional dish to avoid paying tax on a slightly-masalafied potato chip is ridiculous.

 

   Indians will also recognise what is going on here. We are unfamiliar with the Walkers brand but once we see a packet of Walkers’ crisps we will recognise its provenance. It will remind us of the Lays potato chip because like Lays, Walkers is owned by Pepsico which keeps the Walkers brand in the UK to lend their product the air of a local product.

 

   You could, as an Indian, take offence at the idea of an artisanal local product being turned into an Ultra Processed Food, which bears little resemblance to the real thing only to make millions of pounds for a multinational which then tries to use the so-called Indian provenance to avoid paying tax.

 

   But I am not going to be so judgmental. What I will say, however, is this: no good ever comes of the globalisation and industrialisation of traditional foods by large companies. And as somebody who has tasted these so-called British poppadoms, I can safely conclude that their revolting flavour does no credit to Indian food. 

 


 

CommentsComments

  • Rao 12 Feb 2024

    The Walkers product sounds more like Pringles Potato Chips which is a Potato product not made from real potatoes. Our traditional Papad is made with either Urad Dal, Rice Flour or combination and is terrific with Sambar & Rasam.

Posted On: 09 Feb 2024 12:55 PM
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